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Pre-made Masalas Are Here To Stay

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Courtesy Maryam Jillani from heated.medium.com

When it comes to South Asian food, one frequently sees cooks making spices before they make the delicious delicacies that the region is famous for. It is commonly said that if one does not have a hang of making spices, they cannot excel in making South Asian food.

If one desires to cook food using pre-made masalas, they find themselves at the receiving end of taunts directed at their inability to make spices themselves. Afterall, it is believed that packaged masalas are no match for freshly ground spices.

Yet, in today’s fast-paced world, where people find themselves with no time to spend on making spices, pre-made masalas have become extremely popular.

Such spices have become a lifesaver for young professionals, students living abroad, and people who have spent their whole youth without learning the art of making spices from their elders.

Below is an article reproduced from heated.medium.com, that delves into the history of a company that offers pre-made spices, Shan Masala. It describes the interesting history of the brand and how it is capturing markets worldwide.

It’s a refrain you hear often: No self-respecting South Asian cook uses pre-made masalas out of a box.

Food writers, cookbook authors, and South Asian culinary experts at-large either lament the use of pre-made masalas or act as if they simply aren’t used. Sameen Rushdie, author of “Indian Cookery,” finds the commercial, ready-made ground mixtures ‘unpalatable’.

Sumayya Usmani, author of the award-winning Pakistani cookbook, ‘Summers Under the Tamarind Tree’, writes that growing up she was taught to spend money on only the best whole spices, ‘never ground’. Celebrity chef and prolific author Madhur Jaffrey says, “Indian cooks insist on freshly ground spices instead of a bottled mixture that is powdered and possibly stale.”

These declarations conjure an image of a South Asian housewife dutifully measuring, toasting, and grinding complex spice blends every morning, rather than of a billion-dollar South Asian packaged spice blend industry growing at a healthy clip, both within the subcontinent and overseas.

One of Pakistan’s leading global brands is in fact, Shan Foods, a company so popular that it has become a verb for using pre-packaged masala. “Just Shan Masala it,” my friends tell me every time I complain of not being able to nail down a specific recipe.

Despite what the South Asian food police may tell you, pre-packaged spices are here to stay, especially when they are as good as Shan Masala.

“There is a prejudice among many authors and what they don’t realize is that the consumer community really doesn’t care,” Kurush F. Dalal, a culinary anthropologist and assistant professor at the University of Mumbai, tells me when asked about the snobbery around pre-packaged spices. “It’s about much more than spices or spice snobbery. It’s a complicated sociological phenomenon,” he adds.

Dalal says that in the last 50 years or so, the subcontinent has seen women’s emancipation in a very quiet way, not with respect to men’s attitudes, but rather in women carving out more time for themselves thanks to the dishwasher, mixer-grinder, washing machine and, relatedly, pre-packaged spices.

In Pakistan, the packaged spice industry is estimated to be worth roughly $255 million, with plain spices like turmeric or red chilli powder accounting for up to 80 percent, and recipe mixes like biryani, nihari, or haleem making up the remainder.

Contrary to popular belief, National Foods, not Shan Foods, leads the market in Pakistan. National Foods was founded in 1970, a decade before Shan and, unlike the latter, is publicly traded. It has a strong distribution network, a high-performing, varied product line, and a well-regarded marketing strategy. Despite these strengths, it’s Shan, not National, that has the bigger hold on the Pakistani culinary conscience.

The story and trajectory of Shan is strongly tied to its founder, Sikandar Sultan. While Sultan comes from a family of entrepreneurs — his grandfather had a saddlery business in pre-partition India and his father a carpet exporting business — he himself was a filmmaker and marketing professional with no plans to start his own venture till he realized he had a talent for recreating his deceased mother’s recipes. In an interview, Sultan describes how his mother would grind, mix, and bind her spice blends into small discs.

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When she passed, the family was afraid that her culinary traditions and family recipes would die. All the children tried to recreate them, but it was only Sultan who succeeded. From then on, Sultan and his wife began to prepare these spice blends and circulate them among family and friends. He registered the company in 1981, and after completing a successful marketing trial and feasibility study in Karachi, he decided to give up his day job and grow Shan Foods full-time.

Even though Sultan’s spice blends were a hit among those who tried them, the start of Shan Foods was rocky. Sultan refused to take any family money and sold everything he owned to sustain the business in the early years. Nearly four decades later, he’s still intimately involved. Even though he has stepped down as CEO, as chairman he provides input into recipe development and packaging, among other areas of the business.

Gibran Mir, partner at Karachi-based creative agency Jump Activations and formerly with The Circuit, a marketing agency that worked with both Shan Foods and National Foods, contrasted the trajectory of both companies. He said that National was much faster in moving to its second generation of leadership and outlining plans for how to grow into a billion-rupee company. The company worked hard on its distribution network, marketing strategy, and building out an exhaustive product line that includes desserts, jams, snacks, chutney, and pastes, alongside spice blends.

Shan Foods has also introduced other products, such as plain spices, dessert mixes, and pastes, but they have not enjoyed the same success as the spice blends. “The thing that always worked for Shan has been the taste. Shan Masala’s flavour, you can’t match it,” Mir tells me.

Maria Qureshi, Shan Masala’s marketing, communications, and e-commerce manager, confirms that Shan Masala’s recipes still come from the founder and his wife. Qureshi says the integrity and quality of the product are very close to Sultan’s heart, and are thus reflected in the flavour of the masalas. Much of the company’s initial growth came from word of mouth, Qureshi tells me. I was sceptical at first, but Mir confirms that most of Shan’s success can be attributed to the quality of its masala. Unlike National, Shan for several years adopted a conservative approach to marketing, Mir tells me, partially because of the founder’s religious beliefs that placed restrictions around the use of music and models in commercials.

Despite a less aggressive approach to marketing, Shan enjoys a bigger presence overseas, exporting to 65 countries versus National’s 40. It even made strong in-roads in the competitive spice market in India, where in 2014, The Economic Times reported that Shan Masala had begun to command 50 percent of sales in the category of blended spices in non-vegetarian cooking in north India. Dalal said that he had begun to find Shan Masala packets in Mumbai up to 25 years ago. He heard that they were coming through a rather circuitous route, making their way to India via the Gulf States, where Shan Masala enjoys a strong consumer base.

Shan’s dominance in the international market certainly explains part of the brand’s hold on Pakistan’s culinary conscience. Qureshi estimates that Shan’s sales are roughly split between the domestic and international market, with North America comprising the bulk of the latter. The United States occupies a central role in the story of the company’s early years. Much of the founder’s family was in the United States, and Sultan would send them his blends to test and circulate among their friends.

The company has embraced its standing overseas as a core part of its identity. In 2015, as part of larger corporate efforts to modernise, Shan began to double down on its diaspora market with what Mir called a “breakout ad”; a Ramadan special advertisement that showed a young man in San Francisco recreating his mother’s dishes for Eid from Shan Masala to comfort his homesick younger brother. Albeit a little heavy-handed, the messaging was very clear; if you miss the taste of Pakistan, reach for Shan Masala. Another savvy television advertisement that created a lot of buzz showed a young Chinese expat bringing a platter of biryani made from Shan’s famous biryani mix to her Pakistani neighbours. The ad successfully tapped into the early excitement following the launch of the multi-billion dollar China-Pakistan Economic Corridor in 2015.

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It is clear that Shan Foods is becoming more market savvy. There has even been news that it’s finally considering going public. The move comes at an opportune time, with some experts in the industry predicting the recipe mix market to grow by up to 25 percent annually.

So, what then of the assertion that pre-packaged spices are rarely used in the subcontinent? And if they are, must they taste terrible?

Dalal says that, of course, there is truth to the argument that when you grind spices at home, they will, in many regards, be better. “Quality wise, it’s definitely a good thing. Freshness wise, it’s a good thing. Flavor wise,” Dalal hesitates, “there is a difference, but how much? If you are going to get 95 percent of the taste of the pre-packaged mix, do you really want to go through all that pain for the extra 5 percent?” This is especially true when you are preparing dishes that are outside of your familial comfort zone. “Variability is low when you had to make spices at home,” Dalal says. He adds, “Now, there are so many spices available. You can get Sri Lankan masalas, Bangladeshi masalas along with Indian masalas. I might not even use them according to the instructions on the package, but just the fact that all the flavor profiles are available in itself is a huge development.”

Dalal equates this with a quiet form of integration, where you don’t have to go to each other’s house to experience each other’s food and culture. Dalal talks about his desire to visit Pakistan and eat the food there, but given the persistent tensions with his native India, he is hesitant. “Will I be able to get there? To eat the food? Maybe not. But masalas like Shan can bring it closer to home,” he says

The flip side, Dalal argues, is that the variability that exists within a community gets destroyed. For instance, within a community, you can have 20 recipes of a korma, with each family bringing a tweak to the spice. Dalal is not wrong. I think of all my friends that rely on Shan Masala’s Bombay Biryani mix even though no part of their heritage is reflected in the blend. As much as I love Shan Masala’s blend, am I willing to give that up?

Of course, South Asians are an ingenious bunch. I was speaking to culture writer Ahmer Naqvi about his family’s biryani recipe. He pauses to think and then says, “I think my mother and aunt use a blend of two Shan Masala biryani mixes.” It’s at this moment the true power of Shan Masala unveils itself. When your brand becomes a part of a family recipe, it’s become immortal.

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