For a populace that finds a temple, church or mosque behind every hair-pin bend, the need to devote themselves to a serious enterprise such as eating an ice cream becomes doubly important. At the Ideal Ice Cream Parlour on Market Road in Mangalore, the marble floor itself, in creamy shades of pistachio and vanilla, suggest that an entire quarry of ice has been dug out. It’s an adventure. Dashing across the busy street at rush hour, trying to find a table and decoding a menu that is getting bigger by the year, with entries such as “Vegetarian Tiramisu" is as complex as planning a trip to Mt. Everest.

The Ideal ice-cream parlour

“In Mangalore, we eat ice- cream all through the year, even when it rains, even in winter, because it’s very good for health," explains a customer, who sits besides me on the hard railways-type seat, surrounded by three generations of her family. There are burka-clad Muslim women, who flip their face flaps up to spoon their ice creams like kingfishers diving into a pond to get their morning fix, and who sit there unaccompanied by their men.

Ideal is a women-friendly place, where the waiters instinctively place a ‘Banana Spilt’ or a ‘Triple Sundae’, or a ‘Parfait’ in front of their customers without taking an order. Ice creams are the great unifying factor between the three major communities that jostle for space in this part of the country—the Mangalore Christians, the rainbow coalition of Hindus and Muslims who have spread upwards from Kozhikode (Calicut) and Kasargode in North Malabar. If it’s not Ideal and its offshoot at Mangalore, called Pabbas, there’s always the local Hangyo ice cream that is a more commercial version of the stuff, aggressively marketed in cups and cones at every corner shop and café.

It’s a tribute to the ingenuity of the entrepreneurial instincts of the people of the Udipi-Mangalore coastal belt. Or, maybe it’s to be expected. A popular local legend has it that when Tenzing Norgay climbed Everest, he sniffed the air and found that an Udipi cook had already made his way up there to serve him hot dosas and savouries.

They have not only carried their brand of Udipi café to every part of the country, their skill as cooks is so acute that they have adapted every stray culinary influence that has come their way and made it their own. Now that everyone and their cousin has gone to Muscat, Doha or Dubai, there is even a Mangalore version of a mixed-fruit drink that is served at roadside shops that is called a “Dubai Sheik". That is, when it’s not being advertised as an ‘Aishwarya shake’ or a ‘Shilpa shake’.

It’s not just the cold drinks and ice creams that have benefited from this cross-cultural exchange. The centuries of genetic barter between Greeks, Romans and Arabs, the Portuguese and the Dutch and the people of the Konkan coast have led to some of the most statuesquely gorgeous looking women in the country. If you must ask, where have all the men gone? The answer obviously is “Gone to the Guelph". Even the fish that is hauled at the old Mangalore harbour and auctioned almost instantly in mountains of freshly iced varieties of mackerel, sole, sardines and the famous kane, or ladyfish, is meant for export to West Asia.

The piece de resistance at Ideal is called Gadbad. It could mean, ‘trouble’ or ‘problem’, or ‘sensation’. “It caused a gadbad," is how Prabhakar Kamath, the owner, describes the early days, when he found it difficult to train his staff in serving the ice cream according to his specifications. The special ice-cream formula, (wholly vegetarian) that is tasted by a member of the family, batch by batch, in three different flavours, has to be spooned into a clear glass container with layers of red jelly in between, followed by a sprinkling of dry fruits and nuts and a final spritz of cream topped with a candied cherry on the top. The trick apparently is to make sure that all the layers remain intact, the nuts insulating the ice cream and the jelly, the fruit adding texture and variety, making every spoonful a delight to sample.

Children enjoying an Ideal ice-cream

We do not point out that Diana is actually a Goddess of the Hunt. The name, however, suggests that when it began, the ice-cream parlour was very much an exotic, ‘foreign’ import. It may have been inspired by the popular Archie Comics that flooded the country in the middle of the last Century. Or it could have been influenced by the vogue for making ice creams during World War II, when Italian prisoners of war, housed at Whitefields, near Bangalore, are said to have taught the locals how to make it.

As everyone knows, it was Marco Polo who first brought the idea of frozen ices that he had cleverly learnt from his travels through China. It became the rage among European upper classes, as ice creams did among the Raj elite of South India. It was such a socially distinctively preoccupation among the Mangalore Christians that no Mangalorean Christian cookbook is without a mention of how to impress guests with a ‘Baked Alaska’ or a ‘Bombe Surprise’ or even perhaps a modest Cassata, three different coloured ices with nuts in between.

The technique was cleverly appropriated by Udipi entrepreneurial acumen into a product that even the ordinary person could appreciate, particularly when the Udipi Brahmin found a way of making an eggless ice cream mix. The nuts were already there in the form of cashew nuts. The hillsides provided the vanilla, cinnamom and ginger. Flavours such as coffee, grown in the region, cocoa that used to be imported but which is now grown there, coconut and even tea have been used, but whereas pepper flavoured ices and even stranger touches such as garlic and aloe vera, that might be added in other parts of the country are fashionable, they are not to be found in Udipi. They remain purists when it comes to their ice creams.

Anywhere else, an ice cream is just a sweet taste that lingers on the tongue. But in the ice-cream parlours in Mangalore and Udipi, you can dig into each of the varied and tantalizing layers of Gadbad and find a nugget of history.

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