Kalpana Waikar connects culture and community through cuisine
Kalpana Waikar remembers lying very young against her mother’s shoulder, her small hands breaking small balls of dough into ovals, which she then separated into semicircles. She grabs the dough in her fist, forming a cone and filling it with potatoes and peas.
There were always plenty of samosas, she recalls –– enough for her family, plus extras to share with the community.
Connecting family and community is Waikar’s mission for Inspired Indian Cooking, his spice shop on Dempster St. She sells pre-made Indian spice kits, which she says aim to make potentially daunting cooking more accessible.
“I just realized that the sense of community, like interacting with customers, was really valuable,” Waikar said.
The store itself is painted in what Waikar described as turmeric yellow, the walls casting a faint glow. On one wall, there’s a rainbow of colorful little packets — each containing spices and instructions for seasoning different Indian dishes.
Red is for vindaloo, which most customers associate with mouth-watering spiciness, Waikar said. But that’s not really the case.
It was British and Portuguese settlers who added this intense spiciness to vindaloo, which was traditionally a milder dish, Waikar said. Thus, her vindaloo is not spicy, and she makes a point of educating her customers on this colonial conception of vindaloo.
“I don’t want anyone to feel bad,” Waikar said. “But really that kind of explanation of what curry is, that’s what I really like to do.”
This educational aspect of inspired Indian cooking is what excites Waikar’s daughter, Sarika, the most. She said that one day she envisioned her mother’s turmeric walls being dotted with QR codes educating customers about the origins and history of different spices.
Sarika, who worked at Inspired Indian Cooking this summer, hopes to help her mother pursue the educational goal of the store. At school, she led educational events on social justice initiatives in the South Asian community.
“I love interacting with customers and just talking about our family stories,” Sarika said. “I think it can be linked to social justice in a deeper way.”
Customers also said they could learn about Indian culture through the spice kits. Ande Breunig, a resident of Evanston, a loyal customer, describes herself as a “semi-spice lover”.
Before using Waikar’s kits, she would usually sprinkle spices on her food after cooking. But Waikar’s kits include whole spices typical of Indian cuisine. Breunig learned how to properly add spices to Indian dishes throughout the process.
Even as an aficionado, Breunig found herself outside of her comfort zone cooking with packets from the shop and using new techniques to process her spices.
“When you cook with his spices, you feel a bit like a professional chef,” Breunig said. “It just gave me a sense of accomplishment, like, ‘Oh! I don’t have to be afraid of things I’ve never done before.
Waikar said using whole spices separates Indian food from other cultures — and separates his company from competitors.
There are plenty of other companies that sell pre-ground spice blends, but Waikar roasts cumin seeds and star anise, along with more than 20 other spices, every Monday, just like his mother used to when she was a child. As far as Waikar knows, Inspired Indian Cooking is the only store that sells freshly roasted spices.
It’s the experience of seeing these spices turn into authentic Indian cuisine that keeps people coming back. Of about 1,000 local customers, about 700 have become regular visitors, Waikar said.
Waikar has been teaching clients like Breunig about spices and Indian cooking since 2019, when his business was an online Indian spice subscription box.
Almost a year later, in February 2020, Waikar filmed a video detailing how to fold samosas. She shapes the dough into small cones, as her mother taught her half a century ago. This time, it’s her daughter who learns through the screen.
Since moving to college, Sarika said she has used her mother’s spice kits and expertise to learn Indian cooking, in line with her mother’s educational mission.
“I would like to create a legacy,” Waikar said, “of what this business means to both my clients and my family.”
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