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Pooja Bavishi: Using Ice Cream to Create Memories of the Future

Feb/07/2021 / by team-seema

As a recipe developer, Pooja Bavishi is, first and foremost, an artist. Her canvas is graced with subtle, yet vibrant—and edible— pastels: lemon cardamom, carrot halwa, and masala chai ice cream, to name a few. The inspiration behind each creation isn’t a rolling meadow or sprawling landscape, but memories. Memories, at once common and inaccessible, form the backbone of her company, Malai Ice Cream in Brooklyn, New York. Malai serves up more than creamy treats infused with South Asian spices and novel ingredients. Malai is a time machine, a vehicle for sending its patrons to an era and space where they were young, carefree, and embraced by loved ones.

At the same time, Malai is a business. Pooja, the winner of the TV series “Chopped Sweets” in March 2020, made all the right moves: UNC Chapel Hill, followed by an internship alongside her business-savvy parents, then business school at NYU Stern, before starting her business and becoming a Tory Burch Foundation Fellow to empower women enterpreneurs. But her education merely watered the seeds of her creative vision, helping it grow from a personal passion to a game-changing standard in the Brooklyn culinary scene.

“Your ice cream brings me back”

A few years ago, Pooja Bavishi was serving one of her personal favorites: orange fennel ice cream. Pooja was raised in Charlotte, North Carolina, but her parents hail from Gujarat in western India, where fennel is a staple, often used as a palate cleanser after a meal. Pooja chose to balance the verdant flavor of the fennel with the citrusy twang of orange. The combination is an homage to her parents, early childhood, and the warm summer nights common to both Gujarat and Charlotte.

Pooja scooped a helping to a woman in her late-30’s, who happily accepted the aromatic treat, and started to stroll away. Mid-stride, the woman stopped and turned around. Pooja braced herself. Fennel laced with orange isn’t everyone’s cup of chai. The woman walked back to Pooja and gesturing to the dessert in her hand, said, “This—the combination of the fennel and the orange—brings me back to when I was a little girl. My Italian grandmother, used to make the best anise cookies. Your ice cream brings me back to my grandma.”

Catching “Floating Memories”

The multi-cultural time warp of Malai’s desserts—capable of transporting South Asians and Italians alike—is somewhat by design. Pooja doesn’t rely on recipes and Pinterest for inspiration. As she puts it, she’s always cognizant of “floater memories passing by.” She catches these like fireflies in a summer night, absorbs their aromas and sounds, then uses what they tell her to develop new recipes.

One such creation is her masala chai ice cream. Growing up, Pooja’s parents would have chai every morning for breakfast. Her mom always used a stainless steel pot that clanked shut when the tea was ready. This was Pooja’s breakfast bell. She would scamper to the table, putting her nose deep in the pot, pulling in the sweet ginger and cinnamon aromas.

Malai’s masala chai ice cream is Pooja’s mom’s tea—just with the heat inverted to make it more “Malai,” which stems from “cream of the crop.” She crafts each of Malai’s ice creams to encourage the very best memories to rise to the surface, like cream at the crest of a glass of iced chai.

“Always Look to Be Better”

Pooja is on a constant quest to improve herself and, by natural extension, her product. She advises young entrepreneurs to follow the advice her parents gave her: “Set your goals high. If you set high goals, and don’t reach them, then try again, but you should never set your goals low.” To keep challenging herself, Pooja makes a point of absorbing as much of the Brooklyn creative scene as possible, making sure she evolves alongside the street art and music that flavors the city. Malai’s future is packed with promise, driven by Pooja’s promise to her patrons: to help them found their own traditions while enjoying Malai’s desserts. “It’s not just about creating ice cream,” she observes. “It’s about nostalgia, creating memories and sharing this beauty with others.”

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