Meet Our Members: Preena Chauhan

arvindasBlender of Spices and People, Owner of Arvinda’s Indian Spice Blends.

“It was an eye-opener for me how food comes together: its cultural significance, its preparation and in the way it is passed down from generation to generation.”

Preena has spent her whole life cooking, teaching and sharing food with her family and friends.  As a teenager, Preena assisted in her mother’s cooking classes, “Healthy Gourmet Indian Cooking,” and found herself increasingly sought out by the class students wanting to know the secret behind her spice blends. Preena and her brother had been mixing spices for years, fusing the flavours of her homeland, India, together into convenient forms. This was perhaps the birth of the idea of selling her own spice blends – what shoppers at many retailers know as Arvinda’s Indian Spice Blends.

A family business started by her mother in response to the high number of people in the GTA wishing to learn to cook Indian food in an approachable way, working with the cooking classes was a way for Preena to personally travel back to her roots and connect with her cultural culinary heritage.  The classes were an opportunity for discovery and exploration for all students, where they applied traditional techniques in cooking, adapted to Toronto lifestyles and diets. People are inspired to bring good flavour and wholesome ingredients into their cooking; Indian food was finally demystified.

Tell us about your job today.

I am the founder and manager of Arvinda’s Indian Spice Blends. It is a business I started while completing my Master’s degree.  I aim to make Indian food approachable and easy.

Some feedback I always got while cooking for others was that Indian food for them was an “indulgence” – it was heavy in taste and complicated to prepare. The spice blends in the product line simplify the use of flavours in Indian dishes – traditional Indian food uses so many spices in its preparation that it can be easy to get lost among all the combinations! There are several favourites that really stand out for people when they think Indian, and these blends allow a wider audience of cooks (everyone is a cook!) to prepare fun, healthy dishes at home.

Why did you join the TFPC?

I joined the TFPC because I am passionate about food. I represent local entrepreneurs on the council: people who start from nothing and create a job and community. I think it’s important to recognize that food has a cultural significance in addition to an economic value. In a multicultural society, as is the GTA, it is important for people to be able to do something with their cultural knowledge other than just preserve it.

The TFPC has allowed me to connect with a whole network of people who share the idea that there is so much more than just a bottom line. To all of us it is important to see access to good food and to explore how to share the concepts that can lead to it and the barriers that can prevent food security as well.

It can be easy to fall in the trap of convenience foods, and so I think that the TFPC is important in promoting tactical opportunities for greater interaction with farmers, cooks, educators and policy makers – all kinds of people involved in the food system.

What would you like to move forward at the TFPC?

I would really love to see more food entrepreneurship at the local level. I believe that we need to encourage more resources, tools and mentorship opportunities so that there aren’t so many barriers to starting up. Of course, there also needs to be profit opportunities to reward hard work. Having more processing steps available to the farmer can satisfy a number of these opportunities as it adds value to retailers and processors and stimulates the local economy.

Coming from an environmental background, having completed a Master in Environmental Studies degree at York University, it was there that I actually got the opportunity, through a government grant, to start a spice blend business. At the same time, I had a very strong interest in sustainable food chains, which led me to topics of local farming, organic, fair-trade and so on – all in the context of my business. I recognize the challenges in starting a business, and also in maintaining a transparently sustainable one. This led me to my involvement with the World Crops Project, which seeks to increase access to all to a more diverse range of fresh local food. I felt that this resonated completely with my business’ mission.

Currently, there is a large South Asian market in the GTA that purchase imported ingredients that they cannot find in the area. I am collaborating with other TFPC members on a World Crops project of our own. We are promoting the sustainability of a local economy that meets these needs and prospers. There is a lot of opportunity here!

What can we expect next from Arvinda’s?

Our spice blends are preservative free, almost completely local, produced in small batches and never irradiated. We are planning the launch of a new product line this year consistent with these values – tons of customers find these to be very important to them. I won’t say much more about the launch… but keep your eyes peeled for them very soon!

Preena was a TFPC member from 2011-2014.