Stories behind how concepts - be it restaurants, a dish or a food product - came up are often preceded by an evocative retelling of an aha moment that started it all. These stories, however, are hardly uncommon. That could, in part, explain why speaking to Pooja Bavishi feels like a breath of fresh air. For she epitomises the power of intention, at a time when we could all use it more.
Founder and CEO of Malai, a Brooklyn-based artisanal ice cream company, Bavishi says that her heart was set on desserts right from the start and she began experimenting with food at the age of 10. But the idea of making a career out of it, came when she was in college. "I had the entrepreneurial spirit already and I was selling cookies and cakes under the banner, Sweets by Pooja," she recalls, adding that she often thumbs through dogeared notebooks full of ideas. "I have had a pretty non-linear journey, though," she says, explaining how she completed an M.S from London School of Economics, an MBA from NYU and spent time working in urban planning before she could start her own venture.
Elaborating on how she has nurtured multiple interests that combined her love for food and affinity towards business studies, she shares, "I've always been really curious about where I come from. There was this idea that I may lose my culture because I am not growing up in India. Which led me to ask my parents a lot of questions. And I loved being in the kitchen, whether it was in the US or when I went to India. I enjoyed learning new things from my grandmother and my aunt. I feel like the kitchen is the most social place in a home. And it's where all the action happens. So, I was very drawn to it, even though my career took me in a different direction." But if anyone ever asked Bavishi about her eventual plans, "opening a dessert business" was the prompt answer. In fact, she forayed into her MBA with the knowledge that she was going to be a "career switcher." And that's intention at its very best, right?
The young entrepreneur's unflinching resolve found manifestation in 2015 when she launched Malai as a retail-forward brand, which focussed predominantly on food fairs. But the concept for Malai - as an ice cream venture that highlights Indian spices and flavours - came through at a dinner party Bavishi was hosting in 2014. "I made ice cream for my friends with Indian spices and this is weird because, in those notebooks full of ideas, ice cream never found a mention. But when my friends tried it, they were like, 'Oh my god, Pooja, this is something we've never had before. And a lightbulb went off," she quips
Rose with cinnamon roasted almonds
Even so, Malai was launched initially with designs to enter the e-commerce market, which changed only after getting a brick and mortar space in 2019. In the first few years, Bavishi and her small team focussed primarily on food fairs, pop-ups, catering and establishing a grocery-store retail presence, after observing sustainable food brands that managed to thrive through this business model without having to invest in a space. "But I changed my mind because when I would exhibit at these fairs alongside brands that had major accounts, I would observe people seeking me out and walk up to our booth to say, 'Pooja, I met you at this fair' or 'My friend tried your stuff at that pop-up.' And all of a sudden it dawned on me that there's a power in knowing who your customers are," she points out.
She isn't wrong, because ice cream, especially, has the marked ability to evoke nostalgia and is deeply entwined with the cultural, sociological and emotional triggers that are intrinsic to certain foods. It's something Bavishi recognises and imbues in her flavours that are all inspired by her childhood memories and combine the creamy goodness of the cold dessert with Indian spices, like saffron and cardamom. Think oddball flavours, like Golden Turmeric, Orange Fennel, Pumpkin Garam Masala Crumble, Masala Chai and Rose with Cinnamon Roasted Almonds. To some extent, it is also reflective of her Gujarati roots, which she points out could explain her natural inclination towards sweets. And she echoes this when she says, "Malai is basically me in a product because it has the flavours of India, but it's also ice cream, which is as American as it gets."
This duality is embodied in Bavishi's creations that are underpinned by her personal experiences in a very big way. "Every single flavour at Malai is sparked by a memory of India. We have a carrot halwa flavour and that's inspired by my dad who loves the Indian sweet. But he will only eat carrot halwa with a scoop of ice cream. Obviously, I needed to create this flavour. We also have a sweet corn saffron, and that references my memories of eating the makai do sheero halwa that my mami (aunt) used to make. So, India's a part of everything we do here," she shares. Which brings us back to her initial interest in food, sparked by an almost intangible fear of losing her identity. What sets Malai apart is its ability to preserve exactly that, smack in the middle of a popular borough in New York City.
Suman Quazi is a Writer, Host and the Food Editor with India Food Network and Start2Bake. She believes that while food is cultural, societal and intellectual, it is also deeply personal and is keen in contributing towards a dialogue around food in India that's meaningful. Her work has appeared in leading Indian publications like Midday, Living Foodz, Zee Zest, Deccan Chronicle, 101India and DailyO.