Jonah Elkowitz/The Daily Northwestern
Kalpana Waikar sells packaged Indian spices at her shop Inspired Indian Cooking.
October 4, 2022
Kalpana Waikar remembers standing against her mother’s shoulder at a very young age, her small hands smashing little balls of dough into ovals, which she then separated into semicircles. She gripped the dough in her fist, forming a cone and filling it with potatoes and peas.
There were always a lot of samosas, she remembers –– enough for her family, as well as extras to share with the community.
Connecting family and community is Waikar’s mission for Inspired Indian Cooking, her spice shop on Dempster St. She sells premade Indian spice kits, which she said are aimed at making a potentially daunting cuisine more accessible.
“I just realized that the feeling of community, like interacting with customers, was really valuable,” Waikar said.
The store itself is painted in what Waikar described as turmeric yellow, the walls casting a faint glow. On one wall, there’s a rainbow of little colored packages –– each containing the spices and instructions for seasoning different Indian meals.
The red one is for vindaloo, which most customers associate with mouth-burning spiciness, Waikar said. But that’s not actually the case.
It was British and Portuguese colonists who added that intense spiciness to vindaloo, which was traditionally a milder dish, Waikar said. So, her vindaloo isn’t spicy, and she makes it a point to educate her customers about that colonial conception of vindaloo.
“I don’t want to make anybody feel bad,” Waikar said. “But really that kind of explaining what curry is, is what I really like doing.”
This educational aspect of Inspired Indian Cooking is what most excites Waikar’s daughter, Sarika. She said one day, she envisions her mother’s turmeric walls will be scattered with QR codes educating customers about the origins and histories of the various spices.
Sarika, who worked at Inspired Indian Cooking this summer, hopes to help her mother further the shop’s educational purpose. At school, she has led educational events about social justice initiatives in the South Asian community.
“I love interacting with the customers and just talking about our family histories,” Sarika said. “I think that can be connected to social justice in a deeper way.”
Customers have said they get to learn about Indian culture through the spice kits, too. Evanston resident Ande Breunig, a loyal customer, describes herself as a “semi-spice aficionado.”
Before using Waikar’s kits, she typically just sprinkled spices atop her food after cooking. But, Waikar’s kits include whole spices which is typical of Indian cooking. Breunig has learned how to properly add spices to Indian dishes throughout the process.
Even as an aficionado, Breunig found herself outside of her comfort zone cooking with the shop’s packets and using novel techniques to treat her spices.
“When you cook with her spices, you kind of feel like a professional chef,” Breunig said. “It just kind of gave me a sense of accomplishment, like ‘Oh! I don’t have to be scared of things I’ve never done before.’”
Waikar said the use of whole spices separates Indian food from other cultures — and separates her business from competitors.
There are plenty of other companies that sell pre-ground spice mixtures, but Waikar roasts cumin seeds and star anise, along with over 20 other spices, every Monday, just like her mother used to do when she was a child. As far as Waikar knows, Inspired Indian Cooking is the only shop that sells freshly-roasted spices.
It’s the experience of seeing those spices transform into authentic Indian food that keeps people coming back. Of about 1,000 local customers, about 700 have become repeat visitors, Waikar said.
Waikar has been teaching customers like Breunig about spices and Indian cuisine since 2019, when her business was an online Indian spice subscription box.
Almost a year later, in February 2020, Waikar filmed a video detailing how to fold samosas. She forms the dough into little cones, just like her mother taught her a half-century ago. This time, it’s her daughter learning through the screen.
Since she moved to college, Sarika said she’s been using the spice kits and her mom’s expertise to teach herself Indian cooking –– in line with her mother’s educational mission.
“I’d like to create a legacy,” Waikar said, “of what this business represents both to my customers and to my family.”
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Jonah Elkowitz/The Daily Northwestern