When Kashmir kehwa sells in Canada

Niche regional spices and foods are enjoying a resurgence in popularity, both in India and abroad, in a movement led by a nostalgic diaspora, curious cooks and innovative entrepreneurs

Niche regional spices and foods are enjoying a resurgence in popularity, both in India and abroad, in a movement led by a nostalgic diaspora, curious cooks and innovative entrepreneurs

It all started with a shelf. At Matamaal, a Delhi-based restaurant that gives the capital a taste of Kashmiri Pandit cuisine, Hans Sadhu recalls a locker: “It used to be reserved for all our spices regularly brought in from Kashmir. It got a lot of attention and diners were asking about it all the time,” says Hans, whose mother, chef Nalini Sadhu, founded and runs the restaurant.

Vaer tiki masala from Matamaal, retailed by Kanz & Muhul

Vaer tiki masala from Matamaal, retailed by Kanz & Muhul | Photo credit: special arrangement

The star of this shelf was – and continues to be – the vaer tiki masala, a dried cake of mixed spices shaped like a large doughnut. “Each family has their own slight variation of the spice mix, but the broad recipe includes mustard oil, coriander, Kashmiri chili peppers and whole spices. It’s usually added right at the end: once a dish is fully prepared, we smash a light pinch of spice over the cake, sprinkle it over the top of the dish, and cover it for a few minutes. It completely enhances the taste,” says Hans.

Having reached the kitchen of Matamaal, based in Delhi, this vaer tiki now travels beyond Delhi to other parts of the country, as well as overseas to the United States and Canada. It’s one of the most popular items from Kanz & Muhul, a direct selling brand launched by Hans in 2020 that ships everything from chillies to honey from Kashmir-based growers to the rest of the world. “”The brand was born solely from the customers of our restaurant who constantly ask us about these spices on our shelf,” he says.

Kanz & Muhul is not alone. In recent years, the growing popularity of regional Indian dishes has given way to a fervent curiosity about regional ingredients – Why does Bihari Flaxseed Chutney have a distinctive taste? What is mace, the outer husk of nutmeg popular in the Anamalais, used for? What exactly goes into Bengali spice mix panch phoron? Responding to this curiosity, and the growing homesickness of regional cuisine lovers who have moved to other cities and countries, is a generation of young retail brands determined to educate the general public.

How to shop

Indians living in the US, UK and Australia can order regional spice, fruit and masala blends from www.diaspora.com. Prices start at $12.

Foodies from India, USA and Canada can source Kashmiri Pandit ingredients from kanzandmuhul.com. Prices range from ₹90 to ₹1600.

Indians across the country can source Kolhapuri, Bihari and other regional ingredients from www.nuttyyogi.com and partner retail websites. Prices start at ₹99.

A response to nostalgia

“Every household, including mine, has a spice blend that is very exclusive to that community. Our target is the people they miss,” says Pallavi Gupta, Founder and CEO of Bengaluru-based Nutty Yogi, who has been shipping regional flours, handmade condiments, murabbas, spices and more across the country since 2018.

Spices are a small but consistent part of Nutty Yogi’s operations today. “We receive around 500 to 1,000 spice orders per month,” says Pallavi, adding, “Most of our customers are based in metropolitan cities.” According to her, the reason Nutty Yogi Spices attracts this clientele is simple: “Most of our recipes come from a collective group of mothers and grandmothers. When we did our research and asked them for their homemade recipes, most of them were happy to share. Some of them even make small batches which we sell.

The Nutty Yogi Spice Collection

The Nutty Yogi Spice Collection | Photo credit: special arrangement

Thus, their Kolhapuri masalas and Bengali spice blends are “all coarsely ground to order, in order to retain the aroma. We don’t aim for long shelf life, and when we researched these spice blends in retail stores, we found them to be too finely ground. So we decided to make up for it,” says Pallavi.

On the other hand, with the customers of Kanz & Muhul, Hans sees a clear trend: “Our foreign customers stock up quarterly when it comes to spices. In winter, we also see an increase in demand for our mix of kehwa, saffron, walnuts and blue beans. Most of these customers are overseas-based Kashmiris, seeking the familiar flavors of comfort in the harsh cold of Western countries. In India, however, Kanz & Muhul’s clientele are people from outside the community, waking up to the magic of this cuisine for the first time.

In contact with the ground

According to Hans, the reason for his brand’s continued success is his strong family ties. “My father takes care of all the supplies himself; he has a personal relationship with the farmers back home,” he says. It helps that, like Matamaal, Kanz & Muhul deliberately focuses on simple, homey taste: “Even in Kashmir, it was never commercial food. It was a kitchen you could only find in someone’s home.

Saffron flowers harvested for Kanz & Muhul

Saffron flowers harvested for Kanz & Muhul | Photo credit: special arrangement

In faraway California, another brand is working to bridge the gap between diaspora and homeland. From the nutmeg and mace of Anamalai to the sillo sougri or hibiscus of the Naga hills of Manipur, Diaspora has worked with farmers across the country to bring extremely local products from India and Sri Lanka to the ‘foreign.

Like Kanz, the Diaspora’s priority is the people of the country, but they show it in a different way. Kumud Dadlani, Head of Sourcing at Diaspora, says, “Our baseline, which remains consistent throughout our sourcing process, is that we seek out regenerative small-scale farmers who intentionally work on soil health. (which we like to think of as the future of food) Sometimes we also work with the Spice Institute of India (Kozhikode) and get an understanding from them of the type of farmers working in an area, who they work with for the institute’s soil and seed projects. [Javeri Kadri, who co-founded the company in 2017 at the age of 23] spent time traveling across India to meet farmers and network. Between his network and the one I built working with Slow Food and a hotel company, we have another way of approaching sourcing.

The diaspora sources hibiscus or sillo sourgri from the hills of Naga

Diaspora sources hibiscus or soured sillo of the Naga Hills | Photo credit: special arrangement

Understanding the regions and the realities on the ground, collecting samples, testing pesticide residues and engaging sustainably with farmers are its operational priorities. Kumud gives an example, when the diaspora spent years trying to find good sweet fennel. “Dharmesh, our coriander grower based in Shedhubhar, Gujarat, had some old seed varieties. He asked for a year to set up a small plot and grow them – “next year you just have a taste and see if you like it. These seeds are extremely premium and potent, I think that’s what you’re looking for,” he said,” Kumud recalled. Although the team kept testing other samples over the year, Dharmesh’s harvest turned out to be exactly what they were looking for. This hariyali fennel is one of the brand’s most popular products today.

From an initial offering of turmeric pragati in 2017, Diaspora has grown to five spices in 2019, 10 in 2020 and nearly 30 in 2021. The growth of its product line seems exponential from the outside, but for the team working behind the scenes, it’s just par for the course. “The reason we doubled our products in any given year is because the last two years had been spent on field research for these products,” she explains.

COVID-led conversations

The pandemic, unsurprisingly, has resulted in a series of both minor and major delays. But agriculture and food supply being marked as essential by the government has helped teams navigate.

Yakhni spice blend by Kanz & Muhul

Yakhni Spice Blend by Kanz & Muhul | Photo credit: special arrangement

The diaspora, in particular, has seen a surge of interest during the shutdowns for all the right reasons. Kumud recalls, “If you see our growth, we had the most launches in 2020-21. With people forced to be at home, we’ve seen more engagement with cooking at home, trying to understand where food comes from, supply chains and life cycles… It’s not s It wasn’t about buying and selling at the time, we were really having conversations about food. The brand has always been about farmer wages and regenerative farming systems: in a way, we had the opportunity to talk about that in 2020-21. »

It also helps the brand actively share recipes and cooking tips for all of its niche ingredients. After all, for Indians living away from home, food means belonging and community.

Freeda S. Scott