Welcome to The Quality Makers, an interview series highlighting pioneers in the direct-to-consumer space. Join us as we get an inside look at the world of digital shopping through the eyes of the individuals shaping it…
Chitra Agrawal is the founder of Brooklyn Delhi: a food company selling premium Indian sauces and condiments, and the author of Vibrant India: Fresh Vegetarian Recipes from Bangalore to Brooklyn. While Agrawal was raised in New Jersey, her parents are Indian immigrants – her mother comes from Bangalore and her father is from Delhi. Being a mixture of North and South Indian has heavily influenced Chitra’s flavors; when you grow up with parents from different regions of India, it’s almost as if you’re growing up in a multicultural home.
Although living in suburban Jersey, a predominantly white and homogeneous space, and being one of the only South Asians in her class was a painful experience, Chitra found the strength to rewrite her upbringing into a positive story – one that ultimately led her to claim her own position in the food world.
How did you balance trying to assimilate but also staying true to your roots during your upbringing?
CA: “I was lucky because a South Asian girl moved into our neighborhood when I was in fourth or fifth grade, and that really changed things for me. Finally there was somebody that looked like me and also ate Indian food at home. I felt less alone.The other piece for me was that I had family that also lived in Jersey. My mom's youngest sister lived nearby and she had two children, my cousins, who I became really close with because we were around the same age. They lived in Edison, a South Asian enclave, which was very different from my hometown. I felt really lucky to have those experiences and to have cousins around me that I could commiserate with, especially when I was having a hard time fitting in at school. A lot of times they were experiencing the same things, so it was nice to have that support.”
Tell me about how your upbringing and/or your family played a role in your passion for the food world. How did those experiences ultimately lead you to create Brooklyn Delhi?
CA: “In South Asian houses in general, mine included, food is such a central focus. I was lucky because both my parents loved to cook, so there were always two chefs in the kitchen. They were very eager to share the foods that stem from their respective regions, so my mom would make traditional Karnataka-style meals, like idli, dosa, saru, huli, etc. and my father would make all the breads, like chapati, puri, parathas and curries like rajma and saag paneer. My brother and I were involved in the cooking processes as well, whether we were washing vegetables or rolling chapatis.
My parents were always longing for home, so we would go back to India every year and that was another window into understanding the foods they grew up loving. We would go to the market every day, come back and then make a meal. I learned so much from older family members in India, and as I became more interested in food, it was this medium through which I could connect to them on a deeper level. There was this commonality all of a sudden, and food allowed them to open up - they started telling me stories that they otherwise wouldn’t have mentioned. It became a way for me to (re)connect with my heritage.
I started to collect all of these recipes from relatives. I was writing them down in notebooks or putting them into email files, and eventually I just decided to start a blog where I could document everything. As I became comfortable making the traditional recipes, I began to create my own, inspired by what I’d get in my farm share or other cuisines I was discovering in the city. The blog became a way for me to explore my identity as an Indian-American through the lens of food. At that time, around 2009, I was living in Brooklyn and a food renaissance of sorts was taking place outside of what was happening in the restaurant scene. I started teaching cooking classes and collaborating with chefs and farmers to develop Indian-inspired menus for pop up dinners and markets all over the city. All of those experiences are what led me to eventually write a cookbook and found Brooklyn Delhi.”
Why start with ‘achaar’ (Indian pickle)?
CA: “I’ve been obsessed with achaar for so long and have loved those intense flavors from a young age. I started making different kinds of achaar using traditional Indian pickling techniques and applying them to local produce like rhubarb or American gooseberries. My husband told me: ‘You’re so passionate about making the achaar and people are loving them, why don't we work together – you make the recipes and since I have all this experience in food packaging design, I’ll design the branding.’
We decided to enter a business plan competition with the idea of Brooklyn Delhi and my achaars, but we actually ended up losing [laughs]. Yet, we thought: we’ve done all this work, why don’t we just launch it anyways? I had also just landed a cookbook deal so at that point I decided to jump into food full time and leave my decade long career in marketing behind. I rented a commercial kitchen space at a soup pantry in Bed Stuy where I handmade all our products and then I’d sell them at markets in the city on the weekends. I realized that even though achaar is a staple in all South Asian homes, it was relatively unknown to most Americans so there was and still is a lot of education involved with the work we do at Brooklyn Delhi around achaar. Slowly but surely, we are figuring it out.”
Tell me about the products you offer. Have you thought about branching out into selling other kinds of foods, or are you trying to stay a ‘sauces and condiments’ company?
CA: “With Brooklyn Delhi, I want to continue creating and developing new products. It’s what I love most about my work. What’s special is that all of our products are inspired by what I make in my kitchen like our Curry Ketchup ($10) which is homemade ketchup infused with the flavor of my Tomato Achaar ($12). Our products have all come about in very different ways. For instance, our Sweet Mango Chutney ($12) and our Coconut Cashew Korma Simmer Sauce ($12) were developed in collaboration with Blue Apron, and those later became retail products that went onto the shelf.
I developed a line of Indian simmer sauces for Whole Foods. There’s always a little spin to everything we do which reflects my own preferences. For instance, our Tikka Masala Simmer Sauce ($12) is vegan and made with organic coconut cream instead of butter and cream. Recently, we came out with our Cashew Butter Masala Simmer Sauce ($12), the first vegan butter masala on the market. The products I make at Brooklyn Delhi are a true merging of my South Asian heritage and American upbringing. When we launched in 2014, being an Indian-American brand was not very common, but now there are so many up and coming South Asian brands; it’s really an exciting time for our community to shine.”
What do you hope people will take away from Brooklyn Delhi, other than your tasty sauces and condiments? What is your vision for the future of the company?
CA: “Through Brooklyn Delhi, I want to honor South Asian cooking traditions and make hiqh quality Indian food mainstream. We are pushing against the belief that Indian food should be cheap when bought at the grocery store. Like the name suggests, Brooklyn Delhi is a cultural bridge and way to connect people to the flavors I grew up loving. By making achaar, a beloved condiment in our community, I’m hoping to expand the conversation around South Asian food beyond naan, turmeric and chai. We’re about educating our audience on the complexity and regionality of the cuisine.
The brand transcends just the products we make – it’s also a platform to highlight and uplift South Asian artists, makers and creators. And most importantly, when my fellow South Asians see Brooklyn Delhi on grocery store shelves, I want them to feel seen and proud that a brand is reflecting our cuisine and culture in an honorable way.”
Want to explore some Indian-American flavors? Check out Brooklyn Delhi’s goodies here.