By Lyndsey Brollini
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
Mitra Raman grew up drinking buttermilk, or chaas, all the time as a child, which she described as being similar to liquefied yogurt.
“First thing I ate was buttermilk rice,” Raman said.
She now associates the drink with her favorite comfort foods. Longing for this food drove Raman to start her own business, named Buttermilk for its emotional connection to her mom’s cooking.
The idea for Buttermilk emerged when Raman was in a hurry but wanted her mom’s comfort food, which took a lot of time to cook and prepare. To solve this problem, Raman’s mother, Viji Raman, prepared the meal ingredients for her, and she would only have to add water to cook it.
Raman realized that Indian food with quick preparation could interest many people, especially those not wanting to or not having time to cook like herself. Neither Raman nor her mother liked cooking much.
“To be honest, it’s not my most favorite thing to do,” said Viji Raman. “Indian food involves a laborious process with many ingredients.”
Some of Raman’s friends are empty-nesters who do not have many people to cook for. Thus, meals were not cooked often enough and ingredients were not used in time, so they spoiled. Having ingredients prepared in ready-to-cook packets lessened the amount of food spoiling, and saved time on cooking and going to different stores to buy all the ingredients needed.
Raman and her friends, whom she said are like family, knew her daughter would start a company. They saw business skills in the younger Raman early in life.
“She has always been an entrepreneur,” said Raman. Her daughter sold lemonade and jewelry as a child and organized car wash fundraisers. And Raman never thought about her homemade food packets as a business idea. That came from her daughter.
“I’ve always wanted to do something of value for people,” Mitra Raman said. She was not fully satisfied with her job at Amazon, so she started a business doing something she felt passionate about.
Raman’s business partner, Uttara Lokray, felt that same passion and it motivated her to become involved with Buttermilk. Now that business has actually started coming in, there has been an overwhelming response, according to Lokray.
“These are all new flavors, so we didn’t know what people wanted,” said Lokray. With the beta site launched, Raman and Lokray were able to observe which food packets people wanted most and use that knowledge to best cater to customers.
Raman and her small crew, including her boyfriend Amar Rao and Lokray, prepare the food packets in the kitchen at Special Occasions Catering. Once the ingredients are mixed together and cooked, they are packaged in packets they make themselves.
Recipes usually come from women and immigrants in the Indian community, including Viji Raman. Additionally, a portion of the proceeds will go to those who provide recipes. Making her Indian food authentic was especially important to Raman, so getting recipes from Indian immigrants helped her do that, as well as financially help immigrants out.
“She’s focusing right now on ethnic food,” said Viji Raman about the current menu selection. Different areas of India have different tastes, and Buttermilk’s influence is largely Southern Indian.
Indian food around Washington was not quite like Indian food Raman and Rao knew. Raman found it hard to obtain good knowledge or access to knowledge on Southern Indian cuisine, something she is trying to change with Buttermilk.
“A lot of this is traditional food you wouldn’t find when you go out,” said Rao.
Buttermilk customer Shri Karthikeyan described one of the dishes, called rasam, as a sort of tangy, peppery tomato soup with tamarind and chili powder, traditionally eaten over rice.
Raman’s favorite meal as a kid was rasam. Now Raman sells her childhood food all around Seattle with Buttermilk.
“When you open up the packets, you can smell all the spices,” said Karthikeyan.
Raman wished Buttermilk existed when she was in college, so she could eat her favorite Indian foods without spending hours in the kitchen. She also wanted that comforting feeling when she ate homemade Indian food.
“I could totally relate to her story,” Karthikeyan said. Karthikeyan’s mother showed affection with food. Daal especially is a comfort food for her.
Lokray had similar experiences with missing homemade food. She was born in India but moved to Thailand when she was 5, so she always lived away from home. She viewed Buttermilk as a great way for people like her to feel a connection to home, since homesickness was so common.
“I miss my mom’s food and there’s no easy way around that,” Lokray said. “I went through that phase, too.”
For more information, go to thebuttermilkco.com.
Lyndsey can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.