Shri Bala popularly known as Chef Shri Bala in the culinary world has recently ventured into selling her spices mix online under her brand ShriBala
Shri Bala is a chef turned entrepreneur, producing homemade boutique masalas under her brand ShriBala. Hers is a world of passion and continuous learning. The wide knowledge she has on the traditional South Indian cuisines just leaves the room in awe. And the taste of her food is simply addictive. She is in demand across the country for themed food promotions, for conducting master classes, for consultations, and in her hometown Chennai which is where her story begins.
Her Early Days
Hailing from a family of Chartered Accountants (CAs), it was natural for her family to guide Shri Bala in that direction. However, her mother encouraged her to pursue catering. Recollecting those days, Shri tells Handi Talks, “Growing up I would always hijack her kitchen and try my hand at different recipes. I just wouldn’t let her enter the kitchen till I was done. So, sensing my passion for cooking my mother pushed me to become a chef. But as fate would have it, the Culinary School in Chennai didn’t have a course that would train students in vegetarian cooking.” Shri belonged to a pure vegetarian eating family and cooking non-vegetarian food as part of the course, made her mother very uncomfortable. So, she went on to pursue graduation and later became a CA.
During her CA coaching days, she made friends with many students from neighbouring Kerala, Andhra Pradesh, and Karnataka. Post her exams she used to visit them and learn traditional dishes from her friends’ grandmothers. But she never took down recipes, “That’s a problem I have, I can only see a person cook and register the ingredients and method, not write them down. Once my brain registers the recipe, I never forget it,” says Bala. She also learned many recipes during her travels across South India for auditing work.
The Accidental Chef
Life went on when she suddenly lost both her parents one after the other. Shri found herself surrounded by deep emptiness that led her to quit her job as a CA and she began staying home. But little did she know that a new and exciting life awaited her. This was the year 2015. While home, she used to try her hand at the many cuisines she learned over the years and post them on Twitter, where she had roughly 100 followers. To her surprise, once when she put up a sweet dish image Chef Ashish Bhasin began to follow her. Shri considers him her Guru today. She got acquainted with him and began learning new things from him.
During one of their conversations, he told her about a Punjabi Food Festival he was conducting at Trident BKC in Mumbai. “Hearing that got me all riled up. I began telling him how no one gives importance to South Indian food or features it at such festivals.” Chef Bhasin asked her to get him in touch with some expert to coordinate with. “I refused to do so and offered to be part of the festival myself. He was unsure at first so he put me through a test and when I proved myself, he agreed to let me enter the 5-star kitchen. I did my first food festival in April 2016 and since then there has been no looking back,” says Shri talking about her life’s turning point. Today everyone in the culinary circle knows her as Chef Shri Bala.
A New Journey
Chef Bala travels extensively across the country for teaching assignments, food festivals, and other events. During these times, she always carries her own Sambar powder and the smell of her sambar never fails to attract the people around, she says. Seeing the unique flavour present in her masala, Chef Ashish recommended she start her own masala line. His push finally worked and she began selling various spice mixes under her brand name ShriBala from January 2020 onwards. These homemade masalas are FSSAI certified and have attracted consumers from all over the nation. She also has the Indian diaspora in UAE, USA, and Singapore among other countries demand her masalas. The brand is looking at acquiring international certifications and solving logistics issues so as to become available to those abroad.
The Masala Range
Chef Bala makes seven varieties of masalas at home. These include powders such as sambar, rasam, idli, curry, and parupu (lentils). The curry powder is especially for non-vegetarian dishes, says the Chef. She also makes Karamadhu powder and instant Tamarind rice paste known as Pulikachal. Pulikachal is the Iyengar style temple tamarind rice paste. She is looking at expanding the product range in the coming days. She makes small batches every month; around 50-60 kgs. These masalas are available in 100 grams and 200 grams packets to consumers across the nation. A google form is available on her social media handles through which customers place their orders.
Her most popular masalas include sambar powder, idli powder followed by curry powder, and rasam powder. Chef Bala also specialises in catering to clients’ special masala requests. When asked what gets people hooked to her masalas she says, “My masalas are sun-dried. I prepare them myself and the most important thing is that their aroma is intact. You open a packet of rasam powder anywhere in India it will have the same aroma.” There is no compromise in the ingredients that go into making the masalas, she adds.
Shri purchases most of her raw materials from wholesale markets in Chennai while some of them come from Kerala, which adds an authentic taste to her spice mix. “The wholesale market prices are extremely volatile and this reflects in the masala prices. The customers are aware of the same beforehand on google forms,” says Shri. While she takes care of the masala preparations, her daughter Srinidhi Sriram takes care of the rest with the help of an assistant Suganya K.
Her Many Avatars
Chef is just one of the many hats that Shri dons. She also works as a consultant at her previous firm. An athlete during her school days, Shri follows a strict exercise routine and occasionally enjoys double skull rowing at the boat club in Chennai. She has also authored a fictional book titled ‘Y? Me’. A highly dextrous wonder woman Chef Shri Bala also takes interest in learning cuisines from the royal kitchens and giving a glimpse of it to the public.