Are pints of Halo Top and Kind Bars bringing you down? Are you craving something a little more savory? A little more interesting? Or maybe that’s not you. Maybe you don’t give a damn about counting calories and monitoring macros. Maybe you just want to dip your food into a different kind of Indian food. The stuff that’s hard to get outside of the suburbs. No matter what your motive is, Sasya Foods is here to help you out with some snacks that are both healthy as hell and honestly delicious.
Started by Krishna Matturi after he moved from India to the west coast and finally to the east coast, his original motivation was to come up with some healthy snacks (think chips and dips) he could eat while training for a marathon, but Sasya soon bloomed into a full on business with the goal of increasing awareness of different types of Indian cuisine in the U.S. We called up Matturi to chat about diving head first into the food industry, teaming up with Union Kitchen and why South Indian food isn’t as popular here.
Brightest Young Things: Let’s go back to the beginning. Why did you start Sasya?
Krishna Matturi: I grew up in an Indian village in South India, born and raised there and I came here to the US for the first time eleven years ago. I worked on the west coast and then I went back to India and came back for grad school in the midwest and then went to the east coast, Boston. Throughout that time what I found was there’s a huge lack of Indian flavors, especially from South India, in supermarkets. It’s not main stream. There’s Indian restaurants that mostly focus on North Indian food, but other than that I would have to go to Indian stores that are usually in suburban neighborhoods. Two things happened in the past two or three years, I was training for a marathon and I was following a marathon diet. The flavors were usually bland and there were snacks, but they were sparse. Savory and healthy foods were practically nonexistent. I moved to D.C. after three years and one day it just clicked that we had these chutneys at home, why don’t I try to make them? I recreated the recipes from home a couple of times and I sent them to friends and they all liked it.
I had to figure out how to put them in jars, without adding any preservatives. Growing up, we just ate healthy foods. We still have our farms so we produce our food and then we cook it and eat it and there’s no waste. We don’t have to add any preservatives, it’s all fresh food. It’s a cyclical system. It was all very sustainable and healthy. Here, almost every product has added sugars or chemicals that you can’t even pronounce and you don’t know what they do. Of course, being in the food business for 19 months, now I know what they do, but my challenge was to do it better. Indian spices, there was an inherent knowledge that was built into them for thousands of years to address specifically these issues. They not only add flavor, but they also address the preserving part, the acidity part. So I tried a few times and figured out how to put them in jars and here we are 19 months later.
They philosophy of the company is A. sustainable and B. healthy.
BYT: Can you tell me why South Indian cuisine doesn’t get it’s fair share of support in the D.C. food scene?
K.M.: Indians came to the US in waves. The first waves of Indians that came to the US where Sikh populations. The dishes that you get, that most people are aware of like chicken tikka masala, tandoori chicken, saag paneer, they’re all from this little state in North India. Nothing against them, I love all of it, but India has 30 other states, you know what I mean? Because that population came to the US first, they established restaurants, the food caught on. South Indian food, for whatever reason, never did. My hypothesis, is that most of the South Indians tend to live in the suburbs, further from the city. The closest South Indian restaurant in the D.C. area is out in Maryland. There’s also one near Dulles. Unless you know to go to Chantilly to get this South Indian food, you wouldn’t get it! There’s no reason to try it, unless someone offers it to you. I’m trying to address all of those things, especially shed light on more Indian flavors while introducing a snacking component, making it very, very easy for people to consume Indian flavors.
BYT: When did you decide to go from cooking for your friends to building an actual company?
K.M.: I work at the World Bank, that’s my day job. After I moved to D.C. I worked at the Bank for a year and what I realized is that things move a little slow if you’re working at a really large organization. I needed to find a way to use my creative energies. I come from a background of architecture and urban design, so I was looking for an idea. It just dawned on me after a few months. Actually, I went to India the summer after my first year of work and I was observing my stepmother making these chutneys and I was like, “This is it! I’m going to do this!” I’ve had those flavors all my life, that moment of conversion just happened 19 months ago. I came back and someone suggested Union Kitchen. I just went randomly, I didn’t even call them. It was closed and I was just knocking on the door and I saw someone walking out and I asked them, “What do you do?” and they held the door open for me. I had no idea what a commercial kitchen was, or what commercial equipment was, and the kitchen manager told me to talk to the director. So I called them up and pitched them on the idea and they said, “This is brilliant. Come over.” Two months later I sold my first product.
BYT: Did you cook a lot growing up? Are you a foodie person?
K.M.: No, this is typical of most Indian families. As a kid, unless you insist, your mother cooks for the family. In 2007 I came to Los Angeles and I had to call home every day and ask, “How do you do this? How do you do that?” I had a roommate, another Indian guy who was from a different state and I cooked for six months for me and him. I was figuring out how to make rice, chicken curry… And I brought chutney’s from home. Which is another typical thing Indians do. Whenever they go home, they bring six or seven pounds of chutneys back.
BYT: What’s your favorite recipe to make with your dips and spreads?
K.M.: I’m a little bit biased. These are traditionally used with rice, so if you mix them with rice, that’s a staple food. Here, they’re purely for snacking. We introduced lentil chips, which are naturally gluten free and way better than traditional chips or tortilla chips, which are deep fried. Ours are baked, so they’re lower calories. And since I’m a runner, I’m focused on making them healthy, so as a snack, they’re really healthy.
Our peanut and coconut spread goes really well with a smoked salmon sandwich with basil and mozzarella. It’s an unusual combination, but it works well. We have our cilantro, which is our most popular product. It works well as a salad dressing or marinade, but my favorite recipe is I made a salsa with broccoli and mushrooms and caramelize onions and our cilantro and it’s amazing.
BYT: What’s a chip and dip combo would you recommend to someone who has never tried Sasya? What’s the go to beginner set up?
K.M.: So chips were introduced only a few months ago. Right now, people are preferring our spinach lentil chips and our cilantro dip. It’s a green bonanza. Our spinach lentil chips, each bag has a quarter pound of spinach in it. So you’re eating chips, but you’re also eating a quarter pound of spinach. You wouldn’t eat that otherwise!
BYT: What grocery store is your holy grail? Where do you want to see Sasya more than anywhere else?
K.M.: We’re already in Whole Foods. We’re in three Whole Foods in the region, and we’d love to grow into more. Right from the beginning, my philosophy was, if I can’t buy my own products, I can’t expect others to buy my product. So they’re very competitively priced and I would love to see them in your corner store, or maybe a Safeway, Harris Teetor or a Giant. That’s the ultimate goal.
There’s some research that was done on why Indian food isn’t popular, it’s because customers can not identify or associate any Indian brand. A. If people can associate Sasya with Indian products and Indian snacks and B. If they can get the product within a day anywhere in the nation, either through online or through their grocery store… That’s success for me.
BYT: What’s the best and worst parts of your job?
K.M.: It’s a problem solving job. I’m solving problems every single day and I put my creativity hat on. I come from a design background, so I use design thinking like rapid prototyping for everything. We changed our label seven times since we introduced our product. Just listening to feedback from customers, what works, what doesn’t work and staying true to our ethos, simplicity and modernity. When I see our products, I love how they came together, but everyday I’m tweaking some part of it. Like maybe if I do this it will cut down on 10 minutes of production time. It’s always problem solving.
The worst part of my job… Actually, this week has been a little tricky and troublesome because we’re growing. We have two employees working in the kitchen, with a total of five employees including me. I can’t be there all the time. Something happened and we couldn’t fulfill the order, it was an oven problem. Whenever a customer comes to us and it’s like, “Hey, I haven’t gotten your product, I don’t know where to get it.” That bums me out. We’re still small and we’re constrained by resources.
A lot of people are not aware of our product and who we are, but whenever they taste it they’re like “This is so cool! This is such a great idea. I’ve never heard of you.” It’s sort of gratifying, but it’s also like… We’re not doing enough. What else can we do? I don’t know if that’s the worst part of my job, but it’s certainly hard.
BYT: If you could go back in time to when you started Sasya, what advice would you give yourself?
K.M.: I did not come from the food business. I didn’t know anything about food at all. I had multiple graduate degrees and a background in architecture and design. The one thing I didn’t have was anything related to food. I had this idea and I really jumped in without a lot of preparation. In hindsight, it’s good and it’s bad. The bad part was I didn’t foresee the effort, the time, the energy and the space, the mental and emotional space, it takes. If I were to change something, I would have talked to a few more people who have done it before. I don’t know if said, “This is a hard business, don’t enter it,” it may have worked the other way. I don’t know. That’s what I wish. I wish I would have spoken to more people in this business. But hey, I’m in it.