Cooking with Ees

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Sabitha's dry powders are a boon for students and IT professionals craving for `home food' during their stay abroad.

Rasheeda Bhagat

Three years ago, when she saw an ad for a women's biotech park promoted by the Department of Biotechnology and the M.S. Swaminathan Foundation in Chennai, she wanted to start some enterprise of her own. Named the Golden Jubilee Biotech Park for Women Society, its aim was to encourage first-generation women entrepreneurs.

With both her daughters in college and time on her hands, she approached the CEO of the Park for ideas on what to do. The CEO asked her what she was good at. "I told her I can teach and cook anything," says Sabitha M., chief executive of Sab Ees (everything is easy), who had in her earlier stint in Mumbai made a great success at giving tuitions.

The CEO suggested that she develop a product for students who go overseas for higher education; every year their number increases, most of them cannot cook and miss Indian food. The same product could also be used by IT professionals working overseas on short assignments.

Sabitha decided she had to convert routine day-to-day cooking into dry powder form. "I thought of dry powder because while entering countries such as the US or Australia, if you're carrying a wet product, it has to go through an agri-check where many products are rejected. But they are more lenient with dry powders, and you can always say you're carrying Indian spices which are allowed."

The challenge was to convert items such as sambar, rasam, moar kozhambu (kadhi), etc into dry powder. With both encouragement and guidance from the CEO, she set about the task, which appeared quite daunting in the beginning. She began with making normal rasam or sambar and dehydrated it into a powder using the traditional kadai. "Every Saturday I would take it to the food technologist for a test and follow it up the next Saturday with fresh samples and wait anxiously for the result of the previous one. Invariably he would say `Rejected'."

This went on for four months but she kept at it without getting dejected and after that, slowly, one or two samples were accepted. Sabitha found that her samples were getting rejected because of bacterial and fungal growth. "I was doing everything at home; we think we eat very hygienic food, but it is not so. The detergent we use for washing the kadai leaves a residue, or the water used for washing the vessel may be contaminated."

The task before her was to ensure that the finished product did not have any bacterial growth. "The constant thought in my mind was to find new ways of doing it and it kept me really busy." Her family also encouraged her by sampling what she made and giving a critique on the taste.

She claims that she has with her powders developed in January 2003 "which are fresh even now. I've kept one packet of each product and want to know how long it will last. Till now they have no worms or black spots. Apart from being the cheapest way of testing my product, I want to know for myself how long it will remain fresh."

Anyway, after about eight months, the CEO of the Park decided it was time to launch the product. Two years down the line, Sabitha claims she can "convert any gravy into dry powder form. If you want bhendi ka masala or typical Punjabi chana masala, I have it. In the US you get tinned chickpeas. So all that the student or IT professional has to do is open it, put the contents into a bowl, add my masala and microwave it for two minutes."

Would it be complete with onions and the rest of the ingredients that go into chana masala?

"It has everything and what you'll get is authentic Punjabi chana masala, complete with a brown gravy."

Sabitha says she has all the South Indian curries, different types of sambars, rasams etc. "All you have to do is put the required amount of water and vegetables you want, boil it for a few minutes and the dish is ready." She does not use preservatives and each of her powder packets can be used four times to serve a group of four. She even has some powders that can be used to prepare non-vegetarian dishes. Each set of the Sab Ees powders costs Rs 450 and would stretch for three months.

Sabitha began in a small way and invested only Rs 4 lakh in the unit that went into production in January 2003. "Actually the amount was so small that the banks didn't want to give me a loan; they liked the project but said why don't you go in for a bigger loan of Rs 15-20 lakh, but I said I didn't need so much money." Finally Indian Bank funded her project, for which she got the machines dehydrator, driers, roasters, pulverisers, a huge oven, and weighing and packing machines from within the country. Sabitha says she has deliberately refrained from using an automated sachet-packing machine. "It'll cost only Rs 1 lakh, but I want to employ as many women as possible. In my factory everything is done by machines; we don't touch the food product at all. But the packing is done manually," she says.

She now wants to expand and enter the export market, and had participated at a forum for SMEs held in Chennai recently by the Commonwealth Secretariat.

Sabitha points out that her USP is two minutes. "Today most people don't have time to cook. So now I have even developed breakfast recipes like semiya and rava uppama, pongal, etc. But the packaging cost is very high. You'll just have to empty the packet into a casserole, add boiling water and close it and in two minutes the uppama is ready. No cooking is required. For pongal, just one whistle in the cooker would suffice. And my products are microwave friendly too."

She finds "most mothers are very happy and I get repeat orders. Many women have told me that their children do not miss their cooking as my powders make it taste just like home food."

(This article was published in the Business Line print edition dated October 7, 2005)
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