Delhi’s summer delight

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It should be called an ice dream

No birds in the sandy sky. The previous day Delhi recorded the highest temperature for the season. “If it gets very hot, I feel tempted for an orange bar,” he says, “but I need to sell these ice creams, not eat them myself.”

Bimal, 30, is one of the thousands of ice-cream vendors who take over the streets of Delhi in the summer. I met him in K.K. Lane, a tree-lined avenue off the Max Mueller Marg. Every morning at eleven, Bimal parks his ice cream cart, which he calls ‘raerhi, opposite the Alliance Française de Delhi, a French cultural center. At six in the evening, when the office hours end, he pedals the cart to the bus stop on Max Mueller Marg where he stays till eleven in the night.

“My wife Suman lives with my parents in our village in Uttar Pradesh,” he says. “What can we do? I cannot support her in Delhi. She is there. I am here.”

Bimal’s cart is painted yellow. It has posters advertising various ice cream flavours of the Amul dairy company. “The ice creams come from… I am forgetting the name… it is beyond Faridabad,” he says, referring to a town just across the municipal limits of Delhi. “The name is printed on this poster… yes, Gujarat.”

A woman walks towards us and asks Bimal for a chocolate bar.

“I was a construction labourer in Punjab where I daily earned Rs 200. Suman lived with me. About six months ago, I left for Delhi. She returned to the village.”

Bimal’s locket bears the image of goddess Durga. A clay idol of Lord Shiv is tied to the cart.

“I am earning less in Delhi.”

Bimal does not own this cart; he rents it from a contractor for free and gets fourteen percent of the sales as his commission.

“I sleep in an ice-cream depot that shelters thirty raerhi-wallas. It is a mile from here.”

Three girls come out of Alliance Française. Talking loudly in English, they stand under the shade of a tree.

Resting both arms on his cart, Bimal says, “Sometimes I earn so less that I am unable to send money to the village.”

The hot wind blows dust into our eyes.

“My son will soon turn one and I have no money. Nothing is in my control.”

My dear readers, I must confess, I did not buy Bimal’s ice cream. Instead, I went to the next-door building to have an ice cream, that is not just the best in Delhi, but it is most possibly the best in India and perhaps it is the best ice cream in the whole of South Asia.

It is a very special dish in one of Delhi’s most exclusive cultural institutions. The honey & fig ice cream is served in the members-only dining room of the Indian International Centre (IIC), a club for historians, journalists, publishers and out-of-work bureaucrats and politicians.

While it is fashionable for the old-timers to whisper that the ‘service has slipped’, the honey & fig ice cream continues to be a sensation. According to chef Vijay Kumar Thukral, everyday – be it summer or winter – more than half of the diners end their meals with the honey & fig ice cream, even though there are other options in the menu’s dessert section, including the delicious ginger pudding with hot custard sauce.

One liter honey, five kg fig and twenty-five kg milk is consumed daily by the IIC’s ice cream machine to manufacture this brown-colored dream. The elderly members – and there are so many people in IIC above 65 – talk of the honey & fig with so much wistfulness that you feel it must be as old as them. But the IIC opened in 1962 and the ice cream was introduced in 2005.

Composed of fig, honey, milk, cream and custard, the portion (Rs 57) is served in two scoops. Amid the clatter of gleaming silvers and the murmurings of the white-haired aristocracy, you dig your spoon into the soft mounds of cream and fig chunks and lift it into your mouth to experience the very nucleus of grace. A most tender sweetness is harmoniously blended with the delicate savor of the fig, which, incidentally, was Cleopatra’s favorite fruit.

The honey-flavoured cream feels as light as cold steam but it is the fig that plays tricks. Being chewy, it stays longer in the mouth and yet it does not leave even a faint hint of its essence, vanishing as you are still responding to its sensations.

Two months ago, the IIC, hoping to create another classic, introduced jaggery & ginger ice cream. Try it when you get a visa for Delhi, but it is the honey & fig you must have before you die. But have Bimal’s chocolate bar, too. Help him support his family.

Mayank Austen Soofi lives in a library. He has one website and four blogs. The website address: thedelhiwalla.com. The blogs: Pakistan Paindabad, Ruined By Reading, Reading Arundhati Roy and Mayank Austen Soofi Photos