Traveling from scientist to spice specialist has been an amazing journey, says Pune native, Deepa Patke. Her Vienna-based business, Aromatic Spice Blends, has led her back to her Indian roots in a very unexpected way.
“I came to the United States as a postdoctoral student on AIDS research,” she says, “and I did my fellowship and worked at Johns Hopkins.” Her position there with a clinical trials project in India allowed her to travel back and forth for about a year. Then during another postdoctoral position at the University of Maryland, Patke gave birth to her son, and considered career options that would allow her more time to be at home with her child. “Working in the bioservices/biotech industry at a demanding position and being away from my son for crazy hours, I seriously contemplated moving to my passion with food for good,” she says. "I owe a lot to my husband in terms of encouragement, belief and unwavering support.”
Because he loved all the spices Patke was making for her home-cooked meals, he suggested she share her spice-blend creations with others. “He loves all the spices I make at home,” she says. “I enjoy creating and experimenting, so food and I get along very well.”
Inspired to start her own business, she came up with a few samples based on her mom's recipes, sent them to friends, and through trial and error, settled on several final recipes.
“I like a variety of flavors, and I had to reproduce the same ones many times,” she says. She started with several basic Indian blends, drawing on all the food memories of her childhood.
“I owe all I learned to my entire clan,” she says. “We come from a big family, and my mother, all my aunts and uncles are awesome cooks. So I grew up with lots of tastes and flavors, and eating at the table was always inviting."
She recalls in particular her grandmothers, particularly the one who was a vegetarian. “Even today, when I think of her, I can smell the aromas that would waft out of her kitchen,” she says. “I can close my eyes and be there in her beautiful home. Nobody will ever cook like her again.”
That may be the case, but as Patke explains with an example, every Indian housewife and household has its own special blend of the basic Indian spice, garam masala. Ubiquitous as the mainstay seasoning for Indian curries, garam masala has no standardized version, she says. “Where I am from, every preparation is so different,” she adds. “In Mumbai (Bombay), you have a diverse culture. Vegetables, fish and meat are all eaten in different ways, with different spices as well as methods.”
Her hometown of Pune, located near Bombay, today resembles Bombay in its ethnic diversity and differing flavors.
So when faced with creating spice blends for her new business, Patke thinks about varying flavor profiles she learned about in India. And because the United States is a melting pot of cuisines and cultures, she feels free to experiment. “I started with some basic Indian blends,” she says. “But then I ventured into Moroccan spices, Chinese mixes, and now I have a Mediterranean and Italian Blend (The Mezzogiorno). I even have a chicken rub, a barbecue rub, and a Vindaloo blend,” which she says is one of her best sellers. She adds "the intensity of the blends will entice you, since my blends are always fresh, ground in small batches, and are made from the best raw ingredients."
Fortunately for spice lovers, Patke’s blends are available locally at several sources, including the Organic Butcher in McLean, The Local Market in Falls Church and the Maple Ave. Market in Vienna. She also has a website: www.aromaticspiceblends.com, where she sells the spices and Spiced Cookies.
RecipeGreen Beans and Sweet Potato (from Patke’s website)
The recipe below is one that I have altered from my friend’s basic one, to include my own Rai Masala or Spiced Mustard. You could use Garam Masala or Roasting spices, all of which work great. This is a simple, wholesome dish you could make any time of the year and yes, it is chock full of fiber! The salt and spices wake up the green beans and the slightly crisped at the edges sweet potato contrasts the texture of the beans.
You will need about a pound of green beans, washed and snapped into 1/4 inch pieces; a sweet potato, diced (you could use regular potato of any kind, red is great); Sea salt; about 2-3 teaspoon of either one of the following spice blends: Spiced Mustard Blend / Garam Masala / Roasting Spices (you could use less if you like); olive oil (any cooking oil is okay but I love the flavor of extra virgin olive oil in this preparation).
Heat oil in a pan. Add sweet potato dices and stir and saute until a little golden. Add the green beans, stir and saute uncovered for 5 minutes. Now cover with a lid and cook until the beans are tender (the potato will be too). When done to the consistency you like, uncover the pan, add the Spiced Mustard Blend or Garam Masala or Roasting Spices, salt and stir for 2-3 minutes. Garnish with fresh Cilantro or serve as is. This is truly simply delicious.