“New York City proposes a restriction on large sodas and we hear about it. ‘That’s absurd, you can’t tell me that I can’t have a big soda.’ There’s no press release when Target has a cooler full of sodas right at the checkout aisle.”
Alicia talks with Roopa Kalyanaraman Marcello, a public health expert who runs Monsoon Sweets, a South Asian-inspired dessert company. They discuss the systemic power of large food corporations, the ironies of selling desserts while campaigning for healthier diets, and the psychological tricks involved in passing on a vegetarianism to kids.
Written and presented by Alicia Kennedy
Produced by Sareen Patel
ALICIA KENNEDY: This is Meatless, a podcast about eating from How We Get To Next. I’m Alicia Kennedy, a food and drink writer. I’ll be having conversations with chefs, writers, and more about how their personal and political beliefs determine whether or not they eat meat. The show asks the question, “How do identity, culture, economics, and history affect a diet?”
In this episode, I talk to Roopa Kalyanaraman Marcello of Monsoon Sweets. The baker, whose work focuses on South Asian flavors, has has been a lifelong vegetarian. We discuss how her day job in public health influences her approach to treats, corporate marketing and sugar consumption, and raising vegetarian kids.
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ALICIA KENNEDY: Thank you so much for being here, Roopa.
ROOPA KALYANARAMAN MARCELLO: Thank you, Alicia. I’m really glad to be here and to talk to you about food.
ALICIA KENNEDY: So, can you tell me about where you grew up and what you ate?
ROOPA KALYANARAMAN MARCELLO: So, I grew up on Long Island. I like to always start by saying I was born in Queens.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Right.
ROOPA KALYANARAMAN MARCELLO: So, I’m a New Yorker by birth. My parents moved to Long Island when my brother and I were little, for public schools. The ones in New York City weren’t good at the time in the early 80s. So, I grew up just outside of Queens on Long Island, and my family is from South India, so they are vegetarian, as are most South Indians, and so I was raised vegetarian.
And I have never eaten meat except for incidences where mischievous children have tricked me into eating it, or accidentally at a restaurant, but yeah, that’s just all I’ve known, and, you know, as my brother and I got older, my mom, who did all of the cooking, she said, “If you want to eat meat outside the house, you can.” She didn’t want to make it something that was forced upon us, like, a good psychological parent move, I think, right? Like, “You don’t have to rebel, you can go ahead and do it.” I think my brother did. He doesn’t eat meat now, but I never did, because as I got, you know, I think in my teen years, I definitely was a PETA member in high school. Not a PETA member anymore, but I just, you know, I have no interest in eating it. I didn’t want to eat animals. I thought it was pretty horrible. I never had, so why would I start?
And so I’ve just, yeah, I’ve been vegetarian my whole life. Growing up, eating out was something we rarely did because we would go to the Pizza Hut or, like, the Pizza Parlor two blocks away. As I started getting older, like in middle school and high school, there were some Thai restaurants that opened up. We would always go to, you know, Italian restaurants, but my youth was filled with very sad salads. I’ve only recently come to learn to love the salad, after, you know, many, many years of eating salads, as being my forced meal option. But even when I was a kid, at birthday parties, they would always eat pepperoni pizza and some adult would say, “Just take the pepperoni off.” So, I would sit there and not eat. It doesn’t work that way guys. So, I mean it’s just, it’s just amazing to me when I go out to eat. I still am paralyzed by menus where I can choose anything I want.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Right. Where do you go that you can choose whatever you want that you enjoy?
ROOPA KALYANARAMAN MARCELLO: My two absolute favorite places, which I would choose both as my last meals, but are very different settings, and I think these are probably a lot of people’s favorite places, are Superiority Burger and Dirty Candy. I’ve actually been going to Dirt Candy since it opened and I know the owner Amanda fairly well. I’ve actually done some desserts for her restaurant. But it’s just, it was amazing to me when it opened that here was a place that was vegetarian but it also wasn’t preachy.
My options previously were Angelica, and I’m not into Angelica. Like, I love you Angelica, thank you for being a place where I could eat something, but it just didn’t taste like anything. It just was like, OK, there is no meat in our food. So, you know, it was just so amazing to go to a restaurant, be able to eat everything and have it be indulgent. It wasn’t, you know, a preachy vegetarian restaurant. I think that was the problem with vegetarianism for so long. It was always viewed as, well, this is the healthy alternative. It was very austere, and I think that happened with veganism as well, and it’s coming out of that now. I think vegetarianism is firmly out of that territory but it was just always very austere, joyless. You know, you tell someone you’re a vegetarian and the go, “Oh.” They look at you like, “What’s wrong with you?” I’m like, I still eat pizza and fries and things are very bad for me. I still eat salty, fatty, foods. It just doesn’t have pepperoni on it. But yeah, it’s just, I think 15-year-old me is just amazed by all the options we have now.
ALICIA KENNEDY: I still sometimes miss Angelica’s Kitchen, though. I want, like, a macrobiotic tempeh sushi roll, and a carob tart. But you, so, you were a PETA member in high school, and, but you, what was the bridge between your family’s reasons for being a vegetarian and you getting into a more, like, that kind of, ethical, more militant style?
ROOPA KALYANARAMAN MARCELLO: I’m going to be very honest here. I was a PETA member because my best friend was a PETA member and so she was super into it. I think she still is. So, you know, I tagged along. It was fun to go to the march in Manhattan. There were always, like, free tickets. I can’t remember the name of the band but it was at the Palladium which is now in NYU dorm. So, I loved going to the march and being in the city when I was in high school, so that was kind of a big reason that I was a member.
ALICIA KENNEDY: That makes sense.
ROOPA KALYANARAMAN MARCELLO: I didn’t , I didn’t really love their tactics, which haven’t really changed very much in the past 20 years, more than 20 years, but I just, you know, for me, it was always, why would I kill an animal? Pigs and cows are adorable, and why would I eat that? I’m certainly not going to eat my pet dog, not that I have a pet dog, but, you know, why would you do that? I eat such delicious food that there’s absolutely no reason for me to eat an animal.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Right, right, right.
ROOPA KALYANARAMAN MARCELLO: Also, I think also my perspective, I grew up eating South Indian food which is super delicious, full of flavor, really fresh, loaded with vegetables and lentils and grains, and so I think that, you know, for the average American, they’re just not accustomed to eating that way and they’re not familiar with that cuisine. Whereas for them, vegetarian food is like a very sad, wilted iceberg lettuce salad with a very sad pink tomato and some, you know, bottled ranch dressing on it. And I don’t want to eat that either. That’s gross. I’m not eating that. So, I think that, you know, I knew that I was eating all this amazing food growing up, and so I just, I had no reason to change it. And as for my parents, traditionally in Hinduism, my parents are Hindu. I am, sort of. On some days when I want to be, I am. On some days, I’m not. You know, that’s just how they were raised too, and how their grandparents were raised. They just never raised it because there was no need to. The food, South Indian cuisine is just full of amazing things to eat, and so I was raised that way as well, and I just, it never appealed to me to eat animals. I love animals. I wouldn’t say I’m like a militant animal rights person. I’ve definitely worn my share of leather. You know, I try to avoid it now, but I’m not perfect. Sometimes your shoes are just going to have to be leather. But I just, you know, I see absolutely no need for it, and I think that now people are starting to see, especially with this proliferation of so many restaurants that make amazing, amazing food that is not just vegetarian but often vegan, like, there’s really absolutely no need to eat animals. I mean, I’ve known that for a long time given the food that I’ve grown up eating, and I’m so, it’s just amazing to see that now that so many people are starting to see that as well.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Right, right, right. And you, your husband is vegetarian?
ROOPA KALYANARAMAN MARCELLO: Yeah.
ALICIA KENNEDY: And you made him vegetarian?
ROOPA KALYANARAMAN MARCELLO: I wouldn’t phrase it that way exactly.
ALICIA KENNEDY: You know, you inspired this, yeah.
ROOPA KALYANARAMAN MARCELLO: Yeah, that’s a wonderful way of putting it, “Inspired him.” So, I love to cook and I’ve always done all the cooking in our relationship and I don’t cook meat and I wasn’t about to start cooking meat for him. So, when we started dating, whenever he’d come over, I would cook or, you know, we’d go out, but I never cooked meat. Then, when we got married, I did all the cooking. You know, when we’d go out he would order meat, but he was eating less and less of it because he wasn’t eating it at home, you know, I’m generally pretty good at packing lunches. I had packed lunches for us. No meat in that. He was eating it so infrequently that he realized, what’s the point. And also, he started feeling bad he could share his food with me, so he just stopped eating it about a year after we got married.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Oh wow.
ROOPA KALYANARAMAN MARCELLO: Yeah.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Yeah. And do, I’ve talked to some people on this show about the gender roles in the kitchen and how kind of that manifests, but it is funny how you, I think you told me you do all the cooking, but it is because you’re better at it.
ROOPA KALYANARAMAN MARCELLO: Well, I love it. I think part of it is I’m better at it because I’ve done it for so long, right? He actually really loves cooking. He’s, he’s really good at Mexican food. And so he, I’m a little controlling in the kitchen, you know, he always offers, “Oh, I’m going to make something once a week,” but because he’s not as experienced, it takes him a lot longer. So, you know, maybe I should be a little more welcoming in the kitchen, I guess, but yeah, it’s mostly because I just love doing it. It was never an expectation that I do it. It was just that I love doing it and it’s, I’m just much more efficient about it now so that’s just how it struck out.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Yeah, I have the same dynamic in my relationship and I do feel like it’s because I’m controlling but it also is just an efficiency thing. It really is. It’s like, it’s insane to, like, deal with someone if, I don’t know.
ROOPA KALYANARAMAN MARCELLO: I mean, before we had kids, it’s like fine. You want to take two hours to make dinner, that’s fine. I can wait until nine o’clock to eat. Now there are very hungry people. It’s six o’clock and we need to eat.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Was there any question that your children would be vegetarian?
ROOPA KALYANARAMAN MARCELLO: No, never. We actually talked about this before we got married and he was totally fine with it. You know, I think that there is some conversation about if they want to try meat, we should let them, and I said, “Yeah, maybe when they’re older and can sort of make these judgement calls for themselves, but not when they’re five and don’t really understand what that entails.” The funny this is though, my son, who is almost six, is absolutely horrified and disgusted by meat, and is a little too averse about it because he will say, “Why are you eating a dead chicken?” Like, “Please stop saying that in front of people.” So, he’s got the message.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Have there been any, I mean obviously I guess not, like, have there been challenges with him understanding that or not?
ROOPA KALYANARAMAN MARCELLO: I mean he’s such a little animal lover. His favorite TV show is Wild Kratts and it’s all about animals being free and in the wild so he actually, kind of, hates zoos now.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Wow, that’s very radical.
ROOPA KALYANARAMAN MARCELLO: It’s the zoo. “But they’re all in cages, mom.” I’m like, “I know, I don’t know how to justify this to you, kid.” So, yeah, he’s a little animal lover and does not think we should cage or eat them or otherwise disturb them from their natural habitats and I can’t really disagree with him.
ALICIA KENNEDY: That’s awesome. So, your work in food is actually, kind of, two-pronged. I don’t know if it’s even two-pronged or just parallel lines, sort of. Like, you’re a baker with Monsoon Sweets and you also work in public health. How did you kind of end up in these two roles?
ROOPA KALYANARAMAN MARCELLO: Yeah, so people always ask me this question because I work in public health and specifically with a focus on food policy as it relates to unhealthy foods and shifting our built environment, so that those foods are less accessible and healthier foods are more accessible, but I also bake really decadent cakes, and people always ask me, “Well, how do those two things mash with one another? Aren’t they sort of in conflict?” And I say, no, in fact, they are completely aligned with one another. It’s totally fine to have a big piece of cake on your birthday. Like, it’s your birthday. Knock yourself out. But you shouldn’t have a big piece of cake every other day of the week, and the problem has become that we are eating sugar and sweets every day. And they’re not special occasion foods anymore, you know, and it’s just, and that is the problem. It’s not that you shouldn’t ever have cake, and I have a real problem with people who don’t believe in candy on Halloween. Like, Halloween is really fun, eat all the Snickers, kid, knock yourself out, eat the Snickers, it’s just you shouldn’t have a Snickers every other day, and I think people have really lost sight of the fact that our food system has become inundated with sugar and unhealthy foods, and that’s not how it’s always been.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Right, right, right, and how do you think that ended up happening?
ROOPA KALYANARAMAN MARCELLO: I think this is a topic for another episode.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Of course, yeah.
ROOPA KALYANARAMAN MARCELLO: I mean, the, like, over-simplified answer is women joining the workforce. With packaged foods, you know, with the rise of packaged foods, convenience foods entering the supermarket. When women are out of the house, right, you don’t have two hours in the middle of the day to cook a meal for your family. You get home from work and you’ve got maybe 30–45 minutes to get something on the table for your family, which is very challenging, and this goes back to, you know, gender roles, as we were talking about with cooking, you know, women are expected to do the cooking. I mean, I don’t think that’s the case anymore but certainly, when they started entering the workforce, you know, more than 50 years ago, and so food manufactures took advantage of that opportunity and those have really inundated our food system and that’s where we are now. And that’s become the norm for people to eat that way, to eat really processed foods. Even things that don’t necessarily appear processed. Like, a jar of pasta sauce, it’s got a ton of sugar and salt in it. If you were to make it yourself, it wouldn’t, it would have some salt in it, I suppose, but I don’t put a ton of sugar into my tomato sauce when I make it. When you buy it from the store, there’s this image of convenience and that’s what so many of our foods are like. And so, we’re just surrounded by sugar and salt, and we’re also surrounded by unhealthy food in unlikely locations, like the checkout line in Home Depot. I was buying potting soil and there was a whole display of candy and junk food. I’m like, this guy in front of me has a saw and I have soil, why is there this food here? It’s totally unnecessary. Or you’re at Bed, Bath & Beyond and there’s all this candy. It’s like, I have towels, I don’t need candy right now. And it’s just, it’s showing up at all of these places and it’s easy and it’s human nature to, when you see something that’s enticing, you probably would get it. And so, food companies know this, the stores have high profit margins on it because they don’t ever go bad, and so we’re just surrounded by all of this food, and I think, getting back to sort of my view overall in food, is that it’s fine to indulge in those things every now and then, and it’s not just fine, it’s wonderful and you should. You should savor those things. You should eat that piece of cake and love it and be happy with it, and not just take one bite and say, “I’m done.” Like, eat the whole piece of cake, but then don’t eat the candy bar when you’re at Michaels buying, you know, a scrapbook.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Right, right, right, right, and you, you’ve said to me that, you know, you’re coming for everyone’s sodas, and that sort of thing.
ROOPA KALYANARAMAN MARCELLO: Shh, don’t tell them that.
ALICIA KENNEDY: I’m not. So, like, what do you perceive as the role of food and maybe, like, governmental regulation in, in public health? And like, where, how much reach should there in that?
ROOPA KALYANARAMAN MARCELLO: That’s, that is a great question. I have worked in that arena before. You know, I think the challenge here is that people view it as this nanny state but the challenge is that we don’t necessarily realize how much big food companies like Coca-Cola, Pepsi, and all the other sort of packaged food companies are controlling us. You know, we hear about it. Oh, you know, New York City proposes a restriction on large sodas and we hear about it. “That, that’s absurd, you can’t tell me that I can’t have a big soda.” No, there’s no press release when Target has a cooler full of sodas right at the checkout aisle, or when the Home Depot has a row full of candy bars at the checkout aisle. You don’t hear about it. No one’s saying that to you. No one’s up in arms about it saying, “Why is there junk food at the hardware store, or at the craft store?” And so we don’t think about it that way because no one’s making a big deal out of it.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Right, right, right.
ROOPA KALYANARAMAN MARCELLO: You know, if the city were to just very quietly remove all the big sodas, I don’t think people would necessarily notice and be so upset about it, and that’s what’s happening from the other end. Government has really limited resources and is trying to fight these huge, global corporations that have billions and billions of dollars and are doing all of these things, like, they are, they have such sophisticated tactics that rely on insights from behavioral economics and psychology, they know how to make us want their products, and that’s what government is up against. I feel like it’s very, I think it’s unfair but I think people need to think about what these large profit-driven companies are doing and what the government, the government’s not profit-driven. The government is trying to help you, that’s their ultimate goal, especially health departments. They want to keep people healthy. They’re not making any money. So, you know, it’s, I think people really need to think about how corporations are manipulating our food environment.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Right, right, right. And what do you think of vegetarianism or veganism being considered a health-based lifestyle? And like, would, do you think that it would have a broad impact if people did eat less meat and, and moved towards these plant-based diets?
ROOPA KALYANARAMAN MARCELLO: So I think there is so much evidence, and there is more coming out every several weeks, with all these studies showing that plant-based diets, and I want to pause and talk the term plant-based for a minute, I think that is challenging, and I think we need a consistent definition of it, because some people use it to mean strictly vegan. Some people use it to mean largely plant-based but not strictly plant foods. But, using it in the slightly looser sense, you know, diets that are mostly comprised of plant-based foods have been shown to have significant benefits as it relates to cardiovascular health, diabetes, just metabolic issues, and even just mortality rates and life expectancy. And so we see that reducing meat consumption is, has really significant health benefits. I feel like every month, I see somewhat conflicting information about the environmental benefits of it. You know, at the very least, though, it does not do more harm than eating diets that are high in animal products. So, it may be zero sum on that front, but the health benefits are so well known, and even just reducing meat consumption has been shown to be really beneficial for your health, and I think that, you know, I think that everyone should try to go meatless, or vegetarian or whatever they want to call it.
You know, the Meatless Mondays campaign has been around for a very long time and I think they need a new angle, maybe, because it started a long time ago when vegetarianism was seen as this, like, hippie, healthy thing to do. I’m not saying that it’s not a healthy thing to do, but I feel veganism has a fresh face these days, and I think that it’s just so important that we start moving people in that direction.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Yeah, what do you, what do you think needs to be done to get people moving in that direction?
ROOPA KALYANARAMAN MARCELLO: I have to say, I think, you know, in places like New York, where places like Superiority Burger have lines out the door, it’s impossible to get a table at Dirt Candy unless you call two months and a day before you know that you want your table, places like that, I think that making vegetarian food sexy is sort of important, especially to get younger people, you know, to see that benefit. And I think it’s going to be a generational shift. It’s not, I don’t think we’re going to see it immediately, I think as we see people in their, even teenagers, young adults starting to shift that way, we may see changes when they have children, and then in coming generations. So I think that it’s, it’s sort of one of those long haul changes, but I think we’re moving in that direction.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Totally. And you’ve been running Monsoon Sweets since 2017, to kind of shift gears, I guess.
ROOPA KALYANARAMAN MARCELLO: Yes.
ALICIA KENNEDY: And you, you focus on South Asian flavors. What was the thought process behind developing that menu?
ROOPA KALYANARAMAN MARCELLO: Yeah. So, actually, I’ve been baking since I was maybe seven, and this was a direct result of me being really picky and also stubborn. I didn’t like the cakes that my mom had been getting and she said, “Go ahead and make your own,” and I said, “OK, I will.” She didn’t think I was going to do it. I did it. I mean, it was Pillsbury Funfetti cake mix and the gross canned frosting, and I still, I have that picture somewhere at home, and it’s, it’s like this pink cake, I got like the gel piping, it was bordered, it had a teddy bear on it, it was super cheesy, but I was like seven, so.
I’ve just really loved baking since then. So, my background is actually in molecular biology as well. I studied music and molecular biology in college, so I’m a very scientific but also creative person, and baking is the combination of the two. And so I’ve just always loved baking, because it allows me to do both of those things at the same time. And so when I graduated college, I bought myself a KitchenAid mixer. Everyone thought I was married and I couldn’t quite understand why, and I realized it was because of the mixer on top of my fridge. I was like, “No, I’m 21, why would I be married, that’s crazy.” And so I just really immersed myself in that. I’d come home from work. I baked my way through a French Culinary Institute baking book, just taught myself a ton of recipes, and I just loved incorporating flavors of the foods that I was eating. And I, because I realized no one else was doing that.
You know, if you wanted an Indian dessert, Indian desserts have really amazing flavors but the textures are just, not into that, like they’re either kind of like grainy because they’re made with cooked-down milk and nuts, or they’re like really milky, or they’re overly sweet, actually, they’re mostly overly sweet, but they have these lovely flavors like saffron and cardamom and rosewater, and they use nuts like pistachios, and they’re so fragrant and delicious, but I didn’t like eating them because they were just so sweet. I started putting those flavors into my cakes, and my friends loved them, and I realized, you know, as the years went on that there is no one doing this in New York, especially a place like New York where there is a large South Asian population and also just people who are really interested in and have experience and exposure to other cuisines. And I realized that no one was doing it.
I was on maternity leave and I had, sort of, always in the back of my mind wanted to do this, and I said, “Do you know what? I’m going to do it now.” So, I launched Monsoon Sweets, and it’s still something that no one else is doing. I don’t see, I don’t see any competition in the wings, but people have been really receptive to it, and I, you know, I would say that about half my clients are South Asian but the other half is most certainly not. It’s, I would say younger people who just want really delicious cakes.
ALICIA KENNEDY: What have been the challenges of, you know, you’re working full time in public health and you have two kids too, how do you balance, this, I mean, this is the silly question for all working mothers that everyone asks but I mean, as a food business owner, there are specific challenges to doing that.
ROOPA KALYANARAMAN MARCELLO: I would say, like, when I have five minutes when I’m on the subway, or something, I’ll use that to check emails, to, you know, thank you MTA for having WiFi and cell service in your stations, because it enables me to, you know, I can actually get some of those things and just knock them out in those little chunks of time where you can’t sit down and really devote thinking to things but it’s like, I can answer five emails in five minutes, that doesn’t require me to use my brain that strongly. So, just really finding those little pieces, chunks of time and I think that for anyone, whether you have kids or multiple jobs, it’s, you know, I think it’s when you have several pieces of your life, you know, several things that are occupying your time, I think finding those little chunks of time and using them wisely.
Really good eye cream and concealer, I’ve invested in those heavily. I just, you know, some days there’s not enough sleep, and I think that it just gets down to if you don’t love what you’re doing then the lack of sleep is not worth it, because it just makes you turn into a very angry person.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Yeah, yeah, yeah. But where, so, you are baking out of your home at times, but, and, like, what is, what’s your setup like for that?
ROOPA KALYANARAMAN MARCELLO: So, I have a dedicated space for it, I, my kitchen is thankfully a decent size. Finally. So I only dedicate certain days to it, and so like there’s a full cleanout, I have a dedicated fridge space to it. I have, I also have storage in my building, so I have all my stuff set up there, I have a fridge down there. So, it’s all got its own little space for it.
ALICIA KENNEDY: That’s amazing.
ROOPA KALYANARAMAN MARCELLO: So, yeah, I thankfully live in an apartment where I have space to do all of this stuff and, like, dedicated spaces for it too, otherwise it would not be possible.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Totally, yeah, and you do do some vegan flavors, but I know that you’ve complained about not being able to get a vegan buttercream.
ROOPA KALYANARAMAN MARCELLO: I have had a really hard time with that, and if you have an awesome vegan buttercream recipe for me, I’m all in. I, one of my challenges too is I don’t love using, like, animal product substitutes. I have yet to try the Miyoko’s butter, which I’ve heard is really good.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Miyoko’s is really good and so is Faba, who, they were on the podcast actually, but theirs is coconut oil and aquafaba-based.
ROOPA KALYANARAMAN MARCELLO: Right, and like that’s fine. I’m OK with that but I’m just like, I don’t want to use Earth Balance, like, it’s got all those hydrogenated business in it, and I think sort of one of my challenges with vegetarianism, veganism too, is that people lean really heavily on these processed products. You know, a lot of these fake meats, you know, seitan is, I have no problem with it because that’s just straight gluten. Obviously, tofu is delicious and I wish it did not get such a bad rap in the 80s because it’s really yummy. Those are natural products that have been around for centuries, but like a Gardein meatball is processed, and a lot of these things are processed with organic chemicals like hexane, like, I don’t want to eat hexane, like, I used to use that in experiments in the lab and it’s pretty caustic stuff. I don’t want that in my body. And so I think that, you know, I, I try to, I don’t use any of those types of products, and that’s been my challenge in vegan baking. So, I need to try some of these newer products that, that are based on natural, you know, not hydrogenated or sort of lab-based products.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Right. And you, you don’t do an American-style buttercream.
ROOPA KALYANARAMAN MARCELLO: No. No, no, no. Absolutely not. American buttercream is terrible, and you should never, ever eat it. It’s, it’s terrible. I mean, it’s overly sweet and it can get crusty, like your food shouldn’t be crusty unless it’s a baguette. Like, that is the only thing that should have a crust on it, not your frosting. I make a Swiss meringue-based buttercream. So, it is based on egg whites. It’s really silky. It’s not super sweet, and it’s really lovely to decorate with and that’s the only kind I’ll use.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Right, right, right. I mean, I would love to see, there are vegan bakers online who have been using aquafaba, but I’m not a big fan of the flavor of aquafaba. I don’t know if you’ve played with it.
ROOPA KALYANARAMAN MARCELLO: I have. I’ve done it, but you, it needs chocolate to cover up the chickpea flavor.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Yeah. It’s so beany and weird, yeah. And then it gets that, like, fluffy marshmallow, constant marshmallow flavor that, like, meringue only has if you make it taste like that. Yeah, I’ve been, I have Versawhip in my kitchen that I haven’t used yet but I’m going to play with it at some point when I have time.
ROOPA KALYANARAMAN MARCELLO: I know, that’s the thing. I would love to try these things but I’m like, you know what, I’ve not found the time for it. And I haven’t got a ton of demand. I mean, it might also be the fact that I am very clear about the fact that I don’t have a ton of vegan flavors but I haven’t been asked by a ton of people if I can make things vegan aside from what I already do, so I just have not got round to it, but there are so many new products coming out so I feel like there may be something that may facilitate a really good vegan buttercream sometime soon.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Right. What was the process for developing the vegan flavors you do have?
ROOPA KALYANARAMAN MARCELLO: You know, I feel like, like Brooks at Superiority Burger likes to say, they were accidentally vegan. I didn’t intend for them to be vegan. My chocolate cake that I make is actually very easy to make vegan. I use milk in it normally, but I just replace it with coconut milk. It doesn’t actually have eggs in it because I just like the texture of it for chocolate cake like that. And they’re, the vegan cakes just have ganache which I make with coconut milk. So, they’re vegan just because they are.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Right, right, right, right. There are so many vegan ganache recipes that I think are so weird and bad. I don’t know if you’ve seen any of them.
ROOPA KALYANARAMAN MARCELLO: No.
ALICIA KENNEDY: But there’s like weird ones with almond milk and maple syrup.
ROOPA KALYANARAMAN MARCELLO: All you need to do is mix equal parts of chocolate and coconut milk, and a little bit of salt.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Yeah, no, people, people get really weird with the chocolate ganache recipes. I don’t know. There are so many weird vegan recipes.
ROOPA KALYANARAMAN MARCELLO: Coconut milk and heavy cream are pretty interchangeable, because of the fat content. They’re very similar, so just swap it out. You don’t need to complicate it.
ALICIA KENNEDY: I need to tell, speak about this more, I think, because I don’t think people realize that heavy cream and coconut milk are basically the same thing.
ROOPA KALYANARAMAN MARCELLO: Yeah.
ALICIA KENNEDY: It’s very important.
ROOPA KALYANARAMAN MARCELLO: I have not seen these weird ganache recipes and now I’m curious. I’m going to go down the rabbit hole later today.
ALICIA KENNEDY: I, you know, I have so many vegan cook books and vegan baking books and, like, part of the reason I ended up with a vegan bakery was being like, these are bad, like, why, like, people starting, starting from these weird ideas of, like, what a cake should be, instead of, like, looking at, like, classic cake recipes and saying, “OK, where can we change things, what is the,” and, and maybe not understanding things like fat content and milk solids versus water content and that sort of thing.
ROOPA KALYANARAMAN MARCELLO: Right, and that’s where you need to have that scientific understanding. Like, if you’re going to replace something, it needs to be replaced with something that is similar in its fat and solid composition, and, you know, like coconut milk and heavy cream, they’re pretty much the same, but you can’t replace heavy cream with almond milk. Like, just, I mean, just look at them. I mean, you should just know by looking at it that that’s not going to work.
ALICIA KENNEDY: It’s, you know, they’re out there though. So, for you, is cooking a political act?
ROOPA KALYANARAMAN MARCELLO: I’ve never thought of it that way. To me, cooking is actually, it’s, it’s incredibly important to me. I think it’s sort of the foundation of our lives, you know? I have two young children, and it is one of my highest priorities to cook really good food for them, to cook diverse, nutritious food for them. Like, there are definitely days where they’ve eaten frozen pizza, and that’s fine. Like, I ate a whole lot of Ellio’s frozen pizza when I was a kid.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Me too.
ROOPA KALYANARAMAN MARCELLO: So you know, I mean, I’m here, I’m still around, and, you know, I have a pretty healthy relationship with food, so it’s fine, but, you know, I, it is so important to me to nourish them. And I just think, it’s an act of love to me. I don’t see it as political when it’s sort of in the family context, and I think for me, it’s important because I want them to see that I’m doing this and this is something important in our family. It is important to make food. And that’s something that, you know, I try to model good behavior for them.
That’s one of the things, like, this is something you’re going to do when your older, to cook food for yourself. My kids see me taking, packing my own lunch every morning. You know, I pack a lunch for my son and for myself and my husband. Like, take your lunch to work with you. I’m not going to Chopt every day and spending $13 on a salad. You know, so sort of modelling these healthy habits, but also my kids are pretty good eaters. They’ve been eating all kinds of foods since they were little, mostly because, like, I’m not making you separate food, I don’t have time for that. That’s how I was raised too, like, obviously my mum didn’t give us super spicy things when we were very little, recognizing that our palates probably can’t handle that, but everything that she’d make, a rice dish, a few different vegetables, it was like, “You’re going to eat something from here. You don’t have to like everything and that’s fine, but this is what is for dinner.”
And that’s how it goes in our family too. And I think it creates a healthy relationship with food and it also shows them that you care. It’s, like, I’m taking the time to make you something really delicious, and so, to me, it’s not just an act of love, but just an act of supporting, it’s the foundation of your life, because if you don’t have that, just getting back to health, so many of our health issues are diet-related these days. Non-communicable diseases, NCDs as they’re called in the field, are the leading cause of death around the world. You know, we’re not worried about things like TB and cholera anymore, it’s, the things that are killing us are the foods we eat and the fact that we don’t move around enough and, you know, smoking to some extent, but a lot of it is driven by our diet, and I think that modeling healthy behaviors and exposing our kids to healthy food when they’re little is, it really goes a long way in combating that.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Awesome. Thank you so much, Roopa.
ROOPA KALYANARAMAN MARCELLO: Thank you, Alicia.
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