“Food was my first love. I’ve been studying it since I was very young. Even at the age of 12, I’d sit with the cooks and ask, ‘What did you put in this, and why? Why did you leave that thing out?’ When other kids were out playing, I was writing down recipes.”

It is mid-morning on a Saturday at Vik’s in Berkeley, and I’m sitting with Meena Pathak, the culinary brain behind Patak’s Indian food products. Ranked among the wealthiest Asians in Britain, and a recent recipient of Britain’s Asian Woman of the Year award, the transplanted Bombayite is on a tour of the U.S. to promote her company’s new products.

“I attended the catering college in Shivaji Park in Bombay, and assumed I would go into the hotel industry. I never imagined I would end up in manufacturing.”

The original Patak’s was a shop on Drummond Street in London, near Euston Station, started in 1956 by Meena’s father-in-law, Lakhubhai Pathak, who was a Gujarati from Kenya. Pathak’s aim was to supply anything an Indian kitchen would need at the basic level of spices. Then the shop began selling pickles, later snacks, and mithai. Pathak’s brother dropped the ‘h’ in the name after he shifted to Italy and found the Italians couldn’t pronounce the name, and Lakhubhai followed suit in England.

“My father was in the Army, my mother was a dentist. I had no intention of ever being a housewife. My husband Kirit and I met through an introduction in Bombay in 1976, and I married into the family. When I moved to England, I was told how to iron shirts, how to vacuum, how to make the beds, what to cook. Everyone disappeared by 8 a.m. because they were all working. They’d say, ‘We’ll be back at 6:30, and we want this, this and this for dinner.’ In India, where I was used to cooking, everything reached me pre-cleaned, because of the servants. In England, I took for granted that the dal was clean, and cooked it straight from the bag, with all the stones and grit. I ended up throwing a lot of meals into the dustbin.

“The family cooker was right in front of the window, and I’d see reflections of my in-laws making faces as I rolled out the chapatis, heard them tell Kirit to get fish and chips from outside, just as a backup. Don’t get me wrong, they loved me to bits.”

“They were from East Africa, so their Indian food was different. They cooked Kathiawadi cuisine, they didn’t use certain spices, they made everything khatta-meetha, the food often wasn’t as hot as it should be. When I began cooking, they said, ‘Where did you learn this? It’s not Indian food.’ I had traveled extensively throughout India because my dad was in the army, and I knew about Indian food. I told them, ‘What you’re cooking is not Indian food.’”

“I was always a fighter, a bad rebel. ‘Rebel without a cause,’ Kirit called me. “My husband was pulled out of his studies in 1972 to join his father’s business. He’d seen his family slogging for 20 years in one shop, and wanted to see the shift to supplying supermarkets. His elders had only really thought in terms of running a shop. Within six weeks of my arrival, I entered into dialogue with the family. I walked around the factory, and saw how the manufacturing process was aimed at the Indian market. But we were getting a lot of English customers in the shop, and we got feedback from them that they were intimidated at the thought of buying such large packages of individual spices in order to create the right blend, and then the powders would just sit in their kitchens because they weren’t used fast enough.

“So I began blending powders, with fresh garlic paste, fresh ginger paste, cooking them a little bit in oil, making a concentrated form, and putting them into a jar. I had learned in college about shelf stability, how much salt, how much sugar, you need to add to keep a product stable.

“I was 20 years old, telling my father-in-law, telling the joint family, that they needed to take things further. My father-in-law felt that was the right direction, but he didn’t know about my age, my level of experience. I was new in the country, my ideas could cost them their entire business. The men were nervous.”

“The pickles in the store were under the Patak’s label. When the first of my pastes came out, the tandoori paste, it also had the Patak’s logo, and the English customers picked up the jar, took it home and followed the instructions. One of the first people to pick up a jar was a cookery writer for the Independent. She wrote an article that appeared on the front page of the paper. We got a write-up saying that England had been hit by something very novel and unique, the most authentic taste ever tasted outside the boundaries of India. That was in 1977. I was pregnant with my first child.

“One of the mainstream distributors who handled niche brands called up the office and spoke to Kirit, saying they’d read about us in the newspaper and they wanted to distribute our products to the mainstream. Kirit invited them over for lunch. Of course I wanted to show off. By then, I was experimenting with concentrated pastes for Rogan Josh, Jalfrezi and Tikka. That particular lunch, I prepared the entire meal with my pastes. Kirit didn’t know there were 6-7 jars already in the larder. Actually, I’d been experimenting on the family every Sunday, using them as guinea pigs. At the end of that lunch, I pulled out the jars and said, ‘This is what you’ve been eating.’ The distributors said, ‘How quickly can you get these into production?’

“That meant moving to larger premises, to meet the demand. ‘You’ve landed us in a soup,’ said Kirit. ‘We can’t afford this.’ For a month Kirit and his father went up and down the country, looking for a new factory space. My son was a month old when we moved north. We bought a Spam factory that had been run by Hormel, which had been closed for 3 years. The factory was 10-12 times the size of what we’d had. In those days, the banks were not so keen to lend money to Indians. The factory was in a very small village. Hormel had employed the entire village, and the people came back to us for jobs. We could only afford to hire four people.”

“The idea of concentrated pastes was not being understood. People were using the entire jar instead of 2 tablespoons. I began doing education by mouth, telling people, but I also cut back, to canned sauces at regular strength. In 1980, we launched six products for our first supermarket chain, a combination of bottled pastes, canned sauces and pickles.

“I began doing in-store demonstrations. I wanted to show people how easy it is to mix the dishes. As people entered the store, the aroma of my food would draw people into the aisle. They would taste a spoonful, and grab some jars off the shelf. The store kept re-stocking, but every evening there was no stock left. Our factories had to produce stock overnight, and supply it in the morning. Those in-store demos of mine led to our products being carried in 60 of their outlets.”

“Kirit began going abroad to the food exhibitions, to try and convince people that Indian food is good. He went to Canada, Australia, Germany, and everywhere they told him, ‘You’re crazy, who will eat Indian food?’ Kirit assured them, ‘You will be the same ones coming back in 5 years for my products,’ and that’s what happened.”

“Patak’s is supplying to 90 percent of the Indian restaurants in England. The chefs use a bit of paste, and add their own masalas. Fifteen years ago I went to Japan to educate the chefs there—I went to restaurants, to catering colleges. Today Japan has taken to curry. Same in Australia, which used to be virgin territory. Today we’re exporting 3 20-ft containers of product a week to Australia, one of our biggest markets outside the UK.”

“We distribute to 50 countries now. Today we have four plants in England, one of them being the largest purpose-built Indian food factory in the world. People have asked us to diversify into Thai, Chinese, Malaysian. My expertise doesn’t lie only with Indian food; I’m a cordon bleu chef. But we haven’t diversified, and we won’t, not under the Patak’s name.”

“We grind all our own spices. We do our own sourcing—we buy up entire fields in India. We don’t own factories there, but there are 12 factories dedicated to manufacturing for us. The whole spices are cleaned and packed for us in India, they come across the ocean in a month’s time, then they’re fumigated, cleaned, ground, and infused in oil right away, so the initial stage of getting the freshest taste is never compromised.

“We began by selling to the Indian market in England, and we will not disappoint that section. Some of our products do well with Indian buyers, and not the mainstream, so even though it’s not economical to do small runs, we will, for our Indian clients. Like the Kashmiri Masala paste, the Sweet Mango Pickle, which we do in small runs of 2 tons, as opposed to the large runs of 30 tons. We now have people requesting us to please make certain products, like coconut chutney, coriander chutney, tamarind chutney, which are used on a daily basis in Indian households.”

“India is one of the most complicated markets in the world. We don’t yet sell to India. India has changed, the markets have opened, women are out working, there isn’t as much reliance on servants, there’s more disposable income. India is ready now, for our products, and that is my dream.”

“India is a big, fragmented market. There isn’t one single national food brand. Distribution is difficult. And loyalty is another hurdle. There is a lack of supermarkets. An Indian housewife is not necessarily going to go the bazaar, she will send her servant, or order provisions over the phone from her bania—say, a bottle of Maggi sauce, some Lux soap and so on. The bania will deliver one brand in place of another, because he’s being given a cut. And the housewife will take what he sends because she trusts him.”

“Even though we don’t sell there, Patak’s is well-known as a brand. We’ve studied the market well. We’re quite aggressive as a company, even though we’re family-owned. We run the business more like a multinational, employing people who are much more knowledgeable than us. I’m giving us three years, before we launch in India.”

“We’re currently manufacturing 80 tons a day, 140 different products. But you won’t see all of them here in the U.S. Among the hurdles we face in America is sheer ignorance about Indian food. Americans are more insular, less interested in experimenting. In England, we started with the authentic taste route, then branched into fusion. In the U.S., we’re starting with fusion products first—marinades, grill sauces and so on, to familiarize Americans with Indian tastes. Then we’ll move to the authentic route.

“We’re doing frozen meals now, chapatis and naans. I have 20 recipes ready to launch, south Indian food, like sambhar, rasam uttapam, dosas. But I have to educate the market as I go. People don’t realize what the process is that puts a product into a package. From start to finish, it takes 6-9 months to develop. We have think-tanks set up, some of whom look at the gaps in the market, others look at new packaging, others accessibility of raw materials. Our buyers are now very close to us, and tell us when they’ll be ready to launch new products.”

Meena Pathak travels to India every month, to meet suppliers, to shoot for foreign television, to develop new products. “I fly to India tomorrow, but I’ve just endorsed three curries for the Sainsbury’s supermarket in England, which debut in early February, so I’ll fly back to London for 4 days just to do the launch.”

“I have time for plenty of other things besides cooking. I do charity work, sit on various national committees, work with different ethnic communities, work out at the gym, walk the dogs, enjoy Indian music, go to the theater. I become a commoner after 6:30.”

Ginu Kamani can be reached at jungleeji@aol.com