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In This Globe-Trotting Dessert, Many Immigrants Find A Taste Of Home

A couple of months ago I was at Washington, D.C.'s Union Market, where dozens of food vendors sell their wares, when I spotted the word falooda at one of the small stalls. Falooda is a cold, textured dessert or snack that was a regular part of my childhood summers back in India. And this was the first time in America that I had seen a mention of this beloved dessert. I was thrilled and promptly joined the line to order some.

As I waited for my turn, I peered eagerly at the containers of ingredients on the other side of the counter, watching what the staff put into each glass of falooda. I was surprised to see both familiar (ice cream, basil seeds, rose water and vermicelli noodles) and unfamiliar things (colorful cubes of jellies and multihued syrups and spiced milks that piqued my curiosity). It looked like a modern, more creative version of what I was used to back home.

Falooda in India comes in two versions. One, called kulfi-falooda, is usually served in a steel bowl or plate and consists of Indian pistachio ice cream (called kulfi) frozen to the consistency of a popsicle, a few strings of cold vermicelli noodles and a splash of rose water-flavored syrup. The other version is served in a glass, with cold milk or a scoop of soft ice cream, rose water syrup, cold vermicelli noodles, water-softened basil seeds and pistachios. Regardless of the version you eat, falooda is meant to be lingered over with family and friends. It takes time to consume, encouraging you to hang out and tell stories as you slowly fill your belly with this cold treat.

I always assumed falooda was as Indian as I am — that is, until this day. Not only was the falooda a little different here, but the woman who created these concoctions was in fact from Myanmar (formerly Burma), and had grown up with a Burmese version of this dessert.

Jocelyn Law-Yone, 64, grew up in Myanmar's former capital city, Yangon (formerly Rangoon). She doesn't remember what went into the dessert from her childhood, except that it was cold, sweet and pink. "The pink was from the rose water," she says. "I just remember the smell of rose water."

As in India, falooda in Myanmar was often sold by street vendors, who produced this magical dessert out of a big cauldron, Law-Yone says. A trip to the falooda-wallah (or falooda vendor) was a regular family event involving drives to bustling markets with small shops and street vendors. These trips gave her some of her favorite childhood memories.

"I always tell people that falooda was my first food crush," she says. "It's such a happy drink."

Falooda originated centuries ago, in Persia. From there, it traveled to South Asia with Persian merchants and rulers who invaded the region. It is an essential taste of summer in many parts of South Asia. The snack has also traveled to nations in Southeast Asia, Africa and even South America.

In 2008, Law-Yone visited her home country with her two daughters, who were born and raised in America. That visit gave her a chance to eat falooda in Myanmar for the first time in decades. It also allowed her to introduce her daughters to this mythical dessert she had always told them about.

"It was the most memorable thing we ate," says Simone Jacobson, 32, Law-Yone's daughter and co-owner of Toli Moli, their falooda shop at Union Market.

The visit inspired Jacobson and her mother to bring the dessert to Washington, D.C. "I always thought I would bring America to Burma," says Law-Yone. "Now, I am bringing Burma to America." The falooda business has helped meld her American and Burmese identities and "solidified her sense of place," she adds.

The falooda they serve, however, isn't just a replica of the dessert from Law-Yone's childhood. The ingredients are informed by foods she has eaten in different countries. For example, the vermicelli noodle pudding is inspired by rice and vermicelli pudding in India. And the pandan leaves she uses to infuse some of her fruit jellies with a bright green color is, in fact, used widely in many Southeast Asian cuisines. That's why the falooda isn't just about their Burmese identity, says Jacobson. "It's about every stamp in our passport."

And it's about the stamps on the passports of their customers, says Law-Yone. After all, residents of this city are diverse, with roots in other countries, many of which have their own versions of falooda or desserts like it. Law-Yone says she has been surprised by the cold snack's vast global appeal.

On a recent visit to Toli Moli one weekend, I watched people line up to order a cold glass of falooda. For some, this was the first time trying this exotic snack. For many customers, however, falooda felt familiar.

"My parents would make falooda," says Orissa Samaroo, originally from Guyana. But she doesn't remember what they put in it. "I just know it's noodles and it's sweet milk, or cream. And a lot of sugar." She pauses as she takes her first spoonful of Law-Yone's Mango-Mogul falooda. "It's very different," she says. "It's good, it's not very sweet, which I like."

The sense of familiarity with the snack extended even to people who had never eaten falooda before.

"This is my first falooda," says Amanda Franklin, who was raised in America and has one Vietnamese parent. But she says she has eaten something similar in Vietnam and the Philippines. The Filipino halo-halo and the Vietnamese chè are similarly layered and textured desserts. Her glass of falooda feels familiar, says Franklin. "It's similar, but different enough to make it special."

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Rhitu Chatterjee is a health correspondent with NPR, with a focus on mental health. In addition to writing about the latest developments in psychology and psychiatry, she reports on the prevalence of different mental illnesses and new developments in treatments.
Morgan McCloy