I’ll let you in on a little secret: The best Desi food in New Jersey isn’t at restaurants.
Sure, there are plenty of well-known biryani spots and dosa houses to get your fill of standard South Asian fare, and new places seem to open up every month. But have you had the samosas at your local Indian grocery store?
If I’m lucky enough to get over to Star Big Bazaar in Princeton, I always grab a mirchi pakora to munch on while I stand in line with my groceries. There are fresh chapatis and local foods available at most grocery stores, and these small-batch treats are often more authentic to the real tastes of South Asia than the restaurant food meant to appeal to a wider audience.
You don't even have to leave home to get your food fix. On local Facebook groups, you can order home-cooked meals from a countless number of home cooks hailing from any part of South Asia. You crave it? You can have it.
When it comes to dessert, I can’t wait for a special occasion to order a fresh-cream rasmalai cake from Kavita Yadav at CakesbyheartNJ. Her cakes are so popular that you need to order them a month in advance, but you don’t need to wait to pick up a pint of Heritage Kulfi, which can be found in the freezer cases of many South Asian grocery stores in the NY-NJ area, as well as at Woo Ri Mart, Kalyustan’s and Westside Market.
The creamy, dense ice creams popping with flavor have a stamp of approval from the New York Times, and yours truly. With eight unconventional flavors already out and two more on the way, the only problem you’ll have is deciding which one is your favorite. (I’m partial to the rosewater, saffron and coconut, but don’t make me choose!)
I’m very grateful to founder Mansoor Ahmed for spending an afternoon with me in his Princeton warehouse, where I had the chance to learn just how this Columbia student majoring in Islamic Studies tasted his way to a burgeoning kulfi empire.
A pint of nostalgia
Mansoor Ahmed (Photo courtesy of Heritage Kulfi)
Mansoor Ahmed is still getting used to being a kulfiwala.
His path to running Heritage Kulfi is anything but linear. Like any good Pakistani American son, Ahmed — despite being well on his way to becoming a scholar with an Ivy League pedigree — was always happy to help out when one of his father’s friends needed a hand. His graphic-design skills were particularly in demand by the uncle crew, and Ahmed had spent much of his youth designing in Urdu and Arabic script on demand.
A few years ago, one such gig with Shahi Kulfi evolved into a full-blown job helping set up distribution for the Virginia-based kulfi brand. Ahmed discovered he had a knack for business and enjoyed connecting with the South Asian community. It gave him the chance to “flex the language.” Before he knew it, he had established nearly 500 accounts with stores willing to carry the kulfi.
As for the product itself, Ahmed felt the concept of kulfi on a popsicle stick compromised its potential. He began imagining the potential of cardamom-spiked pints of ice cream, the container offering greater control over the temperature and texture of the frozen dessert.
As the child of immigrants, Ahmed felt that many of his peers would respond to a high-quality representation of the flavors they grew up eating. It turns out he was right.
“First-generation immigrants are trying to connect with their culture through food,” he told me. “There is this nostalgia within the ice cream.”
Enter the pandemic, and Ahmed started tinkering in his kitchen. Using a method similar to how South Asian chai is brewed, Ahmed skillfully extracted the essence of black and Earl Grey teas, saffron, rosewater, pistachios and Alphonso mangoes to develop rich ice creams imbued with nostalgia for the most indulgent tastes of South Asia.
The egg-free ice cream is like a white canvas that allows the aromas and flavors to come through. You've had saffron on biryani, where it perfumes the rice but plays in harmony with dozens of other spices. To have it stand alone in the ice cream, earthy and floral, is a real experience.
Ahmed partnered with a local commercial ice cream maker and now makes his pints by the 10,000 to 20,000, housing them in cold-storage facilities and delivering them to stores all over the tri-state area. He delivers nearly 400 pints to one store alone each month.
Chalk Ahmed’s success to his painstaking obsession with quality ingredients, a sophisticated palette honed to Desi flavors over a lifetime of sampling his mother’s cooking and a bit of being in the right place at the right time.
“All South Asian products are having a moment,” he tells me. Not all of them draw from such exquisite ingredients, however. Ahmed uses Grade A Saffron sourced from Afghani farmers and imports mango puree from India. He sampled over 100 different vanillas to settle on the one he felt was most true to the bean’s flavor.
Photo courtesy of Heritage Kulfi
It turns out many store-brand ice creams actually use other nuts in their pistachio ice cream, but not Heritage Kulfi. The owners of the ice cream facility where Ahmed produces his kulfi-inspired flavors have balked at his decadent use of expensive ingredients, urging him to make cheaper flavors.
“I feel a certain responsibility to use these ingredients to represent the culture and to keep it as authentic as possible,” he said. “As a native New Yorker, my go-to food is pizza. But as I've gotten older, I do appreciate the intricacy and sophistication of the foods that were commonly made in my home.”
Never mind that most Desi uncles ask Ahmed for the vanilla ice cream. Ahmed has grand plans for Heritage Kulfi, which he said appeals to the adventurous ice cream fan. He hopes to reach national scale and have his products appear in Whole Foods and other mainstream grocery stores. He even imagines having a soft-serve shop that would immerse visitors in a Heritage Kulfi experience.
Ahmed is proud to be part of a generation of South Asian Americans who are breaking the mold and branching out of conventional careers. With so many Desis now living far from South Asia, unable to access their ancestral homeland, food has become an important vehicle for carrying the culture forward, he says, likening it to the ways that Italian Americans have celebrated and evangelized their food traditions.
“It requires a lot of pioneering and hard work and commitment,” he said. “It is a struggle, but I think we do have that responsibility.”
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