OWhen husband and wife duo Adam Alhajji and Huda AlSultan launched their Sassi Ice Cream business in Adelaide, it was a test. They wanted to gauge whether customers would buy vegan ice cream with names like Baklawa Dream and Katayef.
“We have seven flavors, and it all makes sense to us, to our Middle Eastern and Saudi background,” says AlSultan. “For example, katayef is based on a pancake that we used to eat. It is stuffed with walnuts, grated coconut, cinnamon and orange blossom. Some customers say it reminds them of Christmas desserts…I guess it’s a way for them to relate to something they already know.
AlSultan ran with this theme. Sometimes she tells customers that their most popular flavor, Tahini Twist, is “Middle Eastern Salted Caramel.”
This initially surprised Sassi customers, who only knew of some of these ingredients in savory contexts, says AlHajji. “Sage and pomegranate are our second most popular flavor, but most people think sage is something to include with meat.”
More complex than your standard Neapolitan trio, in many parts of the Middle East and Asia, spices (cardamom, saffron), beans (adzuki, kongjaban) and tea (matcha, cha thai) are ice cream flavors currents. Asian flavors such as durian, red bean and matcha were once a niche offering in Australia, but now Indonesian and Filipino ice cream parlors are popping up in big cities; and supermarkets sell Potong red bean ice cream and Japanese-style mochi.
But while Australia’s ice cream palate has expanded in recent years, the flavors and textures of Middle Eastern ice cream, by contrast, are still relatively rare.
Traditional Turkish ice cream (dondurma) and Levant stretch ice cream booza use salep – a flour made from orchids – to give it a stretchy texture similar to taffy. This may be difficult to replicate in Australia, as salep is subject to export controls in Turkey. For some, this is a good opportunity to adapt.
Harun Yalcin, owner of Cuppa Turca Dondurma and Desserts in Melbourne is one of the innovators. do dondurma, he had to experiment with other vegetable alternatives to salep. When he finally found the right one, it became his trade secret. “Dondurma is made with goat’s milk and there is no air volume in the mixture, which is why it is more heat resistant. It doesn’t melt as easily. It’s also much harder and chewier than gelato,” he says.
This is evident in the way street vendors in Istanbul pull and stretch ice cream, transferring it from cone to cone without spilling any. It’s a fascinating sight, as evidenced by almost 800m views on the Tiktok hashtag #dondurma. But that’s something Yalcin only occasionally does in the store. “We don’t focus so much on beauty, but on flavor and texture,” he says.
“We stick to traditional flavors like sun-dried figs and pistachios, and source the ingredients from Turkey.” It is, however, open to the occasional experiment – feta cheese and melon, halva and black mulberry sorbet have all been on the menu.
Compared to salep – or an alternative – it’s relatively easy to get all the ingredients for afghan ice cream, or pure yakh – although it can be tedious to do it the traditional way. Samir Karmand remembers taking six months to learn it from a mentor. He now sells it from his restaurant, Afghan Chapli Kebab in Sydney. “To make pure yakh, you need cream, pistachio, rose water and cardamom. It should taste fresh, smooth and creamy, with that yellow tinge that comes from the cream.
“I’m a big fan of cardamom,” says Karmand enthusiastically. “I use it in desserts, tea, savory dishes.”
Karmand prepares his ice cream by hand, boiling the milk with cardamom, allowing it to cool, then placing the liquid in a small stainless steel container, which is dipped into a larger container containing ice cubes and salt. . He then vigorously shakes the ice cream mixture from left to right until the milk becomes solid. It’s a process similar to churning, but without a machine. “You can’t take shortcuts and you need your whole body to do this job,” he says.
Recently, he made a small modification to the recipe, to adapt it to local tastes. “In Afghanistan, people like their desserts sweeter than in Australia,” he says. “So it’s about finding that balance.”