One of the most potent ways in which immigrants cling to their roots is through food, observes Ruth Reichl, editor-in-chief of Gourmet Magazine and the author of many celebrated food memoirs. Immigrants, she says, always keep their “food ways.” No Indian-American, old or young, will ever deny that.

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Today, the Indian food options in the United States—ranging from Frozen Heat ‘n’ Serve, to Ready-to-eat and Ready-to-cook—are mind boggling. As Indian-American foods pretty up, preserve, and present better for mainstream consumption, new niche food businesses touting authenticity are springing up to promote and preserve Indian culture and heritage.

Over two decades ago, customers at the Indian grocery stores around the Bay Area fretted over the capricious nature of ethnic must-haves. “You want curry leaves, madam? Sorry, it’s now banned.” (The ban would lift a few hours later, as soon as the food inspector was nowhere in the vicinity.)

Today, however, curry leaves are as ubiquitous as parsley (and available at Logees.com at $11.95 per potted plant). Dal and rice are on the Indian buffet at the Whole Foods Market. Trader Joe’s sells papadums. And your local Safeway carries Indian snacks just in case you’re in the mood for corn chevda to go with your Pete’s single-shot, tall cappuccino. Naturally, Indian grocery store owners now face a delightful problem. No amount of shelf space is enough.

“I cannot stock enough of Roti-land chapatis to fulfill my customer demands!” says Dinesh Kumar, who opened his Sunnyvale store, India Cash and Carry, in 2001.

Kumar’s predicament is a direct outcome of the food revolution in India. According to Chandra Shekhar, Assistant Director at the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce & Industry (FICCI), India’s ready-to-eat foods market alone is worth $20 million and is growing at 80 percent a year.

What’s fuelling the boom in instant foods is also the use of new packaging technology, which has helped deflate prices. The new technology also ensures proper sterilization, increasing the shelf life of a food package to 12 months without the need for refrigeration.

FICCI points out that though Indians are not fully exposed to packaged foods “like NRIs,” socio-economic changes like the rise in the number of working women, the alternative career options, the need to spend quality time with children, and greater media exposure are driving working middle class and upper middle class families in India toward packaged and pre-prepped foods.

Food giants like MTR and Kohinoor—which pride themselves on resurrecting traditional favorites—are cooking up a storm for the home and export market. In a September 2007 study, U.K. Market research firm Key Note Publications Ltd. found that among the other factors influencing new product development in convenience food are the desires of consumers for more authentic ethnic meals and more premium-range products. And thanks to the conveniences of impeccable packaging, the fridge, the microwave, and the oven, local and India-based manufacturers are driving for the holy grail in food: convenience food just the way your grandma makes it.

Just the Way Grandma Makes It

Recall the plight of a pregnant Ashima Ganguli in the opening lines of Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake. The Indian curled up deep inside every one of us always longs for that one down-home dish that might fulfill the craving etched into our souls. All Indians eat to feed their souls.

“In America we eat, collectively, with a glum urge for food to fill us. We are ignorant of flavor. We are as a nation taste-blind,” lamented M. F. K Fisher, in her essay “Pity the Blind in Eating” in The Art of Eating. It’s a pity Fisher didn’t live long enough to walk through the aisles of grocery hangars in present-day Sunnyvale.

India Cash and Carry’s Kumar dedicates one half of what feels like a 747 economy aisle to just pickle bottles. He carries Amla Pickle, Mango Avakkai, Mango Thokku, Lime Pickle, Gongura Pickle, Ginger Pickle with garlic, Ginger Pickle without Garlic, and Tomato Pickle (and more). He also has to remember to stock every one of these pickles by brand: Priya, Ruchi, Mother’s, 777, MTR, Bedekar (and more). Over by the freezer section are ready-to-eat dinner packets by Priya, MTR, Captain Cook, Ashoka, and Kohinoor brands. “All sell pretty good, you know,” vouches Kumar. “Also Shastha Batter.”

Now, Shastha Batter, a brand name in idli, dosa, and other batter, is over by the paneer, milk, buttermilk, naan, kulfi ice cream, pistachio ice cream, mango ice cream, elaichi ice cream, and fig ice cream section. Its opaque white façade is printed with blue lettering and the name “Shastha” is stamped delicately around it with a picture of the Hindu God Aiyappan. The son of both Vishnu and Shiva, Lord Shastha signifies knowledge and power.

Vendors like Shastha live up to the name of the deity: they possess the knowledge that customers want honest, good food. And they wield their power to offer Indian-American and mainstream consumers a preservative-free, healthy, and convenient alternative. Shastha’s latest refrain: the batter for vadai and pesarattu coming to a store near you.

Shastha signals a growing trend in Indian-American grocer outsourcing of traditional foods. Mani Krishnan, owner of Shastha Foods and a relatively new entrant in the food business, claims that his manufacturing plant for lentil batter has yet to meet its match anywhere in the world.

Rising, Along with Good Batter

Krishnan is a burly, six-foot gentleman with a booming voice, a voice that might zap a 10,000 army into attention. It’s the timbre of voice one might associate with a director presiding over a hardware company in the valley. For 18 years he managed a substantial business selling Intel processors to Indian outfits. His new business isn’t radically different, he maintains: “I was selling processors. Now I’m selling processed food.”

This self-starting businessman stumbled into the batter business after his friend Balu suggested that he might find gold in lentils and rice. Today, his product, Shastha, is the single most popular batter for dosa and idli on the West Coast. Krishnan’s products are sold only in California, Oregon, and Washington. “This January, my idli sales surpassed the dosa numbers for the first time since Shastha opened for business,” he beams. “And that’s a milestone for me.”

Krishnan, who stands behind the products from his custom-made imported grindstones, considers the idli milestone a critical one. As every South Indian worth his salt knows, it’s easy to make a good dosa. But the elusive idli is quite another story. Any crestfallen South Indian wife will tell you that. Improperly fermented idli batter can give rise to a number of problems: gummy idlis which won’t spring up unless you spoon them out, sour 2-inch boulders that may replace Wilson balls in a USTA tournament, and unpuffed idlis, which just slouch in the pan looking like they’re on Prozac. Shastha idlis, say customers, are certainly on the rise.

“Shastha’s batter quality has improved dramatically in the couple of years. In the latest batch that I bought, I felt like I was eating the idlis I was used to eating back in Coimbatore,” says Vanitha Venkatraman of Saratoga. A self-proclaimed picky eater (with an even pickier husband), Venkatraman has now shelved away her Ultra stone grinder for good. With a full-time job and two teenagers to herd around, she has figured that Shastha offers a cheaper and a more convenient option. She buys a Shastha idli or dosa container at least once a week.

Entrepreneur Going Against the Grain

Krishnan admits his idea was neither new nor groundbreaking. A couple of other batter manufacturers had reached the shelves before him. Yet, he claims, his implementation has made all the difference.

Inside Shastha’s warehouse, a cold, sterile place with regular checks done by food and pest control authorities, Krishnan’s voice bounces off the walls. Every few minutes, the phone pierces the cold air with a prolonged ring. Krishnan never picks it up: “Oh, that’s just a packing order which my guy in India is sending me.”

Like all valley companies, Shastha has figured out that R&D is best kept here in the valley and that India is the best phone center. So his admin hub is a one-man operation in India—a 408 area code call away, thanks to Vonage and VoIP. Sridhar, Krishnan’s Jeeves, pounds away at a keyboard in Chennai, filling a drop-off list for a driver in Silicon Valley.

The heart of Shastha’s operations is a 1000 square foot spotless kitchen in which several stone grinders with stainless steel drums chug away as one man hovers over them with an super-size spatula. Giant vats of soaked rice and lentils are lined up nearby in preparation for the next batch. A temperature-controlled room guards several dozen vats of batter awaiting packing.

In batter as in business, timing is everything. Krishnan reels off precise grinding times for dosa, adai, and idli. He is ecstatic about the previous day’s yield having been abundant, “obviously due to excellent grinding by my man.” For a man, who, by his own admission, never entered the kitchen in his own home, Krishnan spends hours in a giant scullery in this fourth career avatar.

Just why would a 54-year-old semi-retired father of two grown kids put himself through this new grind?

“Food, don’t you see? Mani loves good food,” chirps his wife Anandhi matter-of-factly. “And he’s a people person. He’s able to strike a chord with all the grocery stores here in the Bay Area since he’s from Bombay and speaks their language.”

For the first few years, Krishnan would ferry around the batter in a car all the way from San Jose to San Francisco. Having labored in salaried white-collar jobs in companies like Qume and Verbatim in the Silicon Valley, wasn’t he crushed by his new role as batter supplier cum driver? Not really. Krishnan attributes this “so what” attitude to his life back in Bombay. “The street sense that Bombay gives you is enormous,” he says, showing off a recent acquisition, a refrigerated truck.

Applying what he has learned in Information Technology to Idli Technology is now paying Krishnan dividends. Sales from December 2007 to January 2008 have shown an 8 percent hike. At the end of every month, he drops off an Excel generated report to all his stores showing graphs and charts, detailing how much he has grown and what issues he faces. “The store owners love it,” he says. “No one else does it.”

Your Batter Could Be Better

Krishnan watches his numbers with an eagle eye: “One mistake. And your business can drop like anything.” So he tells his stores to tell their customers to call him if they are unhappy with the batter.

A Fremont customer was pleased by the speed of Krishnan’s response to what she felt was a bad, watery sample. Customer service isn’t often a high priority in Indian-American run businesses. But Krishnan is making a conscious effort to practice western ethics. “I wrote her a nice letter saying I was sorry and I sent her a recipe book of innovative recipes using Shastha batter.” Krishnan offers to send interested customers a free recipe book if they will just send him an email with their contact address to mani@bondsforever.com. This attitude is constantly winning him loyal customers both among stores and among users. “I proactively ask the stores if customers have any complaints. If I sense a major problem I can address it right away.”

North Indians like Sunita Verma of Saratoga love the product: “It’s very hard to make idli batter. I tried making it. It was horrible.” Krishnan realizes what a vast audience he has in the North Indian community, so he is planning a series of cooking lessons to reach out to what he believes is a largely untapped North Indian and mainstream population.

For now, Krishnan looks forward to scaling up his production by summer 2008 with an automated system that will guide the batter from filling to sealing and thereby also decrease errors from handling.

To take his product mainstream is a lingering dream. Yet, Krishnan hesitates. “I don’t want the fun to go away from my business.”

“Conquer taste, and you will have conquered the self,” comments Jagan, “The Vendor of Sweets,” in R. K. Narayan’s novel by the same name. Indian-Americans aren’t ready to conquer the self yet—from the endless feedback Krishnan gets from friends, random customers, and senior citizen mamis who always know batter better.

One South Indian mami accused him of adding rice flour to the batter. “Do you see rice flour anywhere in my warehouse, huh?” he grates, gesturing towards cartons bursting with 777 pastes, Ambika Appalams, Sam’s Hakka Noodles, and prayer kits in reusable boxes for Navagraha, Ganapathi, and Lakshmi pooja.

While scouting the pantheon of South Indian customs and traditions, Krishnan keeps unearthing new goodies to bring to eager consumers. “I’m always looking for the as yet undiscovered.”

The rise and fall of dal prices, the rise and fall of grain availability, and, let’s not forget, the rise and fall of fermenting batter, add a pinch of uncertainty into the batter business. Still, thanks to the stringent laws governing trade and commerce in the United States, the money rings in promptly week after week—something that the Krishnans say wasn’t always a guarantee in the hardware business interactions with smaller clients in India.

But one element of human nature is a clincher for the Shastha venture. As Anandhi Krishnan offers, “The one sure thing in this world is that people will keep eating.”

Kalpana Mohan is a freelance writer in Saratoga, Calif.

 

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