At Koolfi Creamery, A Queer Indian Immigrant Couple Expresses Identity Through Ice Cream 

In San Leandro, married couple Priti Narayanan and Madhuri “Mads” Anji produce ice cream inspired by Indian and American flavors.

click to enlarge Spouses Priti Narayanan and Madhuri “Mads” Anji both gave up other careers to chase their shared passion for Indian sweets.

Photo courtesy of Koolfi Creamery

Spouses Priti Narayanan and Madhuri “Mads” Anji both gave up other careers to chase their shared passion for Indian sweets.

Growing up, Priti Narayanan was constantly surrounded by desserts.

"We come from a family tradition where we don't drink, we don't smoke, so our only vice has been sugar," she laughed.

Narayanan grew up all over India — north, south, east, and west. But she spent a large portion of her childhood in Bombay, where street vendors on every corner sold kulfi, a traditional Indian dessert made by slow-cooking milk with nuts and spices and freezing it into popsicles. Narayanan's mother churned out a couple of homemade desserts every weekend, including homemade kulfi as well as plenty of desserts from South India, where her family has roots.

Madhuri "Mads" Anji, meanwhile, was raised in Bangalore in a multiracial German and Indian household. Her mother cooked dishes like Indo-German goulash, made with the addition of ginger, chilies, and garlic. Anji went to hospitality school in Europe, and also earned a bachelor's degree in hospitality in San Francisco.

The couple, who met in the Bay Area, always had a passion for food. But the decision to pursue food professionally didn't come to them immediately. But one night, after attending a Hari Kondabolu comedy show in San Francisco, Naryanan and Anji were hit and nearly killed by a bus while walking in a crosswalk.

"It made me think, 'Do I want to do what I'm doing for the rest of my life?'" Narayanan recalled. "And the answer was a resounding 'No'. I needed to change course in my life and do something I loved, something I enjoyed, and something that would leave a mark in this world."

That life-threatening encounter inspired her to quit her job as a civil engineer and pursue a new career in ice cream. She took jobs working in specialty ice cream shops in Oakland and Berkeley, then studied ice cream making at the University of Wisconsin's dairy program. With her engineering background, the university program's scientific approach to making ice cream came naturally to her. "[It] made me confident about how to create new flavors and how to play with ingredients," she said. The couple opened Koolfi Creamery as a pop-up in March 2018.

At Koolfi Creamery, Narayanan produces small batches of premium-quality American-style ice cream made with organic eggs and organic Strauss Family dairy. Some flavors are inspired by her mother's South Indian dessert recipes. One of Koolfi's signature flavors is salted caramel with Mysore pak, a fudge-like dessert made with ghee and chickpea flour. Another is jackfruit pudding ice cream made with coconut and jaggery. One of their newest flavors, Mung-o-Rama, is made with yellow mung beans and is dedicated to Narayan's mother, who is named Rama. They also make a line of vegan ice cream using coconut milk.

But Narayanan has nurtured an appreciation for American-style ice cream ever since her first days in the States, when she immediately fell in love with Ben & Jerry's Chunky Monkey. Along with Indian-inspired flavors, Koolfi offers signature American flavors like goat cheese and blueberry with a graham cracker crumble, as well as classic flavors like cookies and cream and cake batter.

In just a year and a half, Koolfi Creamery has already gained plenty of major clients, including corporate Pride events for companies like Air BnB and Pixar. Narayanan and Anji also scooped ice cream at several Pride festivals; last weekend, they scooped ice cream at the Silicon Valley Pride Parade and Festival. When they're not catering special events, they've also secured two weekly pop-ups: Fridays and/or Saturdays at UlavacharU in Sunnyvale, and Sundays at Zocalo Coffee in San Leandro.

But for Narayanan's family, accepting her new career in the food business took time. Narayanan's parents couldn't understand why she gave up a stable career in civil engineering to work in the food business — someone no one else in her family had done.

Learning to accept Narayanan's queer identity was a difficult journey for her family and friends, too. "I used to be married to a man. I didn't know I was queer for the longest time," Narayanan said. "I came out in my thirties."

At first, she said, "my parents thought, oh, this is a phase, this is a chemical imbalance, this is not normal." She also lost her relationships with many of her childhood friends when they learned she was queer. But her family eventually came to accept her as queer. Now, she said, "I see other parents and I see mine and I see how [far] they've come."

In 2014, the couple got married in Oakland with a traditional Hindu ceremony, condensed into an hour-and-a-half. They hired a gay Hindu priest to officiate, and changed some of the gender-specific vows and traditions to reflect their relationship. Narayanan's parents were not only present at the ceremony, but they were involved in planning at every step along the way.

Now, as caterers for private parties, Koolfi Creamery has had the opportunity to serve its ice cream at several queer Indian weddings. Those, Narayanan said, are "really dear to us."

Narayanan and Anji have been involved in LGBTQ advocacy for decades through Trikone, a nonprofit for community members of South Asian descent. Anji, who has been with Trikone for 20 years, was invited to the While House by President Obama and Vice President Biden to celebrate her advocacy work. And now, more than ever, Narayanan and Anji know how important it is to publicly celebrate their identities with pride.

"In the age of Trump ... I realized, living in the Bay Area, we're very, very privileged to be in this diverse environment," Narayanan said. "And immigrants and what immigrants bring in terms of food is what makes America great for me."

"I'm excited to bring some part of me from my past and be able to share it here and add to this diversity in the Bay Area."

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