Falooda could be seen as a microcosm of Indian food as it has several of the hallmark features that characterize this nation’s cuisine
A small mound of cooked falooda drizzled with rose syrup can be served with kulfi (an ice-cream made from reduced milk, sugar, nuts and saffron). This dish is properly referred to as ‘kulfi falooda’ but it is often just called falooda.
Falooda is also a drink cum dessert. It is alternatively sipped and eaten with a spoon. The basic formula is some type of starchy or gelatinous ingredients such as falooda (the noodles), tapioca pearls, jelly or takmaria/basil seeds layered into a tall glass with cold milk, rose syrup and crushed nuts poured over.
Semiya (wheat flour vermicelli) are sometimes substituted for ‘falooda’ noodles.
Ice-cream (of various flavor) has become a popular addition to falooda (the drink cum dessert). This turns it into something like a cross between a milk-shake and an ice-cream sundae or a somewhat more liquid variation of kulfi -falooda. This variation might be referred to as shahi or royal falooda (see recipe for my take on this). Dried or fresh fruit such as banana, mango or grapes might also be added.
A regional specialty of Madurai in Tamil Nadu is a drink cum dessert called jil jil jigarthanda (variously translated as ‘cool cool heart’ or ‘cool liver’) made from sweetened reduced milk mixed with small pieces or pearls of agar-agar jelly (kadal paasi) , nannaari (syrup made from Indian sarsaparilla/hemidesmus indicus ) and ice-cream. Jil jil jigarthanda is said to have been developed in Madurai by Arab or Muslim traders come into the city (see history) and some versions include rosewater and nuts which makes the connection to falooda more obvious.
Falooda belongs to a family of Indian sweet items, such as halwa, jalebi and kulfi, of Persian/Middle Eastern origin. It is said to have come into India with the Mughals (who looked to Persia as their cultural model). The fourth Mughal emperor Jahangir (ruled 1605-1627) was reportedly found of falooda eaten with cream and fruit (which suggests the noodles rather than the drink). An alternative theory is that it came into India with the Persian king Nader Shah when he invaded India and toppled the Mughals in 1738. He only stayed around for a year though spending this time looting and pillaging rather than embedding a cultural imprimatur so I am going to give it to the Mughals.
Falooda was originally an ice based concoction (it still is in Iran). Ice was an expensive and luxurious commodity in India (and elsewhere in the world*) up until the early 20th century, making chilled items the prerogative of the wealthy. Now that refrigeration is widely available the milk is usually pre-chilled although ice may still be added; if ice-cream is added that serves the same purpose as ice. Ultimately what is important is that the falooda is cold and therefore cooling.
It’s all about digestion
A distinctive ingredient of falooda is turkmaria or basil seeds. These are soaked in water prior to use causing them to swell and become like a soft jelly (resembling frogs eggs). When used in falooda it serves more as a textural component than flavor element. Turkmaria is reputed to have various health benefits such as aiding digestion, cooling the body, relieving stress and minimizing appetite.
Contribution to world food
Many of us (in western countries at least) understand basil (ocimum basilicum) as a fresh herb of Italian/Mediterranean origin but it is actually native to India/Asia and is considered to have first been cultivated in India 5000 years ago. Since that time it has spread widely resulting in many different cultivars in use across the globe. It took a lot of searching to ascertain the variety, ocimum pilosum, from which turkmaria is harvested from the flowers. I do not claim absolute certainty on this though because I could not understand the finer details of the scientific language used to classify plants.