For someone who claims not to have a sweet tooth, Chef Surbhi
Sahni certainly knows her way around a dessert menu. The New
Delhi-born chef relocated to New York after a string of jobs at
high-end Indian hotels. It was in the Big Apple that she found
herself working - and excelling - in pastry. After stints at
restaurants like Tamarind, Amma,
and Picholine, she joined forces with husband Hemant Mathur at the sensational Devi.
Surbhi Sahni is renowned for her
inspiring and experimental desserts © Samira Bouaou
Now, Surbhi Sahni is best known for Bittersweet
NYC, a dessert catering service and online shop where her
inspired creations are sold. Her treats, from chai-spiced panna
cottas to mithai truffles, use traditional Indian ingredients like
curry leaves, coriander, ginger, and cardamom, blended with Western
pastry techniques. The result is decadent and thoroughly unique -
and well worth seeking out.
Greaves: How did you go from cooking in Delhi to
becoming a leading pastry chef in New York?
Chef Surbhi Sahni: 'I'd been working for about five years in
different hotels in Delhi before moving to New York in 1999. I felt
a need to further investigate food on an academic level, so I did
my masters at NYU in Food Studies and Food Management. Around the
same time, I walked into a job where they were looking for someone
to make cookies. In India, I was running a kitchen with 30 people
under me, so making cookies was not that difficult! I took it
because I needed it and that started my work in pastry. When the
pastry chef left, the catering place promoted me.'
A delectable pistachio,
cardamom, and caramel cake © 1000words studio
How challenging has it been to establish an
Indian-inspired dessert concept in New York?
'Funnily, I'm not very fond of sweets, so desserts were
challenging in the first place. But I did find that there was
something missing in the New York dessert scene, in terms of
flavour profile and texture - nothing tasted like the sweets I grew
up eating. Bittersweet was also about memories. I was reconnecting
with a part of me that was missing things I grew up with.
To give you an example, a lot of us grew up eating pineapple
cake in Delhi, Mumbai, and Bangalore. I missed it so much that I
created a pineapple upside-down cake - but the pineapple was cooked
in black pepper and chilli.'
Sahni's desserts blend Eastern
and Western influences © Melissa Hoom
Indian desserts tend to lean heavily on sugar. How
do your desserts retain a traditional essence while employing more
'As Indians, we're big fruit eaters. Adding a bit of spice to
fruits is so common - think raw mango sprinkled with chilli powder.
I like to use ingredients like rose, poppy seeds, green and black
cardamom, garam masala, lemon, lime, and coconut. Some desserts are
even made with curry leaves or black pepper.
I like to think of sugar as a supporting element. Even the
kheer [rice pudding] we made at home while I was growing
up was never cloyingly sweet. I've worked with Devi's sous chef for
14 years now, and we always struggle with this sweet conundrum. I'm
constantly cutting sugar and he keeps saying, 'Surbhi, it needs
Is there a signature creation that you're
particularly proud of?
'Recently, for a wedding, I created a coconut rice pudding
served with crunchy hot samosa, stuffed with coconut and
khoya [milk solids], and chocolate mousse. I've done
different versions, like a chilli chocolate samosa served with
fresh mango and strawberries, and they've all been very
Bittersweet NYC sells boxes of
mithai "truffles" © Cris Vitola
You've designed the dessert menus at Hemant Mathur's
restaurants. How does the husband-and-wife partnership
'We've collaborated on hundreds of recipes together. I've learnt
so much from him about spicing and balancing flavours, and he has
learnt a lot too. I'm a home cook and have a very different touch -
when he cooks at home (like once in three years!), you can taste
the difference. But I have a free hand in designing the menus, and
he trusts me a lot.'
Has the profile of Indian food changed in New York
since you started your career?
'When I started working, Indian cooking was looked down upon.
Now, it's a different world. People are more conscious of regional
differences, and that Indian food is about more than just heat and
spice. They understand the difference between home-style vs.
restaurant cooking, as they have Indian friends and dine with them
at home. It also helps that people are travelling to India
As chefs, we are becoming more aware of using better ingredients
and techniques. Next, I want to see a serious, James Beard-calibre
Chef Surbhi Sahni keeps family
close © 1000 words Studio
Do you have any plans for further
'I'm trying to put my products in mainstream stores across the
country. A lot of them are gluten-free, and they're artisanal
products with no preservatives. Some of these recipes have been in
existence in India for thousands of years. To bring further
recognition to Indian desserts would be amazing.'
Can you recommend any restaurants or dishes in Delhi
'I love panipuri [puri stuffed with chickpeas,
potatoes, and onions], and go eat some the minute I land in Delhi.
Gole Market makes the best Bengali sweets. I love Anupama Sweets in
Kailash Colony. In Ajmer and Jaipur, you have to get
chikkis [peanut and jaggery desserts] in the winter. Try
the ghewar [syrup-soaked sweets] in Jaipur and the
pedhas [semi-soft, milk-based sweets] at Brijwasi Sweets in
Could you share one baking tip for budding pastry
'I like my cakes to be soft but very light. This is a technique
I learnt very young - you have to sieve your flour at least three
times. I put my oven temperature at 175 Celsius, pop my cake flour
in for a minute, pull it out, and sieve it. Do that three