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Surbhi Sahni – Meet the Mithaiwalli of New YorkHow do you create sweet things and also sweeten life for others?
Ask Surbhi Sahni – the mithaiwalli of New York. A Michelin-starred chef, she recently became the pro-bono Director of the Tiffin Project operated by the nonprofit organization SAPNA NYC through which low-income South Asian immigrant women train for marketable jobs in the culinary industry.
We all remember the sweetness of Diwali, of wonderful traditional mithai concocted by family members. Now meet one New Yorker who’s been sharing her talents and the auspiciousness of Diwali to make this a true season of giving.Surbhi Sahni has trained these women well – and is now also offering them their first job in her pop-up store created for Diwali in 2 Beans, a chocolate shop on Park Avenue. This Diwali these women will have the pride and excitement of making special Diwali sweets for Surbhi Sahni’s company Bittersweet NYC – mithai and truffles with a delicious desi flavor – and taking home a paycheck. Says Sahni: “I generally hire staff to help me through the Diwali season, this year I am hiring the women that I train at the Sapna Project to work with me. This provides them additional training as well as income for their families.” Sahni knows and sympathizes with the immigrant women’s struggles, having come as a student with limited funds many years ago from India. She completed her Bachelor’s Degree in Hotel Management from the School of Hotel Administration in India and her masters in Food Studies and Food Management from New York University. In New York, she worked her way up the ladder in the culinary industry, finally working in catering companies like Table Tales and Between the Bread and high-end restaurants like Picholine and David Burke and Donnatella. Sahni, who is married to the celebrity chef Hemant Mathur, has over the years created the desserts in notable Indian restaurants like Tamarind, Amma, Devi, Tulsi and Haldi. Her fusion desserts include a sumptuous Mango Cheesecake.
Sahni has been hugely successful in the culinary world and it was very satisfying for her when her world intersected with that of Sapna NYC. As their literature puts it, “A lot of organizations offer services like hot soup at a soup kitchen. You’re cold, you’re hungry, you get a bowl of soup—and you feel better! But what happens next time you are hungry?” The organization trains immigrant women to gain skills and independence through economic empowerment programs.
Immigrant DreamsGetting low-income women a taste of financial independence has been Sahni’s aspiration and with the Tiffin Project it is fast becoming a reality as she trains these women hands-on and even helps them by hiring them in her own business. They are learning about the catering business from the ground up and these trainees are learning everything from appetizers to sweets, and how to run a catering company.
There is also an enriching community aspect to this for Sahni since The Tiffin Project is affiliated with India Home which serves South Asian seniors in elder-care recreation programs in New York. Through the Tiffin Project, Sapna NYC prepares healthy, low fat meals, cooked by women trainees, to seniors in IH centers. These meals are cooked in the industrial kitchen of its partner Hot Bread Kitchen in Harlem, under the supervision of Sahni
This year Sapna NYC honored Sahni at its Festival of Dreams event at Scandinavia House for her struggle against gender bias in the food industry and for her efforts to change the imbalance as the chef director of the Tiffin Project.
So this Diwali, check out Kesar Malai laddoos, Chili Chocolate truffles, Dal Halwa burfi and other treats from Surbhi Sahni and her assistant mithaiwallis! (The pop up store is on Oct 27-29 at 2 Beans.)
More details at http://bittersweetnyc.com/
More information about the Tiffin Project at www.sapnanyc.org
Four Questions for Surbhi Sahni
What are your own memories of Diwali in India and what were the sweets you recall?
I loved Diwali for the new clothes that I would get. My fondest moments were lighting the candles all over the house and walking in our colony to see how our neighbors had decorated their homes. I know it shocks many but I never had a sweet tooth. However I loved besan ladoos, kaju katli, carrot halwa and hot jalebis. They are still my favorite sweets.
How are your own sweets different and what are the reasons for the changes?
Well since I am not so fond of sweets, they are not as sweet! My sweets are made to order and are very fresh. I also use chocolate in some of my sweets, and using my western techniques with our traditional flavors I bring a new twist to my sweets. My sweets are bite-size and each sweet piece is hand-decorated and that makes them unusual
How did the Tiffin Project come about and how have you been interacting with these women in the production of Diwali sweets.
I had donated a cooking class for Sapna’s Gala last year, and its director and co-founder Alison Karasz told me about the incubator program, the Tiffin Project. When I learned she was looking for a supervisor for the program, I jumped at the opportunity as I had wanted to do such meaningful work for years.
Growing up, did you ever feel the need to help women like the ones you’re helping through the Tiffin Project?
I don’t know if I knew what I would be doing, but helping others always gave me happiness. I remember when I was quite young I used to teach our cleaning lady’s daughter to read the English alphabet. My father who is an artist also teaches young kids from low-income families to paint for free, and my brother actively volunteers at different non-profits. So one can say that it is indeed something we all do in the family.