Meet Masala Mama, One Brooklyn Cook’s Take on Indian Spices

While European cuisines create richness by combining complementary flavors, many South Asian sub-cuisines use disparate flavors to create complex dishes.

A delicious bowl of spinach, dal and horiz. Photo courtesy Masala Mama.

While European cuisines create richness by combining complementary flavors — think asparagus and hollandaise or broccoli rabe and garlic — many South Asian sub-cuisines use disparate flavors to create complex dishes.

To assemble a single South Asian dish, a home chef has to not only master multiple indigenous cooking techniques, but also learn how to layer contrasting flavors, from whole and ground spices to aromatics and souring agents.

Enter Masala Mama, a Crown Heights–based food startup founded by Nidhi Jalan, a fine artist turned food entrepreneur.

“[Masala Mama] began with spices,” Jalan said. “The spice kit idea was to give people the know-how to make authentic Indian food without having a larder of 40 spices.” Masala Mama’s organic Indian spice kits provide cooks pre-measured sachets of spices and an easy-to-follow recipe to create regional South Asian classics at home. The company’s “Goa Coconut Curry Organic Spice Kit,” which Jalan says is her personal favorite product, includes kokum, a plant in the mangosteen family that imparts a sour flavor and an ingredient rarely found in Western-style supermarkets.

Jalan immigrated to the United States about 15 years ago — to study and make art. Yet it was a hankering for foods from her native India that kept her soliciting recipes from friends and experimenting in the kitchen. She began teaching cooking classes as a way to supplement her art income. “I actually thought I would be able to do both, cooking and art — start a food business and have an art practice,” Jalan said. “I realized that it was one or the other, and I decided to go hard in the food business.”

In the company’s early days, Jalan sourced all her spices in India, and packaged the products in her home country as well, but found maintaining an international supply chain to be very challenging. She has now has partnered with suppliers and vendors in the United States. “The learning curve has been very high,” she said. “I feel now I’m getting a handle on it.” Masala Mama products can be purchased online, or at a number of fine food shops in Brooklyn and Manhattan.

While her spice kits continue to be best sellers, Jalan, who kick-started her business in 2012 with a $15,000 prize from the Brooklyn Public Library and Citi Foundation’s annual PowerUP! Competition, has recently expanded her product line to include simmer sauces. “Everybody wants the tikka masala,” she said, a testament to the curry’s familiarity and ubiquity. “At Smorgasburg [Brooklyn’s weekly open-air food market], we had to make batch after batch of tikka masala!” she said, laughing.

Jalan hopes that her line of simmer sauces helps to demystify South Asian cooking, just as her spice kits do. “When I do a demo in a store, the vindaloo [simmer sauce] is the one that sells out,” she said. “It’s interesting because Indian restaurants have made people scared of vindaloo. But good vindaloo doesn’t have to be very hot and spicy. It’s the vinegar, it’s the garlic, it’s the aromatic spices — that’s what makes the vindaloo.”

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Pooja Makhijani

Pooja Makhijani writes children's books, essays, and articles, and also develops educational media and curricula.