This is part of a summer series spotlighting NYC’s ice cream parlors and other cold treats specialists.
Pooja Bavishi opened the permanent storefront for her ice cream business, Malai, on March 2. The location may be new, but Bavishi’s love of crafting dessert for others isn’t.
When she was 10, she attempted a white chocolate cheesecake recipe from Debbie Fields (aka Mrs. Fields) and did “everything wrong.” What stuck with her, though, was how the imperfect cake delighted her family.
“I made this connection that desserts made people happy,” Bavishi says. Years later, she was making ice cream to go with a dessert for a dinner party when she realized the potential of ice cream’s “very blank palette.”
“There’s a side of my kitchen that my mom always stocked, and I called it ‘the Indian side,’” she says.
“I just grabbed two spices from that side and flavored the ice cream. My friends — who had been the beneficiary of my dessert creations for years and years — they said that they had never tasted anything like that before. It was kind of this ‘a ha’ moment.”
Making ice cream with flavors from her Indian culture was a natural fit for Bavishi, who grew up in North Carolina but says the aromas and flavors of Indian spices never felt separate or “other” to her.
“Ginger and saffron and cardamom and rose, those were flavors that were so ubiquitous to my childhood,” she says. While the Indian flavors were seen as “exotic,” she says she knew everyone would love them and thinks they are actually quite approachable.
One of the first flavors Bavishi created was orange fennel (still one of her favorites today). Fennel is a common palate cleanser at Indian restaurants, but this pairing is also classically European. During Malai’s early days selling at the Hester Street Fair, a customer told Bavishi she was grateful for the memories of her Italian grandmother’s cookies that the orange fennel scoop stirred up.
“It’s only food that can do that,” Bavishi says. “You think these are exotic flavors you might not know, but actually, they’re going to taste familiar and you’re going to have your own connection to it. I’m taking something from my own memories and creating something nostalgic for you in a completely different sense.”
After four years of working with some of the most well regarded markets in the city, from the Hester Street Fair to Smorgasburg to the Gotham Market at the Ashland, Bavishi decided it was time for a storefront. She initially hadn’t wanted a permanent location, but interacting with her customers made her realize how special having a forever home would be.
So far, Bavishi has loved the instant community around Malai, located at 268 Smith St. in Cobble Hill, both from customers and neighboring businesses. She also cherishes the freedom to experiment that a permanent space affords her and her team. It’s thanks to this that the shop recently debuted pies, starting with a roasted strawberry ice cream with a fennel pistachio crumble.
“There’s something really powerful in knowing the people who buy your product. It’s really a special connection. You get instantaneous feedback, you’re able to talk about the product, you’re able to launch new things, you’re able to tell them what’s next. … As we move toward buying online for everything, that connection does not go away,” she says. “I think that ice cream in and of itself is a pretty nostalgic product. You still want, on a warm summer evening, to go out and get a cone. I wanted that experience to be there.”
Malai serves 22 flavors at any given time, drawing from the 26 owner Pooja Bavishi has developed since starting the business along with new monthly flavors and seasonal additions. A vegan option, pineapple pink peppercorn, was just released.
Rose with cinnamon-roasted almonds is No. 1 with customers, and one of her originals, masala chai, is a close second.
Toppings include peanut chikki, a type of brittle from India and a cocoa nib and cardamom shortbread that gets sprinkled on top of scoops. Malai also just launched their own cone made with jaggery, an unprocessed sugar that’s a common sweetener in India.
Malai is located at 268 Smith St. in Cobble Hill. For more info, visit malai.co.