Cooks of the World – Spice Up Your Life

arvinda_preenaIndie Food Artisan – Arvinda’s

The number one most intimidating aspect of cooking Indian food is the spicing. Although every Indian family creates their own masalas for certain dishes, these recipes are often closely-guarded secrets, and for folks who didn’t grow up blending and grinding their family’s special recipe for curry or garam masala or chai, getting the proportions just right can be overwhelming enough to make them want to toss the whole thing and head to Gerrard Street instead.

One woman was confident enough to share her masalas with the world, however, and through her cooking school and a family-run business selling her spices, Arvinda Chauhan’s name has become synonymous with Indian food.

Arvinda had been running Arvinda’s Healthy Gourmet Indian Cooking School for a number of years, where she began to sell bags of her spice blends to students. She would roast and grind the blends to order, using the family recipes passed down through the generations. Although still in high school, her daughter Preena (now the president of Arvinda’s) and her son Paresh talked about turning the spice business into a full-fledged company.

Preena explains how it came about, “I went on to do my Master’s degree in Environmental Studies, with the focus of my research centring on sustainable food systems and the role of the private sector in contributing to this through more ethical and sustainable practices. In my Summer 2005 term, I attained a grant from the Ministry of Economic Development and Trade at the time to start my own ‘summer company’. Since I was closely tied to my mother’s cooking school, and having always wanting to bring our spice blends to market, it was an opportunity I had to embrace.”

Since then, both siblings have come into the business full time, where the entire process remains very hands on. They have a 1200 square foot space in Oakville where they manufacture the spice blends, occasionally enlisting family members to help. The facility is fully health and safety compliant and is nut and gluten-free. This set-up allows them to maintain a high level of product quality and freshness. The recipes are the same ones Arvinda has been using for years, translated to bigger batches.

Ingredients are sourced based on quality, so Arvinda’s deals with a variety of suppliers to ensure the best end product in their line of almost a dozen items ranging from masala mixes, curries and tea to fresh frozen garlic and ginger. Preena admits to loving the curry masala and recommends using it to create a candied nut by combining it with pecans and maple syrup. I use it for a similar item made with cashews, and love to blend it with butter and brown sugar to drizzle on popcorn. She suggests a variety of unconventional uses for the blends and teas – such as using the chai masala in crème brule.

For more traditional uses, the spice blends can take a lot of the guesswork out of cooking Indian cuisine. “Our products, along with our recipes online do help people take the step in trying to make Indian cuisine for the first time,” explains Preena. “The most intimidating thing about trying to make a recipe from an Indian cookbook is the list of ingredients required. Some recipes may call for up to 15 different spices and herbs. With our products, our customers don’t have to buy all of the spices individually, which is expensive and also stressful to find the right ones.”

The recipes on the Arvinda’s site demonstrate the best ways to use the spices, and also exemplify an attitude that I find welcoming and very community oriented. The idea of sharing knowledge is a very positive and forward-thinking approach. Customers are encouraged to write in and share their recipes as well. “It’s really nice to get the feedback from our customers about the products,” Preena says. “What is amazing to hear are the creative and interesting ways in which our customers and clients have used our products – in ways I can’t even conceptualize! I’m always learning from them, which is great.”

The company also has a conscience, with links to the Slow Food movement in their attitude toward cooking from scratch, information about CSAs (Community Shared Agriculture) on their website, and fair-trade certified tea leaves for their chai masala. Preena says she would like to have all of their spices be fair-trade certified in the future, although quality comes first, so more work will have to be done in terms of sourcing.

The spice blends save the customer from having to track down a variety of ingredients that all need to be roasted and ground. And because they are fresh spices and not pastes, it is easier to control the amount of oil in the dish, making these dry blends the healthiest of options for the home cook.

Arvinda’s Spice Blends are available in the GTA at fine food stores such as Pusateri’s, All the Best Fine Foods, Leslieville Cheese Market and Ying Ying Soy Food in the lower level of St. Lawrence Market. For anyone who enjoys cooking Indian food but doesn’t want the fuss of roasting, grinding and storing leftover spices, consider some of Arvinda’s offerings. As someone who loves Indian food enough that I occasionally make my own curries and masalas, I can definitely vouch for the quality and flavour of the Arvinda’s products that I have tried.
Photos of Preena and Arvina Chauhan, copyright the Arvinda’s website. Used with permission.