Cary, N.C. — In January 2016, Davina Ray and her husband Craig Wishart purchased Mithai House of Indian Desserts, renovated it, and rebranded it as Mithai Indian Café.
They are now in the process of expanding its operation.
The couple met eight years ago in Cairo, Egypt while Davina, a native of the Bengal region in northeastern India, was working as a psychologist for Doctors without Borders and also owning and operating an Indian take-out food store.
Craig, a business professor at the American University in Cairo, was looking for an off-campus apartment to fully immerse himself in Egyptian culture when a mutual friend, who knew there was availability in Davina’s building, introduced them. The Pittsburgh native, who had lived in Raleigh from 2002 until 2011, said with a smirk, “I didn't get the apartment, but I did get the girl.”
When Craig retired from teaching in 2015, the couple decided to move to Raleigh where Craig still owned a house. “As soon as we arrived in the U.S., I immediately began looking for a location to open a food business in keeping with my heritage," Davina recalled,
Eventually, she met Sudhamoy Dutta, also a Bengali, who was trying to sell his business and retire. “We are both from the same area in India," Davina explained. "I wanted to honor my culture, and he wanted someone to carry on what he had started. It was the ideal fit. He was already doing some of the things I wanted to do, just on a much smaller scale. Even the name Mithai—which means sweets in Hindi—was perfect.”
Davina immediately decided to take advantage of the high-quality ingredients available in the Piedmont. Today, she not only buys as much as possible from local farmers’ markets, but she also purchases all of Mithai’s dairy from Homeland Creamery, a family-owned farm in Julian, N.C. where the cows are grass-fed and hormone-free. Additionally, Davina sources all of the café’s coffee from Larry’s Beans and all of its chocolate from Videri Chocolate Factory.
Of course, certain items (think spices, dates, mangoes, tea and pistachios) have to be imported as they aren’t produced in North Carolina.
Another significant change is that now all of Mithai’s offerings are preservative and chemical-free and have no artificial colors, fillers, emulsifiers, high fructose corn syrup, trans-fatty acids, eggs or animal derivatives such as ghee or lard. The reimagined menu is also entirely vegetarian and features vegan, gluten-free, dairy-free and nut-free options.
The café’s sweets are sold by weight, ranging in price from $6.49 to $8.99 for 10 ounces. Davina and Craig not only encourage mixing and matching but are also very generous in handing out samples to those unfamiliar with their Indian treats.
Mithai’s confections can be divided into three main categories: Sandesh, Burfi and Laddu. Sandesh (milk sweets) are an East Indian regional specialty made when milk is boiled at high temperatures and separated into curds and whey with lemon juice. The resulting curds are then kneaded, flavored and molded into different shapes using intricate clay and wooden molds. Mithai’s sandesh flavors include mango, chocolate-coffee and sugar-free date molasses.
Burfi (a fudge-like nut-based sweet) is made by cooking milk slowly for seven hours until condensed, then mixing in butter, nuts and cream of wheat. It is then spread into pans, allowed to set and cut into squares or diamond shapes.
Burfi choices include almond, pistachio, cashew and almond-chocolate.
Laddu (grain sweets) are flavorful, round, fritter-like confections made with gluten-free gram (chickpea) flour. Mithai also makes “milk fudge” with homemade condensed milk; Rabri, a rich, thick, sweetened cream flavored with cardamom, nuts, coconut or saffron; Rasgulla, sweet spheres of paneer cooked in syrup; Gulab Jamun, a kind of fried version of rasgulla; and Chum Chum, reminiscent of stuffed, oval-shaped rasgulla, which are sometimes sliced.
The café also offers chai and herbal teas, coffee and a variety of lassis (refreshing probiotic yogurt drinks). Additionally, you can find fresh-made savory snacks at Mithai.
For $1.79, choose either a single, fist-sized samosa (stuffed with potatoes, cauliflower and peas), a vegetable cutlet (made with mashed potatoes, beets, carrots, green beans and peas) or a kachori (a thick, circular fried bread stuffed with peas). If you’d like to turn the small plates into a meal, pick up a platter with six different items for a mere $9.99.
Soon, Mithai will launch a chapati (also known as roti) bakery—the first of its kind in the Triangle—supplying high-volume production of whole wheat, unleavened vegan Indian flatbreads.
Davina is also waiting on the café’s ABC license and hopes to begin serving beer and wine shortly. In the long term, she anticipates building partnerships with local restaurants and retail shops that share her vision so that she can bring Mithai’s unique desserts to a wider audience.
Mithai Indian Café, the Carolinas’ first and only Indian sweet manufacturer, is a contemporary Indian snack bar, tea house, bakery and dessert destination specializing in traditional, authentic, handmade Bengali confections—some of which are familiarized with Western flavors. Whether sweet or savory, the café’s food is fresh, vegetarian, and predominately local.
The café is open daily from 11 a.m. until 9 p.m. Mithai also caters locally and ships nationwide. You can watch videos to see how Mithai’s artisan sweets are made on their Facebook page.
Brian Adornetto is a food writer, culinary instructor, and formally trained chef.