I'm sipping chai with Davina Ray, owner and operator of Mithai Indian Cafe, a dessert bar and cafe in Cary's Chatham Square Shopping Center. While we chat, she has to excuse herself twice. It's Monday morning, just after the shop's eleven o'clock opening, and she's already tended to two customers, a middle-aged Indian woman who buys two boxes of pedha, or milk fudge, to bring to a friend's house, and a non-Indian gentleman who's curious about Indian desserts and peruses the pastry case until he settles on a box of pistachio fudge.
Those in the know recognize Mithai for its locally made, artisan Indian confections. It's an important distinction to make because much of the packaged Indian food, snacks, and sweets in Triangle grocery stores are imported from India, where food safety laws and standards are different.
According to Ray, "There's a lot of adulteration going on in the [Indian] packaged and prepared foods sector." The problem, she says, is that the Indian community tends to favor Indian brand names without knowing that many of the well-known ones use non-food-grade ingredients, including slate and chalk as fillers, brick powder as coloring, or toxic aluminum sheets instead of silver foil. Even products imported from New Jersey, New York, and Canada contain fillers, preservatives, emulsifiers, and MSG.
With Mithai, a business Ray took over in August 2016, her mission is to uphold the original owner's vision: to craft and sell Indian confections made the old-school way, with integrity and quality ingredients. In fact, the former owner refused to sell the business to anyone who wasn't willing to continue his legacy. He found an eager buyer in Ray, a fellow Bengali who is motivated by both a desire to preserve her heritage and a passion for food quality and ingredient purity, which speaks to her roots in health psychology. The challenge she faces is educating the community about the adulteration in Indian packaged foods and making them more quality-conscious, though quality comes at a higher price. (A "fixed price" sign by the cash register means there is a strict no-haggling policy.)
"You see all these boxes here? That's fifteen hundred dollars [worth of] nuts," Ray says. "Pistachio here means pistachio. It doesn't mean pistachio essence or artificially flavored or a hundred grams of pistachio and green color. That's how the other brands are selling it; it's cheaper because it's half adulterated."
Another distinguishing factor of Mithai's confections is that they are all egg-free, and many are vegan, vegetarian, or gluten-free. Cashew marzipan is a common Indian dessert to which dairy-based fats like ghee, milk, or butter are usually added, but Ray eschews them because cashews already have a high enough fat content.
"It's two ingredients. A lot of places add saffron to mask the taste of fillers. Simplicity is best, that's what we think," she says.
With a claim to being the state's only truly local Indian confectioner, Ray has created a niche market. But she believes that there is a community to support it, especially among the local Indian population, which is exploding thanks to jobs at Research Triangle Park.
"Sweets in Indian culture, it's like bringing someone a bottle of wine or chocolates," says Ray. As a result, the highest volume of sweets is bought by the Indian community, but Ray wants to reach the broader Triangle and hopes that those who are not familiar with Indian sweets will stop in to try them.
Sample at will: it's why Ray often refers to the cafe as a tasting room. Try the pedha, the oft-requested milk fudge; milk from local Homeland Creamery is boiled with sugar over a low flame for six to seven hours until the mixture caramelizes and reaches a fudge-like consistency. The pedha is then poured into pans, cooled, and cut into squares or pressed into molds. Pista burfi, a slightly denser milk fudge, is another popular pick, which is made by cooking ground pistachios with milk, butter, and cream of wheat, which acts as a binding agent.
Laddu are spherical chickpea-flour confections that are common throughout India. You'll find several varieties here, including boondi laddu, where batter is poured through a perforated ladle into soy oil and quickly fried to create small pearls, which are rolled together with nutmeg, cardamom, and sugar syrup. There's also besan laddu, where the batter is mixed with butter, cardamom, and nutmeg and then roasted, yielding a pronounced toasted-cardamom flavor and a crumbly consistency that dissolves on the tongue like powdered sugar.
You'll also find sandesh, a Bengali dessert whose texture lands somewhere between shortbread and fudge. Boiled milk is cooked with lemon juice and sugar and flavored with mango, strawberry, or chocolate and coffee, to name a few options, and pressed into wooden and clay molds imprinted with floral designs or shaped like butterflies.
"It's a dying food art that's incredibly labor intensive and one that not many people are interested in continuing," Ray says. "Anytime a Bengali person gets married, we get the call, even out of state."
If your tastes skew savory or you need more sustenance, Mithai's snack menu includes a destination-worthy samosa and will soon add kati rolls, an Indian street food snack where chapati, or griddled whole-wheat flatbread, is wrapped around fillings like chickpeas, potatoes, and paneer, a fresh cheese. The flatbread bakery, which will include a dough maker, a tortilla press, and a griddle, will command considerable real estate in the café. Not only does this underscore Ray's mission to sell fresh, quality Indian food, it sends a clear message that you should know where your food comes from, who's making it, and exactly what's going into it.