From Faloodeh to Falooda

Here’s how the ancient Persian innovation became India’s favourite summertime treat – and its varieties.

By Madhulika Dash

Circa: Mid-16 th century. Humayun, the emperor in exile, returns victorious to claim his crown and the throne of Delhi. But he isn’t alone. In his illustrious entourage of treasures carefully put together by sister, Gulbadan Begum, is a bevy of Persian cooks, boxes of dates and a book of lovingly curated recipes that the emperor took a fancy to while in his exile. Among them is the iconic faloodeh. A Persian kitchen innovation, it is the earliest known iteration of the now beloved, Falooda – and its different varieties.

Appearance wise similar, Faloodeh was in fact a granita of syrup, lime juice and sugar that came dressed in cooked vermicelli doused with cream and dates (optional). A summertime treat, it often was made more festive with the inclusion of various fruits and dry fruits that arrived in the Persian court. Faloodeh was also served as a special welcome drink to a selected few as mark of importance and pride.

The role of Faloodeh, which by Akbar’s reign became Falooda, in the Mughal court was similar to that of Persia. In the beginning, this icy treat was a summertime indulgence, but gradually more things were added to it like cream, rose syrup and not just rose water, cherries, cream, coconut and eventually kulfi as well. Legend has it that the Mughal palace everywhere had a dedicated section for ice was to quench their love for falooda. So fond of falooda were the Mughal emperors that they hired skilled sweetmeat makers to design lavish masterpieces that would often rival the best of imagination and dessert in the country.

Thanks to the drink’s filling and cooling nature, it was almost treated like a mini meal by Akbar who used to have at least two glasses in a day – each glass had different ingredients except the use of rose water and seviyan (handrolled in the palace itself). Story has it that it was while creating one of the many versions of the season that sabja (basil seeds) were introduced into the drink, which today is an essential part of Falooda making. The rise of falooda as a celebratory drink however came during the reign of Shah Jahan, who patronised it as a cooling sherbet after a day of fasting.

Such was the love for falooda among the royals that when the Mughal Empire was at its peak not only did we have two versions of the drink – one with kulfi and another with flavoured milk – there were inspired versions made across court. One such variety was the Madurai Jigarthanda, which is a blend of ice, syrup and almond pisin (gum) – an aphrodisiac. Unlike Falooda, Jigarthanda though is a chilling dessert drink, it doesn’t use vermicelli or sabja and is often thought to have been brought by the Arabs through the Spice Route. Interestingly, what makes it a cousin of the Persian drink is the use of gum, which is present there in the versions that developed in Lucknow.

In fact, it was one of the drinks that British too took an instant liking for thanks to Thomas Roe, who had his first glass in the Mughal court. So heady was the blend of sugar, fruit and dry fruit that when Roe, back in his villa, decided to create his own little glass he added every possible sweet ingredient in the cupboard including cherries. Roe version in fact was one that was adopted eventually by the gymkhanas and messes– where it was presented as an Indian pudding complete with rice-thin noodles, basil seeds, rose syrup and a bevy of dry fruits topped with a cherry. As years went by, the Gymkhana version adopted icecream instead of kulfi as it was a British thing.

Many believe it was the sweet hotchpotch that inspired the Udupi Gadbad, which is a delicious mess of flavoured milk, syrups, icecreams and all things sweet and tasty. But when it comes to the ultimate summer quench and celebration, it is still the good old falooda, created in Humayun kitchen and glamourised by Nur Jahan that still holds our fascination and palate.

Says Chef Vikas Seth, who has for HopsHaus reconstructed the Bombay Style Falooda, “it is not just a filling, delicious treat, but a fine example of how to layer flavours. In fact, it is one of the most dramatic creations where no two spoons taste alike. And that element of surprise makes it one of the most fascinating dishes to explore.” Chef Seth’s version in fact is an ode to the earlier iteration of the kulfi falooda where the build up was done to add more texture, taste and play to the kulfi. In his case, it is kesar kulfi, made inhouse, topped with handrolled thin noodles, basil seeds and rose syrup.

Concurs Chef Gaurav Raghuvanshi, who had deconstructed the kulfi falooda with pan flavouring – a favourite of Nur Jahan – for Philtre. “”The idea was not only to showcase the different element of a royal falooda, but also allow them the chance to play with ingredients to customise their own bite.”

In fact, his versions uses the Old Delhi style of using malai peda and fresh fruits for sweetness to the kulfi with paan spheres bringing a contrasting flavour.