Fans of local food are sometimes stumped when it comes to ethnic ingredients.
That's especially true of ethnic foods, and even more so of ethnically prepared foods. If you want to support the local economy, you can find locally made barbecue sauce without much trouble. But finding a locally made tikka masala or vegetable kurma sauce is another story.
But I've discovered that these two sauces – staples of Indian cuisine – are made locally, about an hour away in Pittsboro. The manufacturer, Kerala Curry, makes a number of authentic Indian sauces, chutneys and other products.
It is a small, family business started in 2002 by Ann Varkey. She named the company after her native state of Kerala, in southwest India. Kerala makes about 20 products. They are all-natural and gluten-free, with no MSG, artificial colors, preservatives, fillers, modified food starch or corn syrup.
Better yet, they are made in small batches, under Varkey's supervision, and they taste like the real thing, with the complexity and flavors that you expect at a good Indian restaurant.
"Every batch that goes out of here, I am making it or I am checking to make sure it is right," Varkey said.
Her husband and business partner, Rollo, said, "Ann works at the plant every day and cooks with our employees to prepare all of our dishes the same way she makes them at home for our family."
Kerala only has three other full-time employees, though Ann Varkey will hire others for short periods. "We make everything to order. We make it fresh. So sometimes we need more workers when we have a big order," she said.
The products include four jarred chutneys: mango (available in hot and mild), tomato, coriander and curried lemon. Kerala makes five sauces: curry for chicken (available in hot and mild), tikka masala, vegetable kurma, kera curry and vindaloo curry.
Kerala also makes spice mixes, such as fish masala and a powder for curry sauces.
Whereas other packaged Indian sauces, chutneys and spices often seem dull and tend to all taste the same, Kerala's products are very distinctive. Sheri Castle, a cooking instructor and cookbook author in Chapel Hill, is a big fan, especially of the tomato chutney. "The flavors are bold, distinct, aromatic, fiery and addictive," she said.
To that I would add that they have a complexity that expresses the best of Indian cuisine. Some of these mixtures have 18 or more spices. The trick for the cook is to get a distinctive – not muddled – taste out of them, and Varkey knows how to do that.
In the Winston-Salem area, Whole Foods Market and some Food Lion stores carry a few of Kerala's products. In the Research Triangle, though, consumers can even get fresh and frozen meals at such stores as A Southern Season and the Weaver Street Market in Chapel Hill. The company also sells items online at www.keralacurry.com.
Kerala had steady growth its first six years, peaking with sales of about $500,000 in 2008. That was the year that Kerala's tomato chutney won a gold award for outstanding condiment at the Fancy Food Show of the National Association for the Specialty Food Trade. It was the first time in 57 years that an Indian product won a gold award.
Since then, the company has struggled some through the recession, Rollo Varkey said. "We were down, but we are picking up again because we are getting into (university) dining halls," he said.
Kerala now sells Indian foods to UNC Chapel Hill and others. Whole Foods occasionally uses its vegetables samosas and various sauces on its hot bar.
Ann Varkey said they would like the business to still grow, but they have come a long way in nine years.
"When we started in 2002, people didn't even know what curry was," she said. "There's a whole lot of difference between 2002 and 2011. People are looking for curry or they aren't afraid to eat curry. A new generation is open to foreign foods.
"I think I started way too early. But I think Indian curries are going to be big for the next 10 years."