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NJ food brands reclaim Desi culinary heritage

These entrepreneurs are building cultural pride through food.

From Ayurvedic chocolates to chai cafes, New Jersey is home to a growing number of South Asian businesses championing food products steeped in Desi culture. 

“South Asians are having a moment right now,” says Anand Patel, co-founder of Hidden Grounds, a chai and coffee house in New Brunswick that serves authentic masala chai with traditional sweeteners such as jaggery. “Ten years ago, you couldn’t find South Asian creators or brands and be inspired, but now so many people are coming forward and creating things in a beautiful way.”

While South Asian food entrepreneurship is trending nationwide, the Garden State is home to several innovative brands, including Pure Indian Foods, AyurSome Foods, and Transcendence Coffee. Here are a few more and the stories behind why these entrepreneurs decided to create them.

Ayurveda in a bar

Images provided by Elements - Alak Vasa (pictured left)

In 1998, Alak Vasa immigrated to America from Ahmedabad, India, and became an algorithmic trader at Goldman Sachs. The abundance of fast food, limited fresh ingredients at grocery stores, and hidden sugar content in processed meals made it difficult for Vasa to maintain a healthy diet in the United States, and she said she began facing health challenges.

“It’s surprising how many products contain sugar—from ketchup to bread,” Vasa said. “After living in America, I had to learn to listen to my body which led me to go back to my roots and Ayurveda.”

Vasa began working at a patisserie in New York City and experimenting with making chocolates infused with Ayurvedic herbs. Today, Elements offers chocolate bars intentionally crafted with ethically sourced cocoa beans, shelf-stable raw honey instead of sugar, and herbs and spices such as ashwagandha. These chocolates differ because of their unique flavor pairings and the use of essential oils over extracts, adding an aromatherapy element to each bar. 

“We led with Ayurveda before it became mainstream in America, showing how this medicinal knowledge can even be wrapped in a bar of chocolate,” Vasa said. 

When the chocolates are being produced, Vedic chants play in the background to infuse the process with an extra layer of wellness. Additionally, Elements donates 25% of their profits to Care for Children, a nonprofit supporting the education of underprivileged children in India, paying homage to Vasa’s own student journey from India to the U.S.

“Food has prana (energy) and we are mindful of that, from how we source and create the chocolates to what we give back.” Vasa says. 

Sipping Sober

Images provided by Mashroobat

As a couple, Mohammad Mohsin Raza and Lubna Khan saw a gap in the date-night drinking scene. As Muslims, they found it difficult to find non-alcoholic options. They began experimenting by creating their own drinks at home and launched Mashroobat, non-alcoholic refreshers inspired by their roots in Pakistan and India.

“Growing up, I did not feel proud to be Pakistani,” Raza says. This changed in college when he met Khan and was inspired by her strong connection to her Indian heritage. Even though Raza and Khan have backgrounds in public health and finance, they created Mashroobat to combat how mainstream media portrays ethnic food, often framing it to appeal to white audiences.

“We wanted to create something that represented who we are, mixing both of our South Asian cultures but putting our own twist on it,” Raza says. Flavors like Summertime in Karachi (a rose-inspired drink) and Multan’s Green Garden (matcha lemonade) pay homage to memorable locations.

“By creating drinks inspired by our roots, we are acknowledging the stories of where we come from,” Khan adds.

Mashroobat isn’t alone in catering to the rise in sober culture, which is gaining ground based on the preferences of Gen Z. Mou Dasgupta left her corporate career to open Brook37, a tea atelier, that aspires to elevate tea as a non-alcoholic experience.

Images provided by Brook37, Mou Dasgupta (pictured left)

“There is a big shift happening all across the world, where people are transitioning from alcoholic drinks to non-alcoholic ones,” Dasgupta shares.

Hailing from West Bengal, Dasgupta's upbringing was filled with cups of tea from gardens in nearby Darjeeling. When traveling to America, she brought tins of this tea with her because of the lack of high quality options available in the States. Inspired by her roots, Dasgupta created Brook37 to offer rare and high quality teas directly sourced from the gardens of her past. 

Through meticulous sourcing and luxurious packaging, Dasgupta creates as experience akin to “opening a bottle of fine wine when hosting.” Among their most popular teas is Moonlight Stroll, an award-winning oolong picked exclusively under the glow of a full moon, never to see the light until the leaves make their way to your cup.

Creating Nostalgia

Mint Masala Chai (pictured right). Photography by Linda Pedroso

In 2013, Anand Patel and Spoorthi Kumar opened Hidden Grounds on 106 Easton Avenue in New Brunswick. The cafe opened with a question in mind: Could a specialty coffee drinker be converted to like masala chai?

Patel and Kumar both worked at Johnson & Johnson before they decided to pursue the path of sharing their heritage with the broader world.

“Coffee does not taste that great, yet people drink some form of it all over the world,” Patel says, adding that this thought led him to add his mother’s masala chai recipe to the menu and see how it would do. “When you grow up with something, you don’t see it as exotic. Chai was part of my childhood.”

Each cup of masala chai is freshly made, and its aromas fill the entire cafe with a warmth of anticipation. The offering was an immediate hit, with many customers intrigued by this new offering and the sensory spectacle of chai making.

“We wanted to share what it means to grow up Desi, our deep heritage and culture that translates into a gazillion different flavors, colors, and smells,” Patel says, “and to create nostalgia for immigrants as well as those born in a land entirely different from their parents’ roots.”

Ifrah Akhtar is a reporting fellow for Central Desi.

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