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Wine & Dine
December 21, 2017

Scoops Of Nostalgia: Ice Cream Brand Malai Offers Indian-Inspired Flavours

Text by Huzan Tata. Photographs by Morgan Ione Yeager

Finding inspiration in the Indian smells and tastes from her mother’s kitchen at their home in the US, Pooja Bavishi took New York by storm when she entered the world of desserts with her artisanal ice cream brand, Malai

Ask anyone what gets them to reminisce about their home or heritage, and more often than not, it will be a smell, sound or taste. And so it is with Pooja Bavishi, the 33-year-old second-generation Indian American. Hailing from Charlotte in North Carolina, the MBA-turned-food-entrepreneur grew up with the aroma of Indian spices and morning chai that emanated from her mother’s kitchen. With a passion for making desserts and a love for her heritage, Bavishi embarked on her business journey two years ago, with her Brooklyn-based ice cream brand, Malai, which infuses Indian flavours into (almost) everyone’s favourite cold dessert.

“Early on in life, I made the connection that desserts make people happy, and I knew that at some point in the future, I would want my own dessert-based business. But there was never a right time for it, or I didn’t feel ready, or I didn’t have a concept. When I first made ice cream, I used the spices that were already in my cabinet to flavour them, and my friends told me that they had never had anything like that before! I was in my last year of business school at the time, and that’s when I decided to finally take the leap to start my dessert business after graduating,” says Bavishi about her brainchild. As someone who grew up baking, watching cooking shows and who even had a dessert-based food blog before starting out on her latest venture, Bavishi makes sure that all Malai’s flavours — from masala chai and ginger root to sweet milk and the seasonal toasted nutmeg — are all robust. Her favourite? Undoubtedly, the orange fennel. “I always wanted to create a fennel-flavoured ice cream — it’s such a palate cleanser. I thought it could use some brightness and citrus notes, so I decided to add orange. Orange and fennel is a classic combination in other types of savoury cuisine, and I thought that it could pair really nicely in ice cream as well. Customers are always telling me about how familiar it tastes even though they have tasted nothing like it before!”

While it’s mainly the sound of the metal tea kettle closing shut after the chai is made and the aroma of mustard seeds frying (“It’s the distinct smell of typical, everyday cooking that gets me excited about what I am about to devour….”) that remind Bavishi about India, all her ice creams come from memory. “I mostly pull something nostalgic from my childhood or upbringing, and recreate that in ice cream form. I know exactly what I would love to see in ice cream flavours. A great example is the toasted nutmeg. My family always makes kheer around Diwali time, and flavours it with nutmeg. I knew that I wanted that same flavour in ice cream, and made something from a spice that is common, but likely not found in ice creams. It’s actually quite wonderful to see someone taste something that I’ve created from my memories, and them having their own associations or reference points when they taste it,” explains Bavishi.

Currently selling at pop-ups and markets in New York, e-shipping online nation-wide, and catering at weddings and social events, the New York-based entrepreneur hopes to see Malai open its own brick-and-mortar store someday. “I’m fortunate to have been able to start this business in New York, an area with a market that is very open to new flavours and is excited about different cultures. We have wonderful customers, who consistently give us amazing feedback, which is a constant reminder that I’ve embarked on something special with Malai,” Bavishi maintains. The rose with cinnamon roasted almonds ice cream tops everyone’s list of favourites, despite being a flavour that almost didn’t make the final cut! “Rose is such a familiar flavour to me, and to Indian audiences, especially in desserts. And it has really taken off in Western cuisines in the past year. But when I started a few years ago, I wasn’t sure that it would be accepted. I decided to try it anyway, and it is now our most popular offering!”

Constantly experimenting with textures and ingredients, Bavishi loves to use spices in ways they’ve never been used before. And many of her ice creams pair with cones from another small Brooklyn-based company, The Konery, adding a vibrant element to her offerings. Currently using their cinnamon brown sugar, toasted coconut, five-spice and salted blue corn cones, Malai uses cardamom and lemon-ginger cones in rotation as well. “I love to recommend when asked (the rose with cinnamon roasted almonds in the toasted coconut cone is absolutely amazing), but customers usually know exactly what they want!” exclaims the New York University graduate.

Visiting India every year, Bavishi grew up learning about the country through the language, stories she heard and, most importantly, the food. With parents who ventured from India to USA in pursuit of the American dream, she was always encouraged to identify and follow her own passions. While her parents and sister continue to guide her in her food journey and offer fresh perspectives on her work, it’s the aim to move higher and impact the industry that constantly keeps Bavishi going. “This experience has helped me to understand that I am a strong strategic leader, applying my skills to overcome basic challenges, such as familiarising myself with the food industry where I had no previous experience…. Malai represents both the steepest learning curve I have ever embarked on, and my greatest source of pride. I know that this dichotomy of emotions will be ever present as I work to achieve my ultimate goal — to establish a globally recognised ice cream brand — but I am also confident that I am prepared to take what comes head-on,” she says with passion.

What does this dessert aficionado hope will be the future of her brand, we wonder, and pat comes the reply. “We want to create an ultra-satisfying, eggless, creamy texture in our ice cream base. We want to tie it all in with my cultural heritage. We want to keep improving, pushing boundaries, getting better within the industry.” I ask what she considers herself to be, if she had to describe herself as an ice cream flavour, and she exclaims immediately, “Golden turmeric, which is flavoured with an additional spice blend. It’s very unexpected, but surprisingly familiar. It’s bright and full of good stuff, but has a welcoming edge. It’s complex without being complicated.” And what’s the one reason people should head to Malai the next time they’re craving a creamy dessert? Quite simply put, “It’s the best ice cream you will ever have…!”

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