A longtime cook who grew up eating and creating South Indian food in her native country, Rao carefully devises each meal plan after experimentation in her Mountain View home kitchen. She can spend six months honing a single dish. "I'm not just buying and repackaging. These are my own recipes," she says.
Rao calls her business Recipe Sack. The logo is a peppy red, white and black, with a jaunty-haired woman hoisting a sack high. Through her website and at trunk shows, Rao sells nine types of sacks and two multi-recipe gift baskets.
Chitranna (lemon rice), a nostalgia-inducing favorite among South Indians, is a best-seller at $3 a sack. Inside its linen sack are rice and peanuts, along with spices and dried coconut flakes; cooks contribute the lemon, oil, onions and salt. They can also add cilantro for garnish, and a dash of yogurt or curds. Rao calls this a good starter dish for cooks new to Indian food.
"My 8-year-old daughter asks for it at least once a week," Beverly Acevedo, a regular Mountain View customer, said in an enthusiastic email.
Acevedo, whose daughter goes to school with Rao's children, is just the type of customer Rao is trying to attract: someone who loves Indian food but has little experience cooking it at home. Acevedo bought her first Recipe Sack at a school holiday boutique and has been using them ever since. "Most recipes call for exotic ingredients I do not already have in my pantry and making a list and purchasing all of the ingredients felt like a daunting task. ... There are a few other frozen or prepared Indian foods offered in stores, but they don't compare to the freshness of Recipe Sack," she said.
Other Recipe Sack options include vermicelli uppma ($3), with cashews and noodles (add ginger, peas and other veggies); dosas ($2.50); and vegetable pulav ($3), with basmati rice and cashews.
Kichdi ($2.50), a comfort food of lentils and rice, is Rao's husband's favorite. It's a simple porridge-like dish that can be fancied up with eggplant, potatoes, raita or stir-fried greens.
Today, Rao is putting together a sack for vegetable pulav in the shared commercial-kitchen space she rents in San Jose. Recipe experimentation may be done at home, but sack assembly is reserved for the commercial space. Wearing a Recipe Sack T-shirt, with a white iPhone peeking out of her cargo-pant pocket, Rao spoons turmeric powder into a small plastic bag, following it with mild chili powder, "a pinch of cinnamon," garam masala, cumin and others. The brilliant spices gleam like a sunset. Every now and then, a refreshing blast of cold air sweeps through the warm kitchen as another cook opens a walk-in fridge.
"It's fun," Rao says, closing the bag with a plastic-film sealer. "Some days I do it as an assembly line." She places the plastic bag inside a drawstring linen sack; she's chosen the linen in hopes of being eco-friendly, and orders the biodegradable plastic bags online.
Rao opens another sack, this one containing the fixings for lemon rice. "With a side salad, it's a full meal," she says.
A full vegetarian meal, of course. Rao doesn't eat meat, and all her recipes are vegetarian, though when asked she may give advice on incorporating chicken stock into a rice dish. Her recipes are also free of cream, something she says she sees too much of in Indian restaurants. She tries to make her dishes feel less heavy.
The business could be seen as a culinary inheritance. Rao grew up enjoying her mother's recipes, and her father is a foodie who loved to take the family to favorite restaurants.
Rao came to the United States in 1997 to earn a master's degree in communications at Wayne State University in Detroit. A career as a public-relations consultant followed as she lived in various American cities (she met her husband in Cincinnati). The family came to the Bay Area in 2007. Interested in a career change, Rao decided to work in products instead of services, and her experiments in the kitchen started to seem like a potential business. She started selling the sacks at a school boutique in 2011. Now Recipe Sack is her full-time job.
Rao estimates that she has about 50 repeat customers, and that she sells about 150 sacks at each trunk show. She hasn't done much marketing, but plans to start an augmented campaign, upgrading her website and trying to get her products into stores.
In the meantime, she's back in her kitchen, experimenting away. She says she hopes to soon supplement her Indian offerings with African and Middle Eastern dishes.
Info: For more about Recipe Sack, go to recipesack.com.
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