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There's falooda in your cake

How bakers and chefs borrow inspiration from the street-favourite falooda to make cakes, macarons and desserts  

A falooda cake by London's Shabnam Russo.
A falooda cake by London's Shabnam Russo.

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In the by-lanes of Mumbai’s Crawford Market, it’s hard to miss the chilled glasses of falooda at the 117-year-old Badshah Cold Drinks. The place, famous for its Royal Falooda and Badshah Special Falooda, is buzzing even on weekdays, with falooda fans travelling from far corners of the city just to relish a glass of the “royal” concoction. Silky vermicelli noodles jostle with greyish-black basil seeds in a colourful cold bath of ice cream, rose and khus syrup, giving it a reddish-green hue.

“Topped with nuts and served chilled, this melange of creamy, slithery and crunchy textures is what makes the falooda an absolute favourite,” says Mumbai-based writer Ananya Bahl. She has fond memories of visiting the place, considered a pioneer of sorts, as a child. Today, though, falooda has travelled beyond its classic form, with some chefs using it in desserts, in India and abroad.

At a 12 May pudding competition in London to commemorate Queen Elizabeth II’s 70 years on the throne, a falooda cake from Shabnam Russo, a north London resident, was declared one of the top five desserts out of a total of 5,000 entries. It was an ode to the beloved dessert she had often eaten in Mumbai in her childhood. Through her multilayered cake, she attempted to display the multicultural and diverse character of Britain, encapsulating different cultures—just like the falooda, whose origins are disputed.

One theory holds that the falooda originated in Shiraz, Persia, in 400 BCE. In Iran, faloodeh is a frozen dessert like a granita, using vermicilli, rosewater and lime juice. Another theory is that the falooda originated in the court of the Mughal emperor Jehangir. “A favourite of Jehangir’s was falooda, a rich jelly-like drink made from the straining of boiled wheat mixed with fruit juices and cream,” writes food historian K.T. Achaya in The Story Of Our Food. Others believe king Nader Shah, the Asian conqueror, brought it with him to the subcontinent.

For the Queen’s platinum jubilee, the contestants had been asked to prepare something celebratory. And the falooda cake, with pink and white mascarpone cream, adorned with edible rose petals and fresh flowers in red, baby pink and white, looked like a picture of sweet joy.

The inspiration for it was a bottle of Rooh Afza Russo found at an Indian store in London. “It was then that the idea of a falooda cake was planted in my head,” she confides. It was a coupling of vermicelli and basil seeds steeped in a fragrant creamy mascarpone rose bath, layered between burnished saffron sponges and topped with rose petal jelly, chopped nuts and glacé fruit.

“Sweet, smooth, cool and crunchy—it engages the palate on all levels—a pudding truly fit for the queen,” says Russo, who recalls that her father, who used to travel a lot on work, would take her for a Sunday falooda treat whenever he was in Mumbai. “The memory of it is so strong, I can almost smell the roses and taste the jelly,” she reminisces.

Mumbai-based Rachel Goenka, a Le Cordon Bleu-trained chef and founder and CEO of The Chocolate Spoon Company, used it to create the “Royal Falooda Trifle” for her book Adventures With Mithai (2019), a compilation of 50 original recipes comprising Indian desserts presented in contemporary form. The inspiration for the dessert was her grandmother’s falooda. “It was the only way she could get the kids to consume chia seeds without us making a face,” smiles Goenka. “Moreover, the English trifle and the royal falooda both have similar flavour profiles and marry well together,” she adds. Goenka uses rose-flavoured custard to mimic the rose milk of the falooda, glass noodles, chia seeds and raspberry jelly.

At the Michelin-starred restaurant, Chaat, in Hong Kong, chef de cuisine Manav Tuli uses falooda to create Christmas pudding kulfi. “Basically, we make a kulfi that is flavoured with ingredients borrowed from a Christmas pudding, like dry fruits like raisins, prunes and apricots steeped in rum. This is then served on a bed of falooda, mixed with the kulfi blend and some berries,” says Tuli.

An upscale Indian restaurant in London, Jamavar, serves the Rhubarb Chuski Falooda, comprising basil seeds, rhubarb and saffron rabri kulfi. “It is a great example of an innovative dessert using the traditional elements of a falooda as an influence,” says Pooja Dhingra, pastry chef and founder of the Mumbai-based Le15 Patisserie. “A lot of chefs are creating Western desserts using mithais and desi desserts like a rasmalai cake or a gulab jamun soufflé. Why should the falooda be left behind?” asks chef Anahita Dhondy, author of The Parsi Kitchen.

In fact, many versions of the falooda abound in Asia. In the Philippines, where it’s the unofficial national dessert, it’s eaten with a sweet dish called halo-halo, prepared with crushed ice, milk, coconut and ice cream. In Malaysia and Singapore, it is known as cendol, eaten with jelly, red beans, fruits, peanuts, ice cream and sweet corn. In Mauritius, a falooda-like dessert called alouda is eaten with bubble tea, strawberries and vanilla syrup.

“The falooda is a perfect mix between a drink and a dessert,” says Dhingra. She attributes its popularity to the rise in desserts with a desi twist, especially over the last decade. She has, for instance, a rose and raspberry dessert that is inspired by the falooda. “I haven’t experimented with a traditional falooda recipe itself but it’s on my list,” she says. She isn’t the only one.

Pranjali Bhonde Pethe is a Pune-based writer.

Also read | Why a lemon dessert was deemed fit for the queen

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