Kwality Ice Cream: a taste of Indian nostalgia finds an eager audience

Kanti Parekh scooping Alphonso mango ice cream at his Kwality Ice Cream store in Edison, New Jersey.
Kanti Parekh scooping Alphonso mango ice cream at his Kwality Ice Cream store in Edison, New Jersey.PHOTO: BRYAN ANSELM FOR THE NEW YORK TIMES

A scientist in the United States has specifically engineered his ice cream flavours to appeal to the Indian palate

Edison, New Jersey - (THE NEW YORK TIMES) - For anyone who grew up in India during the second half of the 20th century, ice cream is inseparable from the name Kwality.

When the brand arrived in the country in the 1950s, it awakened a nationwide infatuation. During sweltering Indian summers, people would dash to the lit-up cases of Kwality at their local dime store for a block of nutty butterscotch ice cream, or the triple-layered ice cream bar called cassata. But its popularity waned after a corporate takeover left its taste altered.

Now, a take on the Kwality brand in the United States (also under the name Kwality) is inspiring a kind of childlike elation: lines out the door, breathless Yelp reviews and daily demands for more stores to open.

Cookbook author Raghavan Iyer recalls his first experience tasting Kwality’s vanilla ice cream as an eight-year-old in Bombay. “It was fresh, white, rich and creamy, with no icicles,” he said. “It was something totally elusive.”

The fluffy tufts of cream were silkier and more melt-resistant than kulfi, with flavours that were wide-ranging and whimsical.

The brand became ubiquitous and was acquired by Unilever in 1995 — leaving the company’s chief food technologist Kanti Parekh, without a job. Dr Parekh, a cheerful scientist with a hearty laugh and a deep love of sweets, developed some of the company’s most beloved flavours, such as butterscotch and mango. But after the acquisition, Dr Parekh said: “They started modifying certain flavours and lowering the milk content to reduce costs.”


Dr Kanti Parekh. PHOTO: BRYAN ANSELM FOR THE NEW YORK TIMES

“What ice cream I developed was totally lost,” he added.

That year, Dr Parekh left India for New Jersey to consult on quality control and ingredient selection for packaged foods, but ice cream remained his favourite hobby. “Any town I visited, I’d count how many ice cream shops there were and then taste all of them,” he said.


Rose petal ice cream being made at the Kwality Ice Cream factory. PHOTO: BRYAN ANSELM FOR THE NEW YORK TIMES

One day in 2001, a friend approached him about developing desserts for his Indian restaurant. Dr Parekh happily agreed and, using the same methods he had developed for Kwality, made a few batches of ice cream.

Soon, restaurant patrons were begging Dr Parekh to start his own ice cream shop. Just two years later, equipped with his recipes and a name he knew would connect with his Indian customers, he opened Kwality Ice Cream in a small strip mall in the Little India section of Edison.

“We used the same name to capitalise on the goodwill the brand had built,” he said. “We wanted people to think of the back-home taste.” The word Kwality, he added, was not trademarked in the US, so he felt free to use it. (Unilever, which still produces the original brand under the name Kwality Wall’s, did not respond to requests for comment.)

The design of the tucked-away shop plays off the nostalgia of American ice cream parlours - bright pops of red on the walls, posters of caramel drizzling temptingly over a sundae, a flashing neon sign - though the ice cream’s taste appeals to a nostalgia of a different sort.


A family at a Kwality Ice Cream store in Edison. PHOTO: BRYAN ANSELM FOR THE NEW YORK TIMES

That distinctive flavour profile was specifically engineered by Dr Parekh to appeal to the Indian palate, which he observed,  is dulled by the vast consumption of spices.

“They recognise flavours only if they are intense,” he said. “If you look at ice cream made with more sugar and less butterfat,” as with American brands such as Dairy Queen or Ben & Jerry’s, “you are tasting the sugar first, then you taste the water and the cream taste is only slightly at the end.”

As a result, Dr Parekh’s formula centres on milk with high butterfat and very little sugar. Over time, he has made a few upgrades to his original recipe, increasing the butterfat content to 14 per cent (as opposed to the original Kwality’s 10.5 per cent) and adding liquid flavourings he developed with a scientist at Rutgers University.

The end product is an ice cream that is luscious, like a frozen whipped mousse, and aromatic - pure, powerful and elemental in its taste, like biting into the platonic ideal of a mango or melting a piece of toffee on your tongue. It’s a sensation that his Indian customers immediately recognize. “It is what my childhood memories are made of,”  chef and TV personality Maneet Chauhan said.


(From left) cassata, freshly made ice cream and ice cream falooda. PHOTO: BRYAN ANSELM FOR THE NEW YORK TIMES

These days, Dr Parekh’s company has 10 locations across the country, in cities with heavily concentrated Indian populations, such as Fremont, California, and Irving, Texas. There is also a factory adjacent to the flagship, where the ice cream is made fresh daily and shipped out in temperature-controlled trucks.

Dr Parekh has slowly added new flavours such as meetha paan, based on the sugary, fennel-seed-stuffed betel leaf snack, and frozen treats such as ice cream falooda, a rose-flavoured sundae layered with vermicelli noodles. The crowds show no signs of subsiding.

In Dr Parekh’s eyes, there is no better business proposition than running an ice cream shop.

“Everybody likes ice cream - the sky is the limit with flavours and it’s a smiling business  - after people eat ice cream, they are always happy.”

“My life’s mantra,” he continued: “One God, one wife, one ice cream.”