Throughout Asian-American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, Chowhound is celebrating some of our favorite chefs, cookbook authors, and entrepreneurs. Here, Pooja Bavishi, the woman behind Malai, an Indian-inspired ice cream company, dishes on her journey, what it’s like to run a business as a female entrepreneur, and the inherent nostalgia of ice cream.
Pooja Bavishi has long understood that desserts make people happy. Throughout her childhood, she could often be found baking cakes for friends and family, a makeshift therapy that shepherded her through high school, college, grad school, her first job. But she had always considered baking a back-burner hobby—something she could do that would make her happy, but it wasn’t necessarily the type of hustle she truly considered turning into a job.
It wasn’t until she brought a few pints of ice cream, studded with the Indian spices she grew up on, to a Friendsgiving that she realized she had something special. This type of ice cream was hardly pervasive; it was a hybrid concoction, rooted in the blending of her American-Indian upbringing, and it was flavors her friends had never experienced before.
“This is actually the perfect representation of me,” Pooja says of her Indian-inspired ice cream. “This is how I grew up. This is all of me in one bite. There is nothing more Americana than ice cream.”
Related Reading: How the Women Behind Coolhaus Built an Ice Cream Empire
Pooja was a business school student at the time, and she spent the last two semesters ideating her concept, which eventually morphed into Malai Ice Cream. Two weeks after graduating, she sold her first scoop of ice cream.
Malai, which translates to “milk fat” in Gujarati (the language spoken in her family’s home of western India), boasts an ice cream with an eggless base—making it a little lighter and thicker. The choice for an eggless ice cream stems not only from the fact that the many spices used in the ice cream taste stronger without the addition of eggs, but also because people from Gujarat, a state of India where her family is from, don’t eat eggs.
“Because I was pulling from my culture, I didn’t want to make this inaccessible,” she says.
Flavors run the gamut from carrot halwa to jaggery with tamarind caramel and rose with cinnamon-roasted almonds, tucked into brightly colored pints or freshly scooped into cones. Some options, like Turkish coffee and salted browned butter pecan, underscore the archetype of those classic American flavors, while others present themselves as a hybrid of the two: orange fennel, spiced peanut crunch, lemon cardamom.
Malai Ice Cream and Cakes, $59-$99 on Goldbelly
Over the years, Malai has seen a prodigious evolution. What began as a humble pop-up has transformed into a company that stocks pints in gourmet grocery stores in three states and a brick-and-mortar tasting shop in Brooklyn, New York. But this trajectory hasn’t always been easy.
“Being an entrepreneur is taking on challenges one by one,” Pooja explains. “It’s a steep learning curve.”
Even with her time in business school, there were plenty of challenges Pooja had to face, from operating a commercial kitchen to pitching her brand to investors and buyers. She also saw early on how rare it was to not only be a female entrepreneur, but to be an entrepreneur who’s a woman of color.
“When we started at Smorgasburg, we were the only ones that had two women there,” Pooja remembers. “People made comments on that all the time. The fact that you’re pointing it out shows that there’s a difference.” Yet this heightened awareness was hardly dismaying. If anything, it pushed Pooja harder as she sought to reach the top of her mountain.
So far, it’s been quite the success. Pooja and her team just celebrated Malai’s one-year anniversary on Smith Street in Brooklyn’s Cobble Hill neighborhood. Customers still come in, wide-eyed, and walk away with soaring, colorful scoops—many of which are rooted in ingredients they’ve never tried before.
“It’s opening someone to a new flavor and still [able to] connect to it,” Pooja says. “That goes back to that original idea that food is the only thing that can do that.”
Ice cream has long represented that happy American paradigm, a summertime treat that harks back to sweaty summers, sticky fingers, an unbroken innocent joy. With just one taste of Pooja’s ice cream, you can begin to experience her story. Pooja encourages this by suggesting customers try as many of her flavors as they want, hoping they’ll fall in love with a spice or taste they’ve never experienced before.
“If that person comes back and gets the rose [with cinnamon-roasted almonds] because they loved the rose,” Pooja says, “then my job is done.”
Header image by Morgan Ione Photography.