After a cancelled consultation last month I stopped off for lunch at the Malwani Aswad restaurant in Vile Parle East for some coastal food. A sumptuous and spicy Chicken Sukka (a west Coast delicacy made with loads of spices and ground coconut) with Vade (coarse ground deep fried breads) naturally made me long for dessert. Dessert in restaurant nowadays often means tiramisu, cheesecakes, the more pedestrian ice cream in the usual, commonplace flavours or gulab jamuns etc. But, staring at me from the freezer was, in glorious technicolour, something I had not seen for quite some time, a memory from my happily misspent youth – a slice of cassata!
Faced with competition from other, newer desserts, this particular ice-cream seems to have fallen out of popular favour in recent years, but growing up in Mumbai – and this might be true for those in other cities too – in the early 1970s and ‘80s, (and earlier) the absolute summit of frozen desserts was the Cassata. Often longed for but seldom consumed this ice-cream delight was the stuff dreams were made of. It was also the most expensive ice-cream on the list and thus out of bounds as a child and even during my college days. It was only possible to eat one thanks to the largesse of generous uncles or aunts or – in order to impress – with a romantic partner. I still remember how, when it was served at the Freemason’s Hall (where my mother ran the catering at the time), the freezer was kept locked and there was a strict audit of the slices.
The Cassata then was a thin layer of cake smeared sometimes with jam and then topped with three layers of ice-cream and pressed into a round mould and coated with a thick layer of nuts, usually chopped or broken cashews. It was then cut into wedges and served. The cassata I found recently was flat-it had been moulded into a D-shaped log to make it easy for cutting and packing individually into D-shaped plastic trays.
The original Cassata though is a very different animal. It is Italian and it has no ice-cream in it at all. The only similarity is that it is moulded and cut into wedges for serving. It consists of layers of espresso-drenched sponge cake with sweet ricotta filling placed into a round mould lined with almond paste. The cassata is un-moulded and topped with candied fruits before being served. The Italians would like us to believe that the name derives from the Latin word for cheese – casu. But this Sicilian dessert is supposed to have had its origins amongst the exotic Arabian cuisines introduced to Europe by the Moors.
According to the food historian Clifford A. Wright the word Cassata is derived from the Arabic word qua’sat i.e. a wide round flat-based bowl. Considering that it was the Arabs who brought sugar to Europe, qua’sat is a more plausible origin. Cassata became incredibly popular in Italy and was used as a celebratory food by the Jews (during Purim) and the Christians (during Holy Week), uniting all three Abrahamic faiths like perhaps nothing else. Some centuries later the enterprising Sicilians came up with a version in which they replaced the ricotta with gelato and the modern Cassata was born.
Today there are many versions and different recipes of the Cassata all over the globe. But to us in India it’s a frozen dessert with three kinds of ice-cream topped with nuts all sitting on a thin layer of dry cake. It’s a very interesting blend of the Cassata shape combined with yet another classic the ‘Neapolitan Ice-cream’, a triple-layered multi-flavoured block cut into wedges and served up straight. The Neapolitan usually has vanilla, chocolate and strawberry as its flavours. In India we’ve replaced the flavours with those that work for the Indian palate-it almost always has tutti-frutti (a great Indian favourite) in its innermost core followed usually by pista and then topped by strawberry.
My sudden tryst with the Cassata of my childhood evoked a whole slew of memories and after I posted a picture on social media, there were posts galore from friends and friends of friends. I was thrilled to hear that whilst the Cassata had almost disappeared in the Tier 1 cities it was alive and well in the Tier 2 towns of India, where it is made and consumed with gusto. Havmor in Ahmadabad, Nandini in Bangalore, Snow Crest in UP, La Prince in Haryana, Arun in Chennai, Ideal in Mangalore and Maanza in Sidhpur, Gujarat and Amul all make their own versions of this ice-cream. Of these, Ideal still makes the dome shaped cassata, Maanza uses chocolate on the outside and mango in the middle (the centre is still Tutti-frutti) but Arun is the furthest away with four layers of ice-cream but no Tutti-frutti. Dairy Ice Creams in Hyderabad apparently makes a dome shaped one with a thick dark chocolate layer on the outside with vanilla in the middle.
To most of us urban Indians now in our 40s and beyond, the Cassata evokes an incredibly strong memory of aspirations and of a perhaps less complicated time, a sepia tinted youth where ice-cream was one of the great forbidden joys and where there were few places we could sit and contemplate the world. In that universe of the pre-liberalisation times, this king of all desserts ruled in the absence of the clamour and glamour of multi-national ice-cream parlours, fast food chains and fancy gelato joints with their ever changing – and occasionally bewildering – flavours.
Kurush F Dalal is a Mumbai-based archaeologist and culinary anthropologist