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Ice Cream With A Sprinkle Of India, From An Immigrant In Columbus

Mita Shah holds two scoops of her signature flavors, chikoo and kesar pista.
Esther Honig
Mita Shah holds two scoops of her signature flavors, chikoo and kesar pista.

Sitting within an unassuming strip mall in north Columbus, Mardi Gras looks like just another ice cream store. Inside, the chilled glass countertop is filled with the typical flavors - mint chocolate chip, butter pecan and strawberry ice cream.

Turn to the adjacent wall, though, and you’ll see a large white board listing dozens of flavors found nowhere else - like kesar pista (a blend of saffron, cardamom and pistachio) or chickoo (a sweet tropical fruit originally found in Central America).

These are all original flavors developed by the store’s owner, Mita Shah. For the last 17 years, she’s perfected these recipes using a unique mix of fruits, nuts and spices, many inspired by Indian cuisine.

“I always think about ice cream with anything I eat, like anjeer - that’s figs - or fruit like guava and ginger,” Shah says.

Now in her early 60's, Shah keeps her long black hair tied back. She comes off as shy, but when it comes to her customers and dolling out free samples - her favorite part of the job - she becomes immediately chatty and amicable.

Shah walks to the kitchen in the back of her store, where she shows off how she carefully crafts each batch of ice cream.

“It's like my passion,” Shah says. “When I'm making ice cream, I'm in the zone. Nobody bothers me.”

Credit Esther Honig
Shah pours cold cream and sugar, but no egg, into a large mixing machine to create her ice creams.

For the base, Shah pours pails of cold cream and sugar into a large mixing machine. Shah is from Gujarat, a state in India that is predominately vegetarian, so none of her ice cream contains egg. That actually gives it a lighter and creamier texture.

For flavors, Shah pulls inspiration from her large collection of spices. She says her signature recipes use only fresh ingredients, like mangos flown in from India, and less sugar. Less sweetness, she says, gives her ice cream more flavor.

Kim Sharma, a local who's been coming to Mardi Gras for over a year, says when she first tried the shop she had no idea its owner was Indian. Sharma, who comes from neighboring Nepal, was pleased to find she recognized a lot of Shah's flavors.

"It was like, okay, that's my joint now, I'm coming there every time, every single time," Sharma says. "During summers I'm always here."

Shah's quest for more flavor began in the mid-1970s, when Shah immigrated to the U.S. with her husband so he could study chemical engineering. A young woman living in an unfamiliar place, Shah says there were certain comforts that she missed from back home.

Even the ice cream here was different.

“We have like totally different flavors,” Shah says. “Like whatever fruit is seasonal, that's what we make ice cream from, and here it's like, mint chocolate chip… We never heard of it.”

Shah started making small batches of ice cream for her family, experimenting with flavors from her own cooking: rosewater, pistachios, and spices like ginger and saffron.

Credit Esther Honig
Mardi Gras boasts classic American flavors but also ones more familiar to her Indian roots, like rose water and kesar pista.

Then, one day 17 years ago, Shah decided to share her recipe for mango ice cream with the original owner of Mardi Gras Ice Cream, a man named Jim Shaw. Shah says the flavor was an instant hit with customers, and Jim tried to hire her.

“He said, 'You want to work for me?'” Shah recalls.

Shah told Jim she was more interested in ownership, but he wasn't quite ready to sell.

“In few weeks, [my husband and I] came and he said, ‘You want to talk, lady?” Shah says.

The next week, Jim sold Shah his store. She kept the name but changed nearly everything else about the place, including the recipes for all the American flavors.

“Anytime any opportunity comes, I like to grab that and do something,” Shah says. “Make it better.”

Over the past two decades, Mardi Gras has become a local destination for global flavors, like rose water and lychee. Sharma personally recommends the jasmine and guanabana.

But Shah has left her mark on the American classics as well, like cappuccino and salty caramel.

“[Customers] try ice cream and say, 'Oh.' It's something different there, you know,” Shah says.

When they were young, Shah enlisted the help of her two kids. Now that her husband, Dilip, is retired, the two of them spend their days together scooping ice cream behind the counter.

Credit Esther Honig
Shah bought the shop 17 years ago from its original owner. Now she works on it with her husband, who's now retired.

Shah says her secret is being willing to take an opportunity when it comes.

"Work does not scare me," Shah says. "Sometimes I'm here until one, 12 in the night, but [it] don't get me tired because I love to do that."

Mardi Gras is located at 1947 Hard Rd, at the intersection of Smoky Row Rd.

Esther Honig joined WOSU in early 2016. Born in San Francisco, Esther got her start in public radio while attending Mills College in Oakland, California. Before reporting for WOSU, she worked with member station KCUR in Kansas City, Missouri. Her radio reporting has been featured on NPR, the BBC and PRI’s The World.