Yumbles seller Sanjay Aggarwal is the founder of Spice Kitchen UK – an innovative family business that’s shaking-up the spice scene here in the UK. We caught up with Sanjay to find out more about his business – just in time for National Curry Week!
How and where did Spice Kitchen get started?
Spice Kitchen was born over the kitchen table and remains very much a kitchen table company. The idea came about because I wanted a way to keep my mum, Shashi, busy in her retirement. My mum has always been known as the best cook in our family (we’ve got a large extended family of about 200 members) – her taste for Indian food is just amazing. She’s got a brilliant palate – she really understands spices and family parties have always revolved around my mum and her food!
We started selling spices online via eBay about a year ago before launching our own website and selling on Yumbles – we’ve been totally blown-away by the response we’ve had from customers and never looked back since.
Experts like Dhruv Baker and Anjali Patak rave about your spices – what makes them so special?
With Indian food, everything comes down to the quality of the spices. That’s what my mum has always taught me and my brother and sister, and it really is so true. So the first important difference is the freshness of our spices – all the whole spices we get are extremely, extremely fresh. We buy in small quantities – unlike the supermarkets who are handling massive quantities at a time.
The way the spices are treated and handled is really important too. We hand-grind and roast our spices ourselves, and are lucky to have two very special tools at our disposal. First of all, we’ve got a huge stone pestle and mortar that’s been in our family about 90 years. We’ve also got an antique wheat grinder that’s been our family a very long time too. They don’t change the flavour of the spices or heat them as they’re ground, and because everything is done in small batches and packed in airtight containers right after grinding, they stay very fresh. To be honest it’s really hard to get an idea of what our product is like until you see and smell the spices – they just smell completely different to what you get in the shops.
Is there one particular product which stands out from the rest in your range?
We’re particularly proud of our curry leaves – the quality of curry leaves you get in the UK is generally really poor. Curry is a tropical plant, and it’s very difficult to grow over here. But we still have family over in Kenya and they grow curry leaves in their garden – here’s a picture of my cousin right after he chopped down a branch off the tree for us!
It grows almost wild there, so we’re lucky to have a great supply of really fresh, home grown curry leaves (which you can buy on Yumbles here). You have to taste them to really experience the difference in freshness and quality – it’s amazing.
Tell us a bit more about the background to your business – what’s it like working with your mum and dad?
I’ve recently got married and moved up north with my wife, while my Mum and Dad live in Birmingham. So to be very honest – without Spice Kitchen I’m not sure how often I’d speak to my parents! But Spice Kitchen has really helped me to keep in touch with them: it’s a brilliant company, we have a lot of fun and it’s brought us closer together even though physically we’re further apart. They take care of all the production and processing side of things, and I look after everything online. So it’s a real family business and it works really well.
What about your wider family – have they been supportive too?
We didn’t really tell anyone in our extended family what we were doing when we started Spice Kitchen, but they found out because they discovered us on social media when things took off. We’ve had so much support since then though; everyone says that if anyone was going to do something like this and make a success out of it, it would be my mum because she’s such an amazing cook.
My wife has really fallen in love with my mum’s cooking – every time we got to Birmingham my mum will ask what she wants to eat and she always says “Masala Dosa”. It’s really opened her eyes in terms of what real Indian cooking is like! That’s my mum teaching my wife the art of chapati making in the picture above. I’m the cute little boy to the left, then on the right you can see the antique wheat grinder we use, and a picture of my sister grinding spices in our pestle and mortar 25 years ago.
What have been your proudest moments since starting Spice Kitchen?
Right from day one, we’ve been blown away by not just by the number of people who seem to be buying Indian spices online, but the feedback we’ve had from customers. Lots will buy the spice tins first, then keep coming back to us for the re-fills.That’s been our key motivator really – we were never really out to make money, Spice Kitchen was just an idea to keep my mum busy! But our customers love what we do so that’s what keeps us motivated and keeps us going.
We’ve had some amazing feedback from some really special people too: Anjali Pathak and also Dhruv Baker (Masterchef winner 2010) are both fans and have given us some really fantastic feedback about the freshness and quality of our spices.
Could you tell us a little about the charity work you do?
We do a lot of work with a charity called FRANK Water – they are a Bristol based charity who create sustainable water projects in India. They raise money in the UK and use that money to fund water projects in India. I volunteer at 2 or 3 music festivals with them each year and we also donate a percentage of our profits each year. We also support an initiative called Curry for Change which is run by the charity Find Your Feet – charity is really important to us.
If there’s one thing you’d like people to know about Indian cooking, what would it be?
One thing we’d like to do more of at Spice Kitchen is to de-mystify Indian cooking and help people realise how simple it is. Indian cooking can seem really complicated, just because the list of ingredients is so long! But as a cuisine it can be really playful – quite different from other types of cooking like baking for example, where you need to be really precise. Once you start to understand spices and what they do to food; how they change the taste and how they work together – you can very easily come up with some amazing dishes. As long as you keep your ingredients fresh and your spices fresh – Indian cooking is really simple. It doesn’t need to be daunting or alien.
The problem from a Spice Kitchen perspective is that my mum won’t write down any recipes, she keeps them all in her head! So people like Hari Ghotra, Manju Mahli and Meera Sodha are just amazing – they’re all brilliant cooks and authors who make Indian cooking really fun and accessible for beginners, they all have great websites and books out too which I highly recommend.
What’s your food heaven and food hell?
Food heaven – aside from anything cooked by my mum…..I’ve spent a lot of time in Asia and do a lot of Asian cooking; Malaysian, Thai, I’ve recently started making sushi, plus I do a lot of Moroccan cooking too – I love Moroccan food. We’ve developed our own range of Moroccan spices at Spice Kitchen as a result, like this Ras El Hanout. So of course I love Indian cooking but my wife and I eat very well and have very eclectic tastes.
In terms of food hell – I’m not a big cheese fan. That’s it really!
Thanks Sanjay – we’ll hold off sending you that fondue set this Christmas then! Seriously – thanks so much for a really heart-warming and inspiring chat. We’re always thrilled to get to know our sellers a little better and to share their stories here on the Yumbles blog. If you’d like to check out Sanjay and Shashi’s range of spices, click here to check out Spice Kitchen and experience the freshness for yourself.