Food: The spice girl - Word of mouth

Sybil Kapoor meets curry connoisseur Sally Argawal

You must learn to cook curry at your mother's knee - or so most Indians believe. It doesn't matter that Madhur Jaffrey is your bible. It's irrelevant that you've eaten your way around India. Even marrying an Indian won't necessarily help. As far as they are concerned, you can't understand cooking with spices unless it's in your blood.

It took an Indian, Chimanlal Agarwal, to see how to capitalise on this birthright. Mix small sachets of spices for each of the popular curries, print the recipe on the back and then sell, sell, sell.

Armed with this idea, he founded Chiman's in Barnstaple, Devon, in 1990. The spices were imported from India via Bristol in 25kg sacks - everything from turmeric root to dried chillies. They were then ground, mixed and vacuum-packed within hours by a part-time staff of local ladies. Soon Chimanlal was selling his spice sachets to delicatessens and health food shops throughout the south-west of England.

No longer did local curry enthusiasts wonder how to find asafaoetida for their Bombay potatoes. It was all there, ready-measured with just the right amount of fenugreek and black mustard seeds.

If they wanted to make fresh cauliflower and spinach bhajis, all they needed was a packet of Chimanlal's spices and the attached recipe.

But early in 1997, Chimanlal suddenly died. A family conference decided that two of his children, Sally and Danny, would continue the business with their mother.

"We had to totally rethink the business," Sally recalls. "I had just had my son, and my brother wanted to continue his work as a business analyst in London. Selling our brand by driving around the country was simply not an option."

The future lay in blending Asian flavours with Western products. Their recipes had already been modernised and Anglicised for ordinary cooks. "I'm too busy to spend more than half an hour cooking dinner," remarks Sally, "so our food is designed to create a bit of a sizzle and a lovely smell without taking hours."

Certainly, my kitchen was filled with a pungent aroma as soon as the spices hit the pan. The recipes were quick to prepare and, though not 100 per cent authentic, tasty nevertheless. However, judging by the chicken korma and Bombay potatoes, I would use less than a whole sachet of spices and hold back on the salt.

Recently, Sally Agarwal took a stand at the Fine Food Fair at Earls Court, where she met Alan Porter from The Chocolate Society. Both were brooding about spice-flavoured chocolate, but neither had all the expertise. Within weeks Chiman's Chocolate Spice Bars were conceived - bitter dark Valrhona chocolate with cardamom or crunchy bits of allspice, and malty milk chocolate filled with poppy seeds or sesame seeds.

"I needed someone who knew spices and loved chocolate," says Porter. "With one person in Devon and the other in Yorkshire, you can't develop a new product without being on the same wavelength."

Two food shows later they were ready to test out the new chocolate bars at this year's International Food Exhibition at Earls Court. Before you could blink, predatory product designers from Sharwoods and United Biscuits were quizzing Sally about her products. The allspice bar might be slightly dental in nature, but the chocolate cardamom is delicious.

Perhaps every Indian restaurant in the country will soon be offering us a little square of Chiman's chocolate spice instead of the usual sweetened fennel seeds to freshen our mouths as we stump up for the bill.

Chiman's Chocolate Spice Bars will be available from the end of April from specialist shops, including The Chocolate Society, 36 Elizabeth Street, London SW1 (0171-259 9222). For a mail order list of Chiman's spice blends, contact Sally Agarwal, Chiman's, 73 Windsor Road, Barnstaple, Devon EX31 4AG (01271 374416).

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