One criticism Madhuri Sharma’s heard lately—and she’s heard it quite often—is that she can’t quite portion the tomatoes right. This was my own experience when she sent me a box of pre-packaged ingredients you’d need to make methi chicken, an aromatic curry with fenugreek that calls, in part, for chopped tomatoes that eventually break down into a sauce.
I cooked through the box alongside my roommate, a white, Jewish girl from Maryland who didn't grow up eating Indian food like I did. After letting some diced onions sit with ginger-garlic paste on the oiled-up pan for a bit, I added in the tomatoes alongside cumin, coriander, turmeric, and garam masala. The tomatoes began to collapse and de-moisturize, sticking to the base of my pan. Slightly frantic, I settled for some nearby canned tomato sauce I left in the fridge before I added in any chicken.
“That’s consistent feedback we’ve been getting,” Sharma tells me. “We’ve started to reconsider how we measure tomatoes. Every cook’s kitchen is different. People’s pot sizes make a difference. So does the amount of heat.”
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Sharma, 32, is one half of Saffron Fix, a fledgling meal kit startup that aims to be the Blue Apron of Indian food. It offers a promise of demystification and ease, to inspire the time-crunched home cook to navigate the many cuisines of India.
Saffron Fix is a modest operation; right now, it serves 21 states on the East Coast, along with metropolitan Chicago and Atlanta. The two women are its sole full-time employees, though they have one intern who’s been working with them for a few years now. Born and raised in the Bay Area but now living in suburban New Jersey, Sharma came to Saffron Fix in a rather roundabout fashion. In 2014, her business partner Ankita Sharma (no relation) approached her through mutual friends, telling her she was shopping for a collaborator for this new project she’d dreamt up. This company would be solely dedicated to Indian food, delivering pre-chopped ingredients portioned to feed two people.
Sharma hadn’t been thinking about entrepreneurship at all, but she was tickled by the idea. So the two of them secured funding through a Kickstarter campaign. Sharma continued to pursue Saffron Fix as a side hustle, a supplement to her career in media production, for a few years before she began noticing a greater number of repeat customers. Late last year, the two women moved into a kitchen space in New York City and quit their jobs to focus on Saffron Fix full-time. They decided there was enough interest to sustain a subscription model, so, in March, they launched a biweekly service with vegetarian and non-vegetarian options, along with the choice of getting two or three dishes per order.
Sharma's interest in devoting herself to this endeavor grew out of her own experience at the Institute for Culinary Education. During that period, she found that her peers were looking to her for knowledge of Indian food. In class, she’d encounter recipes written by “some dude in the middle of nowhere who’s never had Indian food.” Classmates asked her to teach them the real thing, but she didn’t quite know these particulars herself. “I was in culinary school, and I was learning about Italian food and French food,” she remembers, still slightly bewildered. “And I didn’t even know how to make my own food.”
So she turned to her family, those who taught her everything—anything, really—she knew about Indian food. She asked her mother and mother-in-law for recipes, pulling teeth in the process. Sharma would find that certain dishes called for a pinch of salt of dash of turmeric, defying the measurements that she was used to in culinary school. How would you translate that to the language of home cooking? Is that a teaspoon? To her elders, adding these imprecisely-measured ingredients was obvious. For Sharma, it was a steep learning curve. But she felt empowered by this process; more crucially, she felt proud.
Sharma aims for Saffron Fix be a national product in the next five years, though she’d love to be international. She's confident that she could grow Saffron Fix into an operation as large as Blue Apron, HelloFresh, or Marley Spoon, so long as she’s still connected to the core of her constituency and has a firm pulse on what it wants. “We definitely want our growth to be very organic, because we’re still trying to understand what people want,” she explains. “The big challenge of growing is understanding that segment of the market, who your customers are and honing your product to make it perfect for them.”
She fears scaling too quickly, especially when I bring up Blue Apron's well-documented woes and growing pains. “There are some problems you only face as you scale and you need to figure it out as you go,” she says. “You may lose a segment of your customer base because you may not have fully understood who they were. Or you may scale to the point where there are operational holes that you need to solve.”
That said, Sharma would also like to expand the business' capabilities beyond just being a meal kit delivery service. “I want to transform Saffron Fix into your go-to brand for all things Indian cooking,” she proclaims. “Where you go to get your recipes, your spices, not just meal kits. Right now, there isn’t a source for Indian food that is universally trusted. When I’m looking for Indian recipes or products, there’s not one place I’d go. There’s no centralization. That gives us an opportunity to step in.”
Lately, Sharma has felt frustrated by the ways in which she’s seen the valences of Indian cuisine get simplified or smoothed over, stuffed into a rubric dictated by restaurants. What's considered marketable suffers from the influence of those eateries, though she’s made a concerted effort to change this. She believes it’s starting to change now that people are gaining a more nuanced vocabulary for speaking about regionalism in non-Western food in the same way they do for Northern and Southern Italian food.
But she hopes that Saffron Fix will come to hold a special position of influence in shaping the average consumer’s understanding of what a term like “Indian food” even means, that it'll stimulate this shift in mentality. When conceptualizing her boxes, Sharma has thus tried to make her offerings reflect the breadth and range of cuisines within India, from West Bengal to Kashmir. She’d also like to work against the misconception that most Indian food is heavy or unhealthy, knowing that it carries connotations of congestion, and instead celebrate its lighter aspects. So she’s put, in recent boxes, lemon vermicelli, fish cooked in banana leaves, kebabs, and kati rolls. She’s also begun toying with Indian flavors and putting them in places customers may not expect: garam masala duck tacos, veggie masala quinoa bowls.
For now, though, she's incorporated these dishes alongside the usual suspects like saag paneer and chicken tikka masala. The box I received came with a recipe for methi chicken that resembled the flavors of my own mother's cooking, turning amber once the spices have all settled. In spite of the tomato deficit, I liked it quite a lot for this very reason: It was the closest any commercial product had ever come to to my own family's cooking. This was a dish my roommate, though, never even had before; she liked it, too.
Mayukh Sen is a James Beard Award-winning food and culture writer in New York. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, the New Yorker, Bon Appetit, and elsewhere. He won a 2018 James Beard Award in Journalism for his profile of Princess Pamela published on Food52.
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