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A sweet, raw deal

Aishwarya Nair Mathew of The Leela group offers her take on healthy, flavoursome and raw vegan food

Aishwarya Nair Mathew with her range of raw vegan desserts at The Leela Mumbai. Photo: Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint
Aishwarya Nair Mathew with her range of raw vegan desserts at The Leela Mumbai. Photo: Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint

Adessert menu featuring a triple chocolate ganache cake, a ginger lime cheesecake and a mandarin dark chocolate parfait would generally be regarded as decadent. But these are vegan, sugar-free, gluten-free and raw confections which are a part of Aishwarya Nair Mathew’s AMAI brand. A third-generation hotelier at The Leela Palaces, Hotels and Resorts, she is a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, a wine specialist, and someone who has a deep interest in sustainable foods. While she has been closely involved with different aspects of Leela’s corporate food and beverage programmes, this particular venture is close to her heart.

She launched AMAI in 2013 with a range of healthy snacks and protein bars to encourage the idea of mindful eating in a fast-paced world. She spoke to Lounge about her recent addition to the AMAI line, a range of raw vegan desserts that uses food science and interesting substitutes to create healthy versions of indulgent desserts. Edited excerpts from the interview:

What made you start a food brand that focused solely on healthy eating?

My first venture was Dolce by The Leela, a pastry shop, but I extinguished the brand as I became increasingly conscious of the damage sugar does to you. I launched my snack menu in 2013, while the raw vegan desserts were launched about three months ago. Based on personal allergies and preferences, I had already aligned my lifestyle to a plant-based diet which was vegan and gluten-free and it was easy for me to create something based on my own consumption. The raw desserts enticed me because no one else was really doing it, and I was also interested to see how the market would react to it. I look at endless Instagram feeds of health-conscious millennials with their avocado toasts and it makes me believe that people are more open to experimenting with food today.

What exactly does raw vegan food entail?

We stress on the raw aspect because when you cook food, the nutrient levels get dissipated. With raw food, the enzymes are at their full capacity and your body can digest the food much better. It is just more beneficial to eat something raw rather than when it has been exposed to high cooking temperatures. The raw technique allows cooking up to a maximum temperature of 47 degrees Celsius. I ventured into raw vegan desserts thinking that this would add a new element to what I did because of the nutritional value, but then I realized that the dessert also ended up tasting quite good. We never think of raw when we think of desserts and that is something I wanted to change.

How do these desserts look and taste as good as their calorific counterparts without using any conventional ingredients?

The desserts are raw and also have no sugar or flour or dairy. And it took me a long time to experiment with the recipes and to make them accessible to the average person. This meant that my version of a cake or parfait needed to have the same consistency as the original and I had to play around with different food densities to replicate those forms. So, for example, the triple chocolate ganache cake has a base with dates and nuts and is topped with organic chocolate whipped with coconut oil. The matcha green tea cake is just like a mousse and the texture comes from rapid whipping. Our vegan squares taste like mature cheese but replace all dairy with a mix of Brazil nuts, lemon and red bell peppers. It’s great fun, as I get to be a mad scientist and play around with textures and consistencies of food.

How does a star hotel like Leela end up delivering its products via a third-party app-based service?

It is unusual for a star hotel to be putting their food on a third-party app-based delivery service but the idea was to reach out to more people and introduce something different to the Indian market. There are not too many raw vegan desserts in India and none on a delivery app. I wanted to push the envelope a little bit, so I tied up with Scootsy. It works really well for my line as I have portion-sized each dessert to individual servings and you don’t end up overeating. The desserts have a short shelf life, which means that once orders come in, they are freshly made and immediately sent out for delivery.

Do you have plans to expand AMAI?

I want to see how this line works in Mumbai as it has been the most experimental market. I want to build the brand here and let it create some momentum before we can take it forward. I did at one point also speak to retailers like Nature’s Basket as I do want the brand to be more accessible to people, so let’s see how that pans out. Eventually, it would also be great to take a concept like AMAI and turn it into a café.

AMAI’s raw desserts start from Rs550

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