Stumbling upon flavors you grew up with while living in a foreign place is like getting a warm hug. You’re instantly transported back to cherished moments: munching on an after-school snack of guava sprinkled with salt and chili powder; devouring Mysore pak, a crumbly ghee fudge, that your grandmother made; gobbling up laddoos made with sesame seeds and jaggery during festivals in winter months. What enhances the trip down memory lane is when the flavors come in forms you don’t expect. It evokes feelings of comfort and curiosity.
South Asian ice cream makers across the Bay Area create exactly that experience. Brands including Koolfi Creamery and Kulficream in the East Bay and Pints of Joy and Real Ice Cream in the South Bay use high-quality ingredients to make ice creams that combine nostalgia and a taste of home for the local South Asian diaspora. The flavors of ice cream and kulfi — the frozen, eggless desi dessert made with milk, spices, and nuts — produced by these companies include kesar pista (saffron pistachio), sapota, mango, rose, and more.
The duos behind Pints of Joy and Koolfi Creamery both came to the ice cream business in unexpected ways. Ketki Dandekar and Arshiya Shaikh of Pints of Joy had a brainwave during the COVID-19 pandemic. Their children were friends and the two families shared meals while in a quarantine pod together. During one of their hangouts in spring 2020, Dandekar served two types of homemade ice cream — strawberry and cookies and cream — and that lit the spark. They started exploring and researching fusion ice cream flavors as they formed Pints of Joy. “Ketki loves to make ice cream and I love to build businesses,” Shaikh says.
Priti Narayanan and Madhuri Anji turned to ice cream while in recovery after both were hit by a bus in San Francisco in 2014. The break from her civil engineering job made Narayanan realize she wanted to do something that involved food and people. She grew up eating kulfis and making desserts with her mother in India and wondered why there were no premium ice creams featuring Indian flavors in the Bay Area. “In this country, people don’t know the variety and astonishing level of dessert skill in India,” she says. “You know the French patisserie but you don’t know the many laddoos that Indians make. I want to bring that forward and I thought the medium of ice cream would be fantastic.” She worked at local shops and attended a course on ice cream at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and in 2018 formed Koolfi Creamery, becoming the brand’s chief ice cream engineer while Anji helps run the business as a co-founder.
Both businesses started small. Pints of Joy used a shared kitchen in Sunnyvale and initially offered pick-up and delivery services, before setting up a small store next to their production space. As demand grew, so did the uncommon offerings. Gulab jamun ice cream was the brand’s first big experiment. “In weddings in India, you have gulab jamun with vanilla ice cream and my husband loves both of them,” Shaikh says. “He suggested that we try something with that.” After some trial and error, she and Dandekar created a version they liked, a creamy base flavored with saffron and cardamom, flecked with pieces of gulab jamun. They developed a series inspired by Indian sweets including ras malai, motichoor laddoo, and gajar halwa, releasing flavors to mark Diwali and Holi. Shaikh says inspiration can strike anywhere, including visits to Indian grocery stores. At a shop, she spotted chikki, a kind of peanut-sesame brittle, which led to the creation of tilgul ice cream made with sesame and jaggery.
Koolfi Creamery went a different route in its early days, purchasing an ice cream cart and participating in events and festivals while catering socials at companies like Netflix and Google. For Narayanan, the creative process involves “just living life.” A good example is the house she shares with Anji, her wife, who has Indian and German roots. Being exposed to western tastes and cooking methods has influenced Narayanan’s creations. Inspiration also comes from shopping trips, like when Narayanan once saw a blueberry goat cheese that piqued her interest. She experimented with the flavor, adding roasted graham crackers for texture, creating a winner with her blueberry goat cheese ice cream.
Though South Asians make up a chunk of the clientele at these businesses, both teams want to appeal to a wide audience. Opening physical stores where desi flavors share space with familiar stateside favorites like cookies and cream helps achieve that. In the second half of 2022, Pints of Joy opened a store in Sunnyvale and Koolfi Creamery did the same in San Leandro. The brands are available in grocery stores and online, but they knew that having a physical space was necessary. Customers unfamiliar with South Asian food may struggle to connect with these products if they see them in the freezer aisle, but a dedicated ice cream shop changes that. “With the new store, people ask about the flavors and want to taste them,” Shaikh says. “They love the spices like cardamom and saffron.”
A storefront also allows for experimentation and growth: Narayanan wants to serve specialty desserts like gulab jamun sundaes and ice cream served in dosa cones made with fermented, slightly sweet rice and lentil batter, served alongside Indian snacks — which she now can. Most importantly, shops allow for experiences, a space to slow down and relish good food. “Dessert is an occasion and people need a place to celebrate ice cream,” Shaikh says.