Monday, May 20, 2024

These Entrepreneurs Want to Make South Asian Food an American Pantry Staple

When I first meet Umaimah Sharwani, she is dressed in a black Nike baseball cap and a long-sleeved Patagonia tee. It’s the perfect fit for a day of errands; after our interview, she is heading to a co-packer in New Jersey in preparation for Natural Products Expo East, a consumer packaged goods (CPG) event where she will be exhibiting her brand, Paro.

Sharwani, who is Pakistani American, launched Paro in early 2023 as a line of nutritious and time-saving boxed meal kits inspired by Pakistani comfort foods. With a decade’s worth of experience in logistics and operations, she devised 30-minute shortcuts to dishes like masoor dal, or red lentils, and kitchari — all the foods she craved when she wasn’t near her mom’s kitchen in Dallas. Her product line also includes a jarred ghee-based condiment called tarka, which is why, in part, I asked Sharwani to meet me on this crisp fall day.

In South Asia, tarka is both a cooking technique and an ingredient (there are many words for tarka, depending on where in the subcontinent you are from; it’s also sometimes spelled tadka). Meaning “to temper,” it is an essential final step in making dal where garlic, chile, and spices are bloomed in hot ghee or oil. This mixture, the tarka, is tipped, sizzling, into the bowl of cooked lentils, imparting a finishing burst of flavor into an otherwise lean dish.

I was a believer in Sharwani’s ready-to-eat tarka before I even tried it. At home, I struggle to make dal taste remotely like my Pakistani mother’s version. Paro’s tarka offered me, a nostalgic diaspora kid, some help. But there was something else at hand, something bigger than a diasporic shortcut.

“What I’m trying to do is reframe South Asian food as a pantry staple,” Sharwani says. “There’s no doubt in my mind that this is something everyone is going to love.”

Sharwani is part of a generation of entrepreneurs who have recently launched South Asian food brands in the hopes of one day moving beyond the confines of ethnicity to reach a mass market. These founders are working to cultivate a greater appetite for, and thus acceptance of, South Asian foods in the United States. It’s a costly endeavor, with no guarantee of success. In fact, just 10 percent of all startups, across all industries, succeed. But what’s at stake justifies the risk: In creating these brands, founders like Sharwani are collectively working to see themselves reflected in the modern American pantry, affirming their place in the American story.

South Asia, as a conceptual aggregate of people and cultures, is vast. By some definitions, it spans eight countries and encompasses nearly 2 billion people. The cuisine is as varied as the geography, and even the simplest of foods, like a rice dish called pulao, shape-shifts into countless permutations across borders both real and invisible.

Yet in the American marketplace, this diversity is whittled down to just a handful of foods. “The majority of people in this country still think tikka masala, naan, and chai is the end-all be-all,” says Chitra Agrawal, founder of Brooklyn Delhi, a pioneer of the modern South Asian CPG brand.

If South Asian-branded products are represented at all in grocery stores, particularly big-box stores like Kroger or Walmart, they are usually limited to a handful of categories like frozen meals and dump-and-stir sauces. “We know what we’re doing there,” says Kartik Das, who was born in Chennai, India, and grew up in Singapore. “But there’s a whole subset of our cuisine that just doesn’t exist on their radar.”

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Das has joined the effort to change that, starting with the underappreciated category of South Asian snacks. He recently launched Doosra, inspired by savory snack mixes called namkeen (again, there are myriad names for this). But rather than simply reintroduce a conventional product with new packaging, Das is experimenting more broadly. In his signature mix, he uses masala-seasoned boondi (crisp balls of fried chickpea batter), then adds peanuts and, for a novel twist, caramelized white chocolate chips.

Das, like other makers, has created a product that is rooted in South Asian culture but shaped by the tastes and aesthetics of a Western palate. The result is a pleasing, if nontraditional, balance of sour, salty, and sweet. “I’m doing this for folks like me,” he says.

Indeed, there are so few brands that reflect the pluralistic identities of South Asians living in America: those of us who slip in and out of multiple languages, code-switch in different environments, and draw from ancestral histories that begin in distant places, but have somehow ended up here.

This desire for more nuanced representation, along with the quintessentially Pakistani love for mirchi, or chile, eventually led to the launch of Peepal People, a fermented hot sauce company that Alyzeh Rizvi started with her husband, Ahmer Zaidi, in Atlanta in 2020. “We wanted to create something that has the complexity of who we are as individuals,” says Rizvi, who grew up in Karachi, Pakistan.

Their trio of sauces is made with ingredients from a typical Pakistani kitchen — anardana (dried pomegranate seeds), amchur (dried green mango), and turmeric — but you’d be hard-pressed to find anything of the sort in Pakistan. “It’s not quite Pakistani, and it’s not quite American, because that’s the world we live in,” says Zaidi.

Rizvi, who attended the Rhode Island School of Design, was determined to stay away from branding that conjures an Orientalist image of South Asians (e.g., endless paisley or the image of an unnamed uncle in a turban). Instead, Peepal People reflects Rizvi’s multifaceted voice as a Pakistani woman, business owner, and mother living in the American South. She designed the labels with earthy colors to mimic the sauce in each bottle, and illustrated cross-sections of vegetables in the style of a botanist’s field guide.

“I’ve received so many messages from Pakistanis who are proud of the image that we’re portraying,” Rizvi says. “It’s a modern one, it resonates with them.”

As much as founders like Rizvi, Zaidi, and Das are speaking to their own communities with reinvigorated branding, their ultimate aspiration is scale. After finding ourselves in stores like Patel Brothers, the South Asian diaspora now wants to be seen in places like Whole Foods. More than a neat metaphor for greater visibility and acceptance in all aspects of life, it’s a smart business move: A broader pool of potential customers is enticing to investors, who can help a brand reach critical mass. “CPG is a funding game,” says Emily Schildt, the founder and CEO of Pop Up Grocer in New York.

But still, a big question remains: How do you outrun the persistent shadow of otherness when your product is constantly relegated to the grocery store’s international aisle?

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“We have the next wave of responsibility, which is not just representing on a shelf, but getting to integrate on the shelves,” says Mitalee Bharadwaj, co-founder of Transcendence Coffee, a brand of premium coffee syrups made with whole spices. (Bharadwaj is Indian American and her company’s co-founder, Lisa Yala, is Algerian American, a role model to her own diaspora, which is similarly underrepresented in the start-up world.)

Bharadwaj and Yala launched Transcendence Coffee in 2022 with the goal of putting some fun into the self-serious genre of indie coffee culture. Their brand is also a gateway to flavors they’ve named Indian gulab jamun (infused with cardamom, saffron, and rose) and Algerian baklava (honey with cinnamon and orange blossom). Intentionally or not, the pair has created a brand that can live anywhere in a grocery store, bridging the gap between their “international” flavors and a syrup with a variety of uses. (Yala confirms that Algerian baklava is excellent in an espresso martini.)

Still, the core challenge in moving past the ethnic aisle is educating consumers about new products and, most importantly, how to use them. “The brand has to do a lot of work,” says Agrawal, who is celebrating Brooklyn Delhi’s 10th year in business. “It’s a tough slog.”

In nearly every case, founders told me how they struggled with nomenclature and branding that was clear and convincing, but not alienating. “I don’t want to make it so niche that nobody besides a select demographic gets it,” says Vishal Ramakrishnan, founder of Kanira, which makes a millet-based biscuit in flavors like chai spice, turmeric and ginger, and coconut and cardamom. “But I also don’t want to lose the story behind the product.”

Put another way, founders first need to convince the public that their products are easy to use (and taste good, of course). Although their origin story is important, it’s a tertiary message. How to communicate all of this requires striking a delicate balance between appealing to a wider audience while staying true to one’s culture.

One thing these founders have going for them is timing. Recently, there has been an unprecedented appetite for South Asian culture filtered through a South Asian point of view (as opposed to, say, chai from Starbucks or yoga classes at your local gym). It’s apparent in the success of restaurants like Dhamaka in New York, Pijja Palace in Los Angeles, and Thattu in Chicago, as well as the unicorn-level success of the Diaspora Co. spice business and hit TV shows like Never Have I Ever or Ms. Marvel, a Marvel franchise built around a Pakistani superhero. For South Asian businesses, it helps to rise with the tide of these other cultural phenomena.

“As much as you need to put in the work, you still have to have some kind of tail wind, like a broader cultural shift,” says Ramakrishnan, who launched Kanira from his home in New Jersey in 2022 to provide an alternative to sugary on-the-go snacks and bars.

Some entrepreneurs are also looking at the myriad issues affecting us today, namely climate change and the indefatigable quest for healthier foods. Ramakrishnan, like many other South Asian founders, sees an opportunity to establish his brand’s relevance by offering a solution to these concerns. Millet is a climate-friendly grain, ingredients like lentils and spices have purported healing properties, and the wellness industry has made fermentation the new Wild West of health and immunity.

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Collectively, this group of brands is nudging the anxious consumer away from an uncertain future and toward our ancient traditions. It helps that they gear their products toward a younger, more conscientious demographic. Gen Z is categorically defined as a generation that is open to experimentation, more accepting of a wider palette of flavors, and values transparency. “It’s not about gatekeeping what you grew up with,” says Bharadwaj. “It’s about exposing people to new things.” For consumers, this translates to supporting brands that express something authentic and original.

It follows that this generation is especially conscious of appropriation. In a world full of ambiguously named “golden lattes,” these founders are hoping consumers will be receptive to their efforts at reclaiming popular ingredients and flavors, without the stigma of being seen as too foreign, unfit for the association. “What’s most important is that we’re crediting where things come from,” says Yala.

The challenges of growing a South Asian food brand in America mimic what is true in broader daily life — that navigating between two cultures is not easy. That, and commodifying culture is tricky. The quick calculus at the point of sale inevitably leads to weighing a product’s familiarity, or lack thereof, with its price or value.

“How do we create a brand that resonates with all these different people, educating at the same time about South Asian culture?” asks Rizvi, pinpointing the dual burden of representation and education.

Encouraging more people to acquire a taste for new flavors takes time and, in this industry, time requires money. South Asian founders receive a fraction of what their white counterparts get in terms of funding. Knowing that startups often fail within their first two years, often due to finances, these brands are fast approaching their make-or-break eras.

Still, while money is a practical necessity in business, it’s not necessarily the primary motivation for any of these founders. “It’s about creating an open mindedness,” the idea “that different is not bad,” says Das. Theirs is a quintessentially American dream — to build something from scratch, to manifest the myth of the great melting pot.

Sharwani tells me her hope is that Paro’s jarred tarka can move beyond its place as a niche South Asian seasoning and ascend to the daily repertoire of anyone who loves a pop of flavor. It’s no small thing to change the tastes of a nation, and Sharwani takes pride in any sign of progress, using Paro’s Instagram account to repost creators who have used the spicy, buttery topping to garnish pasta, noodles, even a tuft of crusty bread. “It has already taken so long for South Asian food to be noticed,” she says. “Now it’s finally happening for us.”

Mahira Rivers is a freelance writer and restaurant critic based in New York.
Juliette Toma is an illustrator based in Los Angeles.

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