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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 13 December 2018

RAK ice cream sellers keep their cool in 10-year turf war 

Mohammed Ashiq has been selling his distinctive pink and white ice cream in the emirate for 36 years but competitors have since moved in on his scene

Ice cream is served by waiters at Ashuk ice cream in Ras Al Khaimah. Chris Whiteoak / The National
Ice cream is served by waiters at Ashuk ice cream in Ras Al Khaimah. Chris Whiteoak / The National

In Ras Al Khaimah, the way to beat the heat comes in the form of pink and white ice cream. It is a summer tradition owed to one man, Mohammed Ashiq.

His is the story of the self-made man who came to the emirate as a labourer and built himself a local ice cream empire.

When he landed in Ras Al Khaimah in 1975, Mr Ashiq earned Dh25 a day as a fitter. He scraped together enough to buy a Polaroid camera and sold photographs to tourists. With this money, he bought two slushy machines from Dubai. He filled one with Tang and one with Vimto, rented a wooden shack by the ferry wharf on the creek and named his business Ashuk. He charged 50 fils a cup and by 1982, he was able to buy an ice cream machine for Dh18,000.

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Mr Ashiq is known for The Ashuk, a towering sundae of mango, pomegranate and apple topped with crushed pistachios and strawberry syrup. It is a tribute to his father, who had a kulfi cart in Sialkot, Pakistan, and his grandfather, who was a fruit vender.

Most distinct is the ice cream itself, a swirl of pink and white that has a light, milky texture.

“Our ice cream, it’s not a McDonald’s style ice cream or a scoop ice cream,” said his son Bilal. “Ours is more icy and less creamy. It’s our own recipe and it’s been pretty much the same since the beginning.”

Bilal now runs the shop. When people drive down the old creek road in the evening, they will see him outside the shop, overseeing the crew that deliver orders to 4x4s parked outside. Ashuk is a takeaway operation and its success has attracted the attention of competitors.

Bilal Ashiq outside Ashuk ice cream in Ras Al Khaimah. Chris Whiteoak / The National
Bilal Ashiq outside Ashuk ice cream in Ras Al Khaimah. Chris Whiteoak / The National

Next door is Multifoods, a cafeteria that opened in 2007 and initially served a variety of foods. By 2009, Multifoods began to serve an identical ice cream, pink, white and icy.

“This white and pink ice cream, especially with this texture, it was not around here,” said Bilal. “They have actually just duplicated it. They have not changed anything because this is what the customers like.”

The owner of Multifoods says otherwise.

“This is just normal ice cream,” said Saeeid Yousefi, 47.

Sometimes, when people park outside Ashuk, they accidentally order from Multifoods instead, unaware that the servers are working for the shop next door.

But Mr Yousefi has his own iced speciality: Iranian Faloodeh, fine rice starch noodles frozen in rose-water syrup and flavoured with pomegranate or strawberry syrup. Conceding to Emirati tastes, he's since added a Vimto option served alongside traditional ice cream. Flavours include saffron and blueberry.

“In the whole UAE you won’t find anything else like this,” said Mr Yousefi. “My ice cream is handmade. This is my secret. Now, all of these years I’m here, not one other shop is making this. Only me.”

His first ice cream shop was on Qeshm island but he learnt his craft growing up in the northern province Gilan, along the Caspian Sea.

He learnt the trade from his grandfather, a renowned ice cream maker who had 15 employees. and was the only grandchild to study the family recipes.

“My grandfather did not like children in his shop because ice cream is very hard work,” he said.

Slowly, other ice cream shops serving the distinctive pink and white swirled sundaes have spread across Ras Al Khaimah.

Of Ashiq’s sizeable staff, two have turned ice cream entrepreneurs including the founder of Tamasha, a popular shop on the north coast town of Al Rams. Its appearance is identical to The Ashuk but has a far creamier base. Three months ago, Tamasha opened it’s second branch in RAK city.

Ashuk now has four shops in RAK and one in Dubai.

“It’s special ice cream, it’s different,” said Mona Al Shehhi, 34, a customer who was parked outside with her three children on Wednesday night. “When I was a child I’d come here with my father and now I’m doing what my dad did for me.”

Customers chat to each other from car windows.

“The thing about Ashuk is, it’s something that people know from their elders so it’s just like, you know, fused into the culture as Ras Al Khaimah has grown,” said Bilal.

“It’s a folklore sort of a thing, Ashuk. It is a business but at the same time for me, this is my identity of living in Ras Al Khaimah, spending my time here.”