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Oakland Tribune, The (CA)

March 22, 2005
Inside Bay Area

The right Indian spices? It's all in the bag(s)

   Jolene Thym, FOOD WRITER

IWANT to be an expert at Indian cooking. I want to know how to combine spices with legumes and vegetables to make dishes that stun my family, dishes so good that I could proudly share them with friends who have grown up eating curries and pulaus. Some day that might happen. In the meantime, my talent for making Indian food comes in 15 foil packages, each filled with just the right spices to make such things as tandoori chicken, potato-pea curry, madras masala or tikka masala. The dishes come out absolutely perfect every time, thanks to Sulu Lalchandani of Foster City, who decided five years ago to simplify complex Indian dishes by creating spice packets that allow cooks to just dump and simmer.

"There are so many people who love Indian food, but they are afraid to make it themselves," she says. "They think it is difficult."

To help her friends and co-workers see just how easy it is to make Indian curries, Lalchandani started giving out little bags of spice mix. She would tell them exactly how to use it and ask them to report back.

"They liked the mixes so much. I was filling up so many bags," she says. That's when she realized there might be a market for Indian spice blends. She created a business name, Dil Khush Indian Gourmet Food, and headed for the local farmers' market.

"People would come every week to buy the spices," she says. "Some people would buy them to take backpacking. Some of the people don't know how to cook Indian food, but a lot of my customers are Indians who are very busy, so they like the help."

When the lines at the farmers' market got so long that Whole Foods "discovered" her products, Lalchandani was forced to get more organized. She designed packaging, developed a Web site and hired help to mix, grind and package the products. She also makes six chutneys.

"This has all just happened so fast," Lalchandani says of her business, which includes not only the packets, but also a large and growing restaurant business.

"More and more businesses are adding Indian food to their menus once or twice a week. Maybe the chef at the cafeteria isn't Indian, but their employees are Indian, or they just like the flavors."

Indian food, she says, is also growing more popular in general.

"I think that people are beginning to realize that it is a very healthy way to eat," she says. Her mixes are low in sodium and usually include low-fat ingredient options. For example, traditional curries might be made with cream or sour cream. Lalchandani's recipes suggest non-fat yogurt or milk as substitutes.

Much of the charm of Lalchandani's mixes is that they are ultra-simple to use, requiring only about three steps and 30 minutes from start to finish.

"It always starts the same. You saut the spices in a little bit of oil, then you add your vegetables or meat or rice."

She sells eight pulaus, or rice mixes, plus a lineup of spice blends to make tandoori meats, Kashmiri meat dishes, lamb vindaloo, vegetable curries and chicken korma.

A lot of people might actually know the difference between them, and be able to describe how the dishes should look and taste. I'm still too new to Indian food to be able to do that.

In fact, I sometimes mix the spices from two kinds of curry, and cook different vegetables or meats from what the packet suggests. I just can't resist experimentation. Apparently, I'm not alone.

On her Web site, Lalchandani offers additional tips and recipes, and invites customers to comment.

"We get comments from so many people. Some of their suggestions just make my mouth drop," she says. "One person suggested sprinkling the spice mix over pasta. I am always so surprised."

Another customer suggested making her tamarind rice packet with hot, Louisiana-style sausages. Lalchandani tried it and liked it herself.

Despite my sad lack of Indian food savvy, I am pleased to report that at least one member of my family says "my" Indian dishes are "better" than the local Indian restaurant.

If I do summon the courage to invite my Indian friends over for an Indian dinner, I think I'll follow Lalchandani's directions exactly, and I will pull out our newest chutney discovery — a jar of pepper jelly that just never tasted quite right on toast.

-Dil Khush spice packets and pulaus are $3.25 each. Chutneys are $5 per jar. Lalchandani is still building her business, so availability is spotty. Her products can be found at Piazza Fine Foods in San Mateo, Whole Foods in Redwood City, at the San Carlos, Redwood City and Belmont farmers' markets, and online through her Web site

You can e-mail food writer Jolene Thym at or call (510) 353-7008.

(c) 2005 The Oakland Tribune. All rights reserved. Reproduced with the permission of Media NewsGroup, Inc. by NewsBank, Inc.