How India Made Ice Cream a Dessert of its Own

Once the mainstay of the colonial elite, ice cream — thanks to American GIs and Indian entrepreneurs — soon became the ubiquitous and flavorful treat that it is today.

Meher Mirza

January 28, 2022

How India Made Ice Cream a Dessert of its Own
DIGHA, WEST BENGAL, INDIA - 2015/06/04: A man sells ice cream on the beach at Digha, West Bengal. (Subhendu Sarkar/LightRocket via Getty Images)

One of China’s greatest gifts to the world is the proto-ice cream, when it froze a creamy rice and milk mixture in snow in 200 B.C. Marco Polo, in Asia from 1271 to 1295, reportedly carried the recipe back to Italy. It’s unclear how ice cream first made its way to India but Chitrita Banerji writes in Eating India: Exploring a Nation’s Cuisine, that Frederick Tudor, the man who helmed the colonial ice trade from Boston to India, was likely responsible, although it is equally possible that the British brought their version of hand-churned ice creams. 

Regardless of ice cream’s provenance in the subcontinent, many Indians looked upon the “foreign” substance with suspicion. Even though there had been mentions of kulfi in the region as early as the Ain-i-Akbari, published in 1590, kulfi initially was a dessert of the north; Mughals used ice that they brought down from “northern mountains” to make it. Bombay, significantly more south than these mountains, was where the wealthy merchant Jamsetjee Jeejeebhoy reportedly became the first Indian to serve ice cream at a public reception, in 1834. His guests gorged on the treat, only to be besieged by colds the next day, according to a dour report in the Bombay Samachar that insinuated that they had brought it upon themselves by trying this strange, unnatural food. 

For most of its early history in India, ice cream was an elite, Western item. And thanks to the expensive equipment and ice required, ice cream became a mainstay of the privileged in India, an antidote against the blistering summer heat. But by the 20th century, a host of Indian entrepreneurs opened ice cream stores and factories that would go on to become behemoth companies. This was thanks, in part, to the now easy availability of ice and the spread of electricity, which helped mechanize ice cream making. These factories would drive down prices and, soon enough, Indians made ice cream their own — adding unique flavors and ingredients you couldn’t find anywhere else.