Maya Kaimal knows that the best things take time. It’s true of Indian cuisine, which marries fresh herbs and deep spices with methodical cooking techniques that require patience to perfect, and it’s also true of her own successful career, which took a bit of an indirect route.
The woman behind the eponymous Indian food brand started her career as a photo editor at magazines like Saveur in New York City. Though she never considered a career in the food world, she often cooked dinner for friends that drew from her family’s Indian recipes. “I came from a family that really prized good food. My father’s Indian heritage was a big part of what we ate and how we thought about food,” Kaimal remembers. “It became the thing that made me have fun cooking for other people, because it was eye-opening for them.”
Her first cookbook, “Curried Favors: Family Recipes from South India” was filled with her family’s recipes and approach to Indian spices. After her job in publishing ended, she started to think more deeply about the thing that initially led her to create that cookbook: her desire to share Indian cooking with as many people as possible.
In 2003, Kaimal created her Maya Kaimal line of dals, simmer sauces, fragrant rices, and other homestyle Indian foods. Though she knew very little about food production initially, she was fueled by encouragement and guidance from entrepreneurial friends, eventually building connections with manufacturers to bring her Indian cooking out of the pages of a cookbook and onto grocery store shelves.
While her prior work experience didn’t exactly look like a straight shot into the culinary world, each individual piece built a foundation for what is now the Maya Kaimal brand. ”My art background informed how I saw the food on the shelf,” she says. “I had a really strong idea about capturing the bright colors of India, because I thought that would reflect a version of India that I love, which is this incredibly colorful, beautiful place.” She drew from her family’s recipes for nearly every dish, even borrowing some recipes from her own cookbooks, to create dishes in microwavable pouches and easy-pour jars.
Kaimal was also armed with the knowledge that at the time, there just weren’t many others out there doing what she wanted to do: create a fun, convenient, authentic brand of Indian food. A brand that would get Indian foods into the hands (and on the tables) of people who had, perhaps, never tried them before.
“You need that trust factor when you’re asking people to try something they haven’t had before,” Kaimal says. “One of the best ways people get comfortable with a new cuisine is when someone they know made it for them. They go to dinner at someone’s house, and that’s an environment that feels very safe.” She says that’s why she ultimately decided to call the brand by her own name. “It conveyed that there’s a human being who is making this for you. There’s a human story behind this; we’re not an anonymous, big food corporation.”
When Maya Kaimal began in 2002, most grocery stores had a singular section of an aisle, often called “ethnic” or “global”, that acted as a catch-all for things like soy sauce, tortillas, maybe canned coconut milks or certain hard-to-find spices like curry or coriander. There certainly wasn’t the curiosity that there is today surrounding Indian food or other multicultural cuisines — though Kaimal trusted her gut and helped to pave the way for other brands that would come later, packaging their families’ beloved recipes and teaching others about their cultures through food.
And according to many statistics, people are ready to try them. The ethnic food market is projected to grow at a rate of more than 8% over the next five years, and Indian food is one of the fastest-growing categories within it. “We’re always fighting for inches in stores,” Kaimal says. “[Grocery stores] should be making more space for different types of cuisines, because people are buying them. There’s an appetite for it.”
Speaking to Kaimal, it’s obvious that she loves teaching people about Indian food, both its uniqueness and its complexities. “It’s always about balance,” she says. “Sourness, a little sweetness, salt, and all the flavors coming together creates a symphony. No one flavor should stand out — there’s not a soloist, they’re all integral to a final flavor.”
The basis of Indian food relies on a wide assortment of ground spices, as well as aromatic ingredients like fresh curry leaves, garlic, and ginger. Like many cuisines, Indian dishes vary based on region: specialties from the south often include fresh curry and chili, while in the north, Kaimal says, people toast their spices because they don’t have as many growing seasons, so they rely on dried ingredients for flavor.
“I love that there’s an alchemy to Indian food,” Kaimal says. “How you treat each ingredient is very specific. How browned do the onions get depending on different curries? How do you cook your spices in the hot oil so it takes the harsh edges off? It’s a building thing — you couldn’t take all those ingredients, throw it in a pot, bring it to a boil and have the same result.”
The Maya Kaimal brand offers nearly everything you’d need to make proper Indian meals at home, whether it’s for a quick lunch (like a lentil dal with a fragrant rice) or a hearty dinner feast (like your choice of meat and fresh vegetables simmered in a madras curry or vindaloo sauce). “My approach with the line and my cookbooks is to offer people some things that are familiar, and some things that are new,” Kaimal says of her process. “I like to try to make Indian food as accessible to people as possible, and there are a lot of different ways to do that,” she says. “There’s not a single philosophy of what that looks like; It can look like different things with different product lines.”
But even as the Maya Kaimal line grows and expands, Kaimal’s overarching philosophy remains: “I just want more people to eat Indian food,” she laughs.
A stew-like dish made of lentils and spices, often served with rice
Not a singular spice, but rather a blend of dried spices (often in powder or paste form) used to season Indian dishes; the word “curry” is also used to describe a dish, typically vegetables and/or meats, with a sauce seasoned with curry
A yogurt-based marinade for meats, seasoned with spices like curry, cumin, garam masala, and ginger
In Indian cuisine, the word “masala” is used to describe any mixture of spices; typically, a more descriptive word precedes it (e.g., tikka masala or butter masala)
A curry that gets its name from the city of Madras in southern India; madras curry is made with chili powder that gives it its spicy flavor and red color, and it also often contains tamarind, ginger, curry leaves, and fresh coriander
A spicy curry dish seasoned with chili peppers, vinegar, ginger, and other spices; typically one of the spiciest Indian dishes
A dish consisting of meats and vegetables cooked in a curry sauce made of cream, yogurt, garam masala, chili powder, and other spices
A baked or fried savory Indian pastry filled with spiced potatoes, onions and peas
An Indian condiment with a jam-like texture, often made of things like tomatoes, cucumber, mint or mango
A flatbread baked in a tandoori oven, often to accompany curries or dals
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