Flavors of Koolfi Creamery

You won’t find typical Indian flavors like chikoo or falooda when you step into San Leandro’s craft ice cream shop, Koolfi Creamery. Instead, customers walking through the arched gate reminiscent of old buildings and cobblestone streets, will find a rotating menu of delightful, Indian-inspired flavors such as Guava with Chilli or Lotus & Rose. Both have a surprise factor, whether it’s a hint of spice or the unexpected crunch of pistachios.

It is that artisanal quality that makes Koolfi Creamery so popular. Owners and married couple Priti Narayanan and Madhuri Anji are partners in the venture which began from an ice cream cart on the streets of San Francisco in 2018. They opened their store late last year. “We never did a grand opening,” said Narayanan. “We just one day opened the store because we had to.”

Koolfi Creamery in San Leandro. Photo: Sree Sripathy for India Currents/CatchLight Local.

Koolfi, Mysore Pak, & Filter Coffee

While the flavors have become more complex and interesting, the first four that Narayanan developed – Malai Koolfi, Mango Lassi, Cardamom, and Salted Caramel – are still some of the most popular with ice cream lovers.

Narayanan infused the Salted Caramel with Mysore Pak, a South Indian sweet to create a richly flavored ghee-imbued soft ice cream with chunks of homemade Pak.

A more recent addition, South Indian Filter Coffee, retains the sweetness of standard coffee ice cream once Narayanan found a source for the right flavor of beans, but adds depth with a touch of bitterness along with the satisfying crunch of coffee grains.

“Ice cream making at home is super easy. But if you want to do it professionally, it’s a very, very hard business to get into.” 

Koolfi and Queerness – a journey

Narayanan didn’t plan on being queer or being an ice cream shop owner. She started out her adult life by checking all the boxes for a young woman from a stereotypical Indian household. In her early 20s, got married to a man, emigrated to the US, and got a Master’s degree in Civil and Environmental Engineering. She pursued a career in that field for many years.

Sitting outside on the front patio of the shop, greeting customers as they walked in and out of the parlor, Narayanan explained, “I knew I liked women. But I did not know what that meant because there was no context to it.” When the movie “Fire” by filmmaker Deepa Mehta came out, Narayanan watched it. “I thought it was about sex, and that you have sex with women only if you can’t find men, and I could find that. So I was like, what does this mean?  I don’t understand. It never occurred to me that I could fall in love and have a relationship, have a family.”

Only after moving to the U.S. with her husband, did Narayanan begin to understand and explore her sexuality. Her then-husband, now a very dear friend, was the first person she came out to. He bought books for her to read about being gay, and supported her, letting her know there was nothing wrong with her.

Priti Narayanan of Koolfi Creamery. Photo: Sree Sripathy for India Currents/CatchLight Local.

A gay Indian in America

Narayanan’s perception of being gay in America was based on the tragic tale of Matthew Shepard, the University of Wyoming student who was beaten to death in 1998.  Narayanan told her therapist at the time “I don’t want to be gay.” 

“I was losing all the privileges of being married. I was married to a man who loved me, who I loved. So why the hell would I want this? I did not want it.”

For the longest time, Narayanan’s parents never told their relatives that their daughter was divorced and queer. It was during her grandfather’s funeral that Narayanan’s mother came out about her daughter’s queerness. On the thirteenth day of the funeral rituals, Narayanan’s family needed to buy relatives new clothes, “My mom turned around to my aunts and said ‘You have to buy one more extra saree for my daughter.’ That’s how she came out.”

A South Indian Rainbow wedding

Inside the store, a rainbow flag, layered from purple to red, is draped over the ice-cream counter. Hanging on the wall across from the flag is a photograph of Narayanan and Anji on their wedding day. Both brides are dressed in traditional sarees, multiple garlands around their necks, standing side to side. Narayanan’s right hand covers all five fingers of Anji’s right hand in the traditional hand clasp seen in South Indian Hindu weddings. 

A photo of Koolfi Creamery owners Madhuri Anji and Priti Narayanan on their wedding day. Photo: Sree Sripathy for India Currents/CatchLight Local.

Narayanan walks to the back of the store to the business office and prep area. Light filters through a window highlighting Narayanan’s mother putting pieces of dosa cones in plastic boxes. Instead of a traditional waffle cone, Narayanan worked out a recipe for a slightly sweet dosa-flavored ice cream cone, the first of its kind.

Narayanan’s parents would tell her “You have a master’s in engineering. Why are you doing this? Go back to that.” Her response was “No. I’m dead tired. But I’ve never been more happy in my life.”

Now, every time they visit, they help their daughter with the business, from toasting sesame seeds for a specialty flavor to packaging products.

Priti Narayanan’s mom toasts sesame seeds for one of the specialty ice cream flavors. Photo: Sree Sripathy for India Currents/CatchLight Local.

Making Koolfi after getting hit by a bus

Before starting the creamery, Narayanan was deeply unhappy with her job and career. She started looking for answers via career counseling and therapy. She discovered that she really liked food and working for herself. It was after an accident in San Francisco in 2014, where both she and Anji were hit by a bus after attending a Hari Kondabolu show, that the creamery idea started to germinate.

Narayanan quit her job in 2016, and started her research, looking for apprenticeships and developing recipes. Anji continued to work full-time and managed the business side of the venture. Partners in work and in life, Narayanan and Anji have been together for 12 years. “We get up in the morning and cozy up over idli and dosa. It’s wonderful. It really is very good.”

Indian inspired flavors at San Leandro’s Koolfi Creamery. Photo: Sree Sripathy for India Currents/CatchLight Local.

Through all the searching and exploration one question remained in Narayanan’s mind, “Do I belong in this country?” she asked herself. “Do I want to live here or go back to India?”

Narayanan now has the answer to that question “I think the ice cream parlor has proved itself in more ways than one. I feel part of the community, I feel more American than I ever did before I started this business.”

Sree Sripathy joined India Currents as a staff photographer and CatchLight Local Fellow as part of CatchLight's California Local Visual Desk program in June 2022. Reach out with story ideas or comments...