Nine On The Line With Manish Shah of Maya Tea & Heirloom Farmers Markets

Manish Shah, owner and operator of Maya Tea Company and Co-Executive Director of Heirloom Farmers Markets plays an almost hyper-active role in Tucson’s food scene.

With humble beginnings selling chai at the St. Phillips Plaza Farmers Markets in 1996, Shah was also tasked with coordinating the farmers market in October 2002.

In 2005 he began to sell coffee and tea nationally. Maya Tea now offers tea to several hundred specialty cafes, restaurants and tea shops around the United States with many of their earliest supporters right here in Tucson. Heirloom Farmers Markets is now a registered non-profit devoted to the promotion of local food producers and growers, operating three markets every week.

Heirloom was instrumental in creating the food pavilion at Rillito Park and solely responsible for developing and organizing Viva La Local Food Festival.

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What was the first dish you had that changed your perspective on food?

I had a surprisingly good palate early on because my mom is an amazing cook but I never truly understood what I had. I remember three dishes during my early college years that really rang my bell:

• Blue Corn Sliders at Janos Wilders food truck Wild Johnny’s Wagon.
• Saffron Orzo Pasta at Donna Nordin’s Cafe Terra Cotta (goat cheese stuffed shrimp too).
• Stuffed duck at Danny Scordato’s restaurant Daniel’s.

I’m salivating thinking about all three of those dishes.

What are you eating these days?

Late July, I decided I needed to take off a few pounds so I am eating less bread and sweets.  It’s been a real challenge as I get the most intense of cravings for so many diverse dishes. I’m in a soup state of mind right now. Gumbo, miso, clam chowder, sambar, pozole, cioppino, mulligatawny, pho and ramen. I am totally craving the ramen at Proper right now (Char Siu Pork). Chef Kris Vrolijk uses our tea in the broth and it’s just sublime.

What was the first dish you remember cooking?

My mom taught me two things to cook early on: chai and scrambled eggs. I turned my chai making skills into a company and I still make pretty damn fine scrambled eggs. She taught me to cook them low and slow with a good spoon of ghee and a little cheese. Mom wanted me to be a doctor so she was pretty irritated that she taught me how to make chai. She’s over that now.

What concept, ingredient or food trend does everyone seem to love, but you just can’t stomach?

I struggle to understand this intense fascination with kale but that seems to be dying down. I don’t know why so many things have bacon and it’s new iteration “pork belly” in them now as a condiment but everyone else seems to love it. The two trends that irritate me the most is under-roasted coffee and ridiculously bitter IPAs. Roasting coffee beans so light that they taste sour and acidic does not bring me closer to it’s “terroir” in any good way. It just gives me heartburn and nausea. And why on earth does anyone feel like making beer that’s akin to licking an ashtray? It’s almost abusive. Please slap me if I ever decide to blend a tea that was intentionally as revolting as possible.

What chef, with us or passed on, would you most like to cook or eat dinner with?

I’m just in awe of Marcus Samuelsson. Love his style, his international flavors and honest appreciation of ingredients. Close second would be Michael Symon who just seems like a fun guy to cook, eat, and get drunk with.

What city, other than Tucson, is your favorite place to eat?

I love Portland or Chicago. Just really honest, international foods everywhere in those two cities. My birthplace, Mumbai, is also a killer food city but I don’t get there very often.

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Speaking in junk food terms, what is your favorite guilty pleasure?

Taco Bell Double Grilled Crunchwrap Supreme with beans substituted for the “beef”. Just love it.

Top three Tucson restaurants?

Top three? No way – I eat out a lot, like 5 or 6 times a week. We’ve got a lot of restaurants that also serve Maya Tea so I am a bit biased. No wonder I can’t lose any damn weight!

With a figurative electric chair in your immediate future, what is your last meal?

South Indian Food: Idli, masala dosa, coconut chutney, and spicy sambar. All cooked by my mom. That is my favorite. Plus she would probably convince them to spare me with her cooking. Winner, winner, South Indian dinner!

C.J. Hamm is a native Tucsonan and has been covering the local culinary and cocktail scene since 2012.