Flavors of tradition come alive in new Indian ice cream venture | Princeton Echo

Mansoor Ahmed is the founder of the Alexander Road-based Heritage Kulfi.

Stirring rose syrup into milk can instantly recreate a moment of nostalgia for Mansoor Ahmed, who grew up with the pink drink as an ideal treat while others may have drunk strawberry milk. By indulging his childhood wistfulness and embracing tradition, Ahmed, the CEO and founder of premium ice cream brand Heritage Kulfi, is bringing unique South Asian flavors to area residents familiar with, as well as new to, his particular palate.

Heritage Kulfi transforms the Indian frozen dessert kulfi into an ensemble of pints available for sale in locations throughout the tri-state area, including a rosewater option evocative of Ahmed’s beloved childhood beverage — this trades what people associate with a romantic bouquet of the flowers for a sweet, fragrant taste capturing their essence.

Kulfi is a staple in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and other parts of South Asia with flavors such as saffron and pistachio. Ahmed took this inspiration a step further, revitalizing the process and ingredients into carefully crafted ice creams with a dense and creamy texture.

“The goal was to really use authentic ingredients throughout the entire process, and part of the goal was to recreate or ping this nostalgic experience that we wanted people to have by having our ice cream,” Ahmed said. “I was really, really exacting in terms of perfectly recreating that experience for people.”

The ice creams’ rich, unique consistencies are achieved through a specific process.

“It has high butterfat. It has a higher concentration of milk solids. It’s normally slow cooked to impart that strong, airy flavor, and it doesn’t have any eggs. It’s also churned very minimally [with a] Very little amount of air into it, sometimes not even any air, because it’s often just poured into molds and served on a stick or as a dessert item,” Ahmed explained.

Heritage Kulfi, which operates from an Alexander Road office, does not yet have a storefront, but Ahmed anticipates having one in the future. All of the ice creams are sold at various grocers, markets, and South Asian and Middle Eastern stores. Local businesses featuring Heritage Kulfi for purchase include Star Big Bazaar in Lawrence and Patidar Supermarket in East Windsor, but a full, constantly updated map of locations selling Heritage Kulfi ice creams is available at heritagekulfi.com/connect.

Ahmed is a proud, and almost lifelong, New Yorker. Born in Manhattan to parents who immigrated from South Asia, Ahmed was raised in what he called a “very traditional” Pakistani family that helped him cultivate a love for these flavors.

“We almost exclusively ate South Asian food at home, so these kinds of flavors are sentimental for me,” he said. “That’s why flavors like saffron might seem unusual, but they taste like home to me. I’m learning from our customers that a lot of other South Asians feel the same way.”

Ahmed’s background is in a completely different industry, the entrepreneur having received a bachelor of arts in international studies at Manhattan College, then pursued a master of arts in Islamic studies from Columbia University.

“This is kind of a departure from those interests, but I do think they’ve played an important role in shaping my intellectual curiosity around the branding and the flavors that are brought here with Heritage Kulfi,” Ahmed said.

In 2014 Ahmed and his wife, Rebecca Faulkner, moved to Princeton when the latter entered the Ph.D. program at Princeton University. Now having earned that degree, she currently teaches in the religion department, specializing in the study of Islam.

For six years, Ahmed distributed ice cream and frozen desserts with his own Princeton company, Shahi Distributors, where he was introduced to tri-state area South Asian and Middle Eastern markets, as well as their varying food trends.

“Given the way the pandemic had hit New York City, and New Jersey as well, I think that every small business clearly suffered quite a bit, and the road to recovery is quite long. But this gave me an opportunity to just take a step back and spend more time on creating something that can be refreshing and engaging,” he said of the change in plans. “That was a turning point, at least for where the ideas came from.”

“Just being in touch with store owners, customers, and seeing what they wanted, this is where the entrepreneur in me saw an opportunity to bring something new to the market,” he added.

Heritage Kulfi began its research and development phase in 2020, then launched its full flavor line in October of 2021. Ahmed created everything from scratch, spending months navigating flavors, sourcing, and finding the best way to utilize “micrograms of ingredients” like the earthy yet sweet saffron.

“Choosing the ingredients was something that was very, very important to us, and then we took a slightly different approach,” he said. “[We wanted] to really allow one particular ingredient to shine, really give it that space to breathe, so selecting the highest, the best possible ingredient that exists, and then really just letting it do its thing within the flavor profile.”

“My brand wants you to take just a moment and really absorb and engage with the particular flavor, and the ingredient, that we put in there. That’s what kind of makes it a bit fun and new,” Ahmed continued.

Ahmed has experience in graphic design, so the packaging and marketing materials are all his doing as well. The founder calls it a “really fun, creative process” where he was involved at each step in the unveiling of the ice creams.

Heritage Kulfi’s packaging is also certified sustainable by the Sustainable Forestry Initiative to not only be hopefully pleasing to the taste buds, but to the environment.

Princeton is known as a popular spot for ice cream, and especially as a means of creative expression — just in Palmer Square are the Bent Spoon and Halo Pub, with Thomas Sweet Ice Cream and other local businesses in close proximity. Prior to moving to the area, Ahmed did not know how celebrated Princeton was for ice cream.

“I was new to that as well, so it’s really exciting to kind of represent Princeton in that way,” he said. “This is important for us to represent not only setting trends, such as building on what something like the Bent Spoon does, being creative, but being traditional as well, and different.”

While ice cream bases vary based on the incorporation of eggs and churning techniques, typically, creators use a custard base or a Philadelphia-style base, the latter being what Ahmed has opted for. The style is a “regionally relevant” choice for Heritage Kulfi and its spotlight on staying community-oriented.

Another element of significance for Ahmed is that Heritage Kulfi’s flavors are also “representative of the large growing South Asian population as well,” as he stated, with this inclusivity making Princeton feel “like the proper place” for his dreams.

“When I’m sharing this with fellow South Asian customers, they feel like there’s an aspect that they feel represented in terms of the food that’s available to them. Also, it’s very exciting to introduce these brand-new flavors to people who aren’t familiar with these kinds of ingredients. That has been very interesting and exciting as well,” he continued.

“The flavors that I have brought forth don’t really exist in the ice cream world, I would say. They’re really new in that way. These ingredients that I use are very commonly used in South Asian Middle Eastern cuisine,” Ahmed explained. “You’ll see them, whether it’s pistachios on desserts, saffron on rice dishes, or almonds in the same way. It was really about bringing those ingredients and having them represented as well in the ice cream world.”

Even though Ahmed said it was “tough to choose” between his favorite flavors, his affinity for pistachio is too much for him to ignore. Rather than going for just pieces of the savory nut accented by almond flavoring or a regular sweet cream, Heritage Kulfi makes a pistachio cream with chopped, roasted pistachios for the ultimate experience.

Another flavor Ahmed capitalized on is saffron, a luxurious spice typically used in savory cuisine. As elusive as it is expensive, saffron is harvested by hand-picking just the three stigmas, the female reproductive part of a flower that receives pollen, from the plant.

The cardamom chai and earl gray flavors are brought to life by steeping the respective black tea leaves in sweet cream. Never to be forgotten as a staple in any lineup, the vanilla bean flavor uses Madagascar vanilla and ground vanilla beans.

For the texturally adventurous, the coconut boasts real flakes of the fruit throughout, while the fruit for the ice cream highlighting Alfonso mangoes is sourced directly from India.

“Those are known for their ripeness and sweetness, and they’re just known as the king of mangoes. So we really just focus on that one ingredient. That’s kind of what we plan to do with all our flavors. You have these authentic ingredients, and make them modern and accessible,” he added.

Two new flavors are coming out during May, almond blossom and Malai sweet cream. The first works California almonds into a cream that is then topped with orange blossom water, while the latter is based on “the cream that rises to the top when you slow cook milk,” Ahmed explained. The mild profile of the Malai Sweet Cream echoes the simplicity of classic options like vanilla, but with a different nuance.

As a way to further diversify their market, a vegan and plant-based line is also planned for the indefinite future. Already making waves with the eight currently available, Heritage Kulfi was featured in a March 28 edition of the New York Times for selling pints of the ice cream at Kalustyan’s, a specialty foods store in Manhattan.

Ahmed’s goal is to constantly expand his brand so that stories of South Asia can be saved in a single spoonful.

“We really want to introduce people and continuously introduce them to really, really good ice cream with a slight twist. I think that’s something we plan on doing. I see that there’s so much room for us to grow in this area. It’s really taking flavors that people love for so long, and I do as well, and kind of seeing how we can use different ingredients and add a modern twist to them, do them a bit differently. Each time, the goal is to allow one particular ingredient to be put on a pedestal,” he said. “The proof is in the pint.”

More information: heritagekulfi.com


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