In times of need, our loved ones rise to help us. This is true for spice business owner Priya Sharma. Her father, Amrish, has always been there for her – whether to comfort her after being bullied at school or to give her a taste of home when she's felt homesick.
Sharma's dad most recently worked his magic by creating a spice mix that helped reignite her love for cooking and her Indian heritage. She's now on a mission to share it with the world.
Sharma was blessed with an idyllic childhood; it was filled with happy memories and fresh, home-cooked meals. Her parents, Amrish and Renu, immigrated to Australia in 1992 from the small town of Rohtak in India's state of Haryana. They set out to provide their kids with the best life possible.
"I was really lucky to have a childhood where my mum was at home," Sharma says. "I ate fresh food every single meal, nothing was ever microwaved, nothing was even from cans."
Every day, her mum would pack her a classic Indian street-food snack of roti, filled with a tomato and paneer stir-fry, for school.
"I did ask [my mum] a couple of times to give me a sandwich like a regular kid, but I hated it so then I just went back to having my roti," she laughs.
Although Sharma loved the fresh, intense flavours of Indian cooking, it wasn't always well received by her peers. Sharma was the only person of colour at her school and felt insecure about her dark skin, black hair and unconventional lunches.
"The most embarrassing moment was when I was in first grade, and it was a rainy day, so everyone was sitting in class," she recalls. "I opened up my lunchbox and my teacher asked, 'Who's food is so smelly?'
"From then on, every single rainy day, I wouldn't eat my lunch."
Thankfully, this experience didn't impact her love for Indian cuisine. Her mouth waters as she recalls the authentic Indian dinners her mum would cook for her young family, including mali kofta, aloo ka paratha, daal chawal, chole bhature, dosa sambar and shahi paneer.
Sharma's mum may have been the weeknight cook but her dad was king of the kitchen on the weekend.
"Every Saturday morning, me and my dad would cook," she recalls. "I would put on Saturday Disney, and …we'd make pizzas, pasta, French fries or Indian food."
Her dad and his seven siblings were taught to cook in India from a young age, but he considered it more of a hobby than a chore.
"Naturally, in a big household like that, he learned how to cook as his mum could only do so much," Sharma explains.
However, he didn't have much time for it once he began studying to become the first engineer in the family. Although, he rediscovered his passion after settling in Australia.
"For each different Indian meal, you put different spices in it to get that flavour. There's garam masala, sambar masala, chana masala, chat masala. He basically blended together the different masalas."
Sharma experienced a similar disconnect when she moved out of home at 21. She relocated to a remote town in central Queensland for work and immediately missed the meals she'd been spoilt with growing up.
Craving a taste of home, Sharma tried to make some of her favourite curries, such as shahi paneer. The family always enjoyed this rich and creamy Indian specialty at celebrations and festivals, like at Diwali.
"It has so many happy memories around it," she explains. "On each special occasion, it was always one of the many dishes on the table and I remember being most excited because I knew I would be able to eat leftovers again the next day."
However, without her parents' guidance, this curry proved challenging to make. She struggled to find the perfect balance of spices and 14-hour workdays left her with barely enough time to experiment.
Seeing her struggle, her dad created a special spice mix that allowed Sharma to enjoy the flavours of home from afar. In the beginning, this spice blend was a little secret. It wasn't until a co-worker smelt her fragrant curry that the secret got out.
Proud to share the flavours of her culture, Sharma began giving the spice mix to her colleagues. She also began posting recipes that featured the spice blend on her TikTok account.
"I found that sometimes cooking videos that are shared can be really intimidating and I just want to share that you can make something delicious, and it can be really, really simple," Sharma explains.
Her videos began receiving millions of views and she found herself inundated with requests from followers asking where they could buy this magical condiment. After a month of sending out samples, Sharma and her fiancé Sid enlisted her parents to develop a commercial product that she could give to anyone who asked.
Her dad spent three months creating a Western Indian spice blend, called 'Dad's Special Spice Mix', which captured the flavours of Sharma's favourite masalas.
"For each different Indian meal, you put different spices in it to get that flavour. There's garam masala, sambar masala, chana masala, chat masala," she explains. "He basically blended together with the different masalas and then balanced them out to what I like."
Sharma explains it contains a total of 38 spices. "We've got nuts, lentils, spices…We dry roast all of them blend them up and grind them."
She and her fiancé enjoy it so much that they use Dad's Special Spice Mix three or four times a week, whether it's for their favourite shahi paneer or avocado on toast. "You use it just like salt and pepper," she explains.
This spice mix has not only reignited Sharma's love for cooking, but helps her demonstrate that Indian food is more than just curry.
She hopes to continue sharing Indian cuisine and imparting the message that good cooking doesn't have to be hard. All that's required is love, laughter and a little bit of spice.
Love the story? Follow the author Melissa Woodley here: Instagram @sporkdiaries. Photographs by Priya Sharma.
Creamy shahi tofu curry
- 300 g firm tofu
- 2 medium-sized fresh tomatoes (approx 200 g)
- ½ tbsp tomato paste
- 7 cashews (can substitute with 1 tsp cornflour)
- ¼ tsp salt
- ½ cup water
- 1 tbsp Dad's Special Spice Mix
- ¼ tsp turmeric powder
- Wrap the block of tofu with a clean tea towel, then place it on a large plate with a lid. Put a heavy item, such as a frying pan, on top of the wrapped tofu. Weigh down the pan further with cans and jars. Leave the weight on for 30 minutes.
- Chop 2 tomatoes into cubes.
- Add chopped tomatoes and cashews to a pot on high heat. Cook for 2 minutes.
- Pour the contents of the pot into a blender. Add tomato paste and blend until smooth.
- Pour puree from blender cup back into the pot and add salt, water, Dad's Special Spice Mix and turmeric powder.
- Stir puree in the pot as you bring it to the boil.
- Cut tofu into large cubes and add to the curry in your pot. Give it a stir and it's ready to serve.
- Enjoy this curry with a side of rice or roti.
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