When Valiji, a Bohra entrepreneur, set up Taj Ice Cream around 1887, ice was still a luxury item and electricity had arrived in the city only five years earlier. So his first concoction was a creamy, hand-churned ‘dhai’ sold out of a corner shop in Bootwala Building near Null Bazaar. The first flavour was mixed fruit. “He used to mix the fruit with milk, making a sort of jelly in a clay pot, which was then wrapped in a wet jute bag to keep it cool,” says Valiji’s great-great-grandson, 26-year-old Aamir Icecreamwala, who runs the business today with his 65-year-old father Hatim. Only once ice became available commercially, did Valiji start making proper ice-cream.
Today, milk bubbles in a large cauldron in the kitchen creating a thick cream that is mixed with fruit and sugar. This concoction is poured into a copper barrel, or ‘sancha’, which is placed in a wooden barrel of ice. The mixture is then churned by an old hand – also coincidentally named Vali – until it solidifies. Taj is one of the last hand-churned ice-cream parlours left in the city.
Valiji’s original recipe of milk, sugar and fruits – no colours or preservatives – has remained largely unchanged over the years. But the shop now offers 15 flavours including mango, kesar, tender coconut, and roasted almond chocolate chip, all sold at Rs 60 a scoop to about a hundred customers daily. Sitafal, however, remains the favourite and is often carried by NRIs back to Karachi, Kuwait and London. (A loyal customer even inspired the shop name: Tajbhai, a friend of Valiji’s son, who would travel to Mumbai from Ahmedabad just to eat the ice-cream.)
Despite the lack of advertising and modest outlet – now on Bhendi Bazaar’s Khara Tank Road – many celebrities have sampled the fruity dessert including Farooq Abdullah, Pankaj Udhas, Johnny Walker and Madhubala. A 1969 banquet in honour of the Shah of Iran gave bulk orders for Taj ice cream and Delhi Darbar’s biryani. “The Iran consulate made it a condition,” recalls Hatim Icecreamwala, “They told the Taj that we will occupy your hotel but during the party these two items will come from outside.”
Both father and son are ice-cream fanatics. “Whenever we travel, the first thing we try is ice-cream,” says Aamir, who used to churn ice-cream for fun after school and joined the family business last year after quitting a real estate job in Dubai.
The shop will be bulldozed under the Bhendi Bazaar redevelopment plan but the Icecreamwalas have been assured alternative accommodation while construction is underway – and a similar street-front location once the project is complete. Aamir says they aren’t perturbed by new fads like frozen yogurt and liquid nitrogen ice-cream because their customers crave an “authentic, organic, milky” flavour.
They recently registered their outlet on Scootsy, Faroma and Zomato, delighting many of their farther-flung customers. “The idea is also to reach out to many people who don’t know about Taj,” says Aamir. “We want to continue the legacy.”