When Indian-American men cook, it’s considered cool and they are anointed chefs and stars and given all the respect. But when women cook, they are the housewives, the home-cooks and kitchen-bound who are doing what they’ve done for millennia. But now change is happening and some Indian-American women are taking the rolling pin and the tawa, and turning them into money-making startups!
Some have reached great heights like New York-based Surbhi Sahni who is a Michelin Star chef who has also worked alongside her husband the Michelin chef Hemant Mathur in his series of restaurants. Yes, Surbhi has won accolades for her creative dishes – but she’s a traditional halwai at heart!
Sahni, who grew up in New Delhi, recalls: “Growing up we made halwa (semolina pudding), Gajar Halwa (a rich carrot sweet), Gujia ((coconut & almond stuffed pastries) and besan ladoos for special occasions. Most sweets were bought the local halwai as my mom worked as a teacher and making sweets is long-enduring process.
My learning process of sweet-making is deeply personal and done over years of trial and error. Perfecting each sweet, one at a time, means years of working on recipes, making sure the taste, balance and presentation of each piece wows the receiver.”
But Sahni has always had the entrepreneurial itch to cook close to the heartbeat of the local market and for individuals. She started Bittersweet NYC which had pop-up stores during Diwali, bringing a very modern concept to an age-old traditional festival.
TagmoTreats by Surbhi Sahni.
Now whether it’s Thanksgiving or Christmas, Sahni creates new theme-centric sweets for every festival. This year she rebranded and launched TagmoTreats which covers east, west and fusion to cover the entire sweetscape for all the holidays. All these treats are just a phone call away and made fresh to order. The rebranding of her core company was a very challenging venture and she also provides sweets to 2 Beans, a Park Avenue chocolatier.
“All sweets are special as they are all made with either a memory I have or my need to recreate those early memories of sweets I have,” she says. “I try to bring those flavors that I connected with to life. One of the sweets is caramel barfi which I made for my love of peda, a sweet my aunt brought from Mathura for me. Caramelised milk has unique taste and texture, something that is often new for the western palate. I make mine adding some white chocolate into the mixture to add longevity and creamy texture to my sweet.”
How hard is it to be a businesswoman and manage a family? She says, “As hard as it is for any other working women to balance the two. You have to constantly re-evaluate your priorities; you make the best choices hoping that it all falls into place.”
A big believer in women’s right to paying jobs she undertook teaching immigrant women to cook and to enter the restaurant business.
Immigrants working with Surbhi Sahni.
She has won several awards for her community work in turning stay-at-home women of low income into confident, wage-earning members of society. As she says, “The company’s main goal is to provide employment to women from marginalised communities, providing training and helping them embark in careers in the food industry.”
While Surbhi Sahni is very well-known in the culinary world, a new kid on the block is Anita Ajmera of Madhuram Sweets of Queens – these are the typical Bengali sweets and she started out as a housewife, making mithais for friends. They were of such high quality that friends started asking her to make them for social get-togethers and then ordering them for festivals.
Ajmera was born in Jaipur and learned her basic cooking from her mother who is a very good cook. “We had a big joint family and she used to make food for everyone with new varieties every now and then,” she recalls. “No festival was complete without her special sandesh, laddus and halwa and many snacks. I was always her main helper in the kitchen so I used to watch her carefully and always admire her creativity!”
While she studied interior design at Parsons, the sweet-making seemed the most practical option with small children to take care of. “I used to do lots of parties on weekends at home and always tried making new desserts. In one party, I gave the popular Bengali sweet rasmalai a twist and made fruit Rasmalai float. Everyone loved it and my cousin said I should open my dessert business. I thought he was kidding, but he pushed me to think.
“So, I started with bringing dessert one day to a restaurant for a friend's anniversary party. Everyone loved it and the restaurant owner asked me to make sweets for their parties. Very soon, it spread all over by word of mouth.”
Ajmera is not a professional halwai but her natural talent has made her in demand, getting people hooked! Now she gets orders to set up big dessert tables for destination weddings, and gala dinners.
She works out of a commercial kitchen and says, “I gave a twist to the most popular Bengali mithai "rasgulla" and came up with 50 varieties of natural flavored and even stuffed rasgullas like rose, khus, coffee, pineapple, mango, orange and even some exotic ones like hot &sour, thandai, black pepper, saunf. Another of my creations that is very popular is Paan e` rose & paan truffles.”
Simran Rajani of New Jersey is yet another young woman who started out on the sweets journey – and you may recognize her lineage if you are from India – she is from the famous biscuit manufacturers – JB Mangharam – and this writer definitely has happy childhood memories of gorging on their biscuits and candies in a big showroom in Connaught Place!
Chocolate desserts by Simran Rajani.
Rajani, who was born in Bangalore, says, “I grew up to the sweet aroma of biscuits. Every night before I closed my eyes I was taught to thank the lord for my biscuits. Of course I did it diligently. When I was older I realized that my parents had replaced the word “blessings" with “biscuits" and now I realize that the biscuits were my blessings. My grandfather and father are lifelong confectioners – and I have the same blood running through me!”
She met her husband 23 years ago and came to this country to start a life with him. With an interest in baking and desserts she rented a commercial kitchen and started a small business specializing in cakes such as Black Forest, Pineapple, and Chocolate Mousse.
With a busy schedule and young kids she tried to simplify daily meals and soon realized that it was tough to find preservative-free options in the stores. So she started making preservative-free quick fixes for daily meals & called the company E-ZY-FOODS. Some of the items she makes for families’ every-day dinner is fresh paneer, Idli Mix , Dosa mix, Dahi Vada , Kulfis and Rasmalai. The Kulfis come in mini 2 0z containers and cost only a dollar each, specializing in five Indian flavors - malai, mango, sitafal, chiku & paan. She says, “These are flavors we grew up within India and I longed to re-live the taste of my childhood. It’s something I enjoy doing and I understand if you love what you do, it’s not called work!”
In a changing, time-obsessed America there is an increasing demand for fresh meals, so Rajani developed an app for small food businesses like hers to use. As she explains, E
-ZY-FOODS -Taste of your Neighborhood is an app where anyone can buy or sell food/ food products/ vegetables/ baked goodies. This app has been designed to encourage small businesses while allowing the customer to choose from a variety of foods available in the neighborhood. She says, “It’s as easy as cook it. Post it. Sell it. I have recently launched this app and it’s free to download and is now available in the App Store.”
Ezy Foods by Simran Rajani.
As she explains, “The biggest problem I have faced with this app is that the chefs/ cooks do need to get a Stripe account to receive payments online. With Stripe not being as popular as Zelle or Venmo or Paypal, it’s taking a little longer to catch on, but hopefully it will soon.”
With the ever-burgeoning Indian-American population and the love of Americans for easy food and takeout, this is a business which is only destined to increase. On the side are cooking classes and selling treats in local food festivals and street fairs which are very popular, trendy events and have flexible hours.
Yes, it is possible to become sweetly rich in America – and the Yellow Brick Road may be paved with Halwa, Kulfi and Gulab Jamun! Who knew that to achieve the American Dream all you needed to do was stir up a big pot of delicious desi dessert from the past?
Lavina Melwani is a New York-based journalist who blogs at Lassi with Lavina. Read Lavina Melwani's columns