Sugar, Spice and Nostalgia: Making of Malai Ice Cream in U.S.
Pooja Bavishi's entrepreneurial endeavor called Malai offers Manhattan residents unusual ice creams with spicy Indian flavors.
Rose Cinnamon, Sweet Milk, Masala Chai, Turkish Coffee or Orange Fennel? Familiarity and nostalgia — this is the core idea behind Malai, the brand of ice cream owned by Pennsylvania-born Pooja Bavishi that is making waves in Manhattan because of its unusual flavoring.
“Our flavors are extremely spice infused and use global ingredients. These flavors are familiar to many people, even if they have not before seen it in these combinations, or in an ice cream,” Bavishi tells Little India.
Case in point, her favorite flavor among her ice cream creations is Orange fennel. “Orange and fennel is a classic combination in other types of savory cuisine. I thought that it could pair really nicely in ice cream as well. Customers are always telling me about how familiar the ice cream tastes even though they have tasted nothing like it before.”
Her ice creams are also eggless. While one of her reasons was to attract a large chunk of Indian population that consumes dairy but not eggs, the other reason stemmed from the standpoint of the ice cream’s flavor — egg has a strong flavor that might block the punch brought in by the spices. “I wanted to make sure that the flavor of the spices was not blocked or muddled by anything else,” she says.
Bavishi, 33, grew up visiting India every year, and learning about her roots through the language, stories, and, of course, the food. A second generation Gujarati immigrant, she still tries to make an annual visit to the country.
Bavishi had made the connection quite early on that desserts make people happy. As a 10-year-old girl, she tried to recreate the cheesecake that she watched on Ms Fields Cookies show and served it to her parents and sister. “I knew that at some point in future, I wanted to own a dessert-based business,” she says.
As a child growing up in North Carolina, Bavishi would watch cookery shows, read baking magazines and even owned a dessert-based food blog.“I would always be experimenting with new flavors and recipes, and would always have my friends come over to taste test everything,” she recalls.
Even though she knew her calling, she went on to earn a degree at the London School of Economics. She never found the right time or the right concept to start her dessert-based business as she pursued a career in Urban Planning.
It changed the day when she first made ice creams. “I used the spices that were already in my cabinet to flavor the ice creams, and my friends told me that they had never had anything like that before!,” she says. Bavishi was still not confident.
It was in her last year at NYU Stern School of Business, around April 2015, that her parents encouraged her to take the leap to start her dessert business with her ice cream concept. The value of building something on your own through identifying your passions is a quality she attributes to her parents and their own entrepreneurial background.
Malai has 21 flavors, four of which are seasonal. “Our most popular flavor is Rose with Cinnamon Roasted Almonds,” she says.
The flavor almost did not debut. “Rose is such a familiar flavor to me, and to Indian audiences, especially in desserts. While rose has really taken off in western cuisines in the past year, when I was starting, I wasn’t sure if it would be accepted, or if would be too inaccessible. I decided to try it anyway, and it is our most popular flavor,” she says.
Launching Malai was a life-changing experience for Bavishi. In launching her own business, she applied the principles that she studied in business school — asking good questions, consulting the experts, and assembling a focus group.
“It has brought out qualities I did not even know I possessed,” she admits. “Malai represents both the steepest learning curve (or more accurately, curve after curve after curve) I have ever climbed as well as my greatest source of pride,” she says. “I am also confident that I am prepared to take what comes head on.”
Malai currently sells directly to consumers through pop-ups and markets. Bavishi would in future like to open her own brick and mortar shop. But her long-term goal is to become a globally recognized brand, and make Malai more readily available to more audiences. “Malai offers a unique experience,” she says. “So I want people to know, worldwide, that when they have a special event, they have to get Malai.”