In high school, Mohini Singh worked with a famous “secret blend of 11 herbs and spices.” Of course, so did countless other employees of the Kentucky Fried Chicken chain.
But long before then, cooking was an important part of the Fiji native’s life. She made her first complete meal – black-eyed pea curry with lots of tomatoes and cilantro, served with roti – at age 7, over an open fire. And though she has worked in psychology and is about to earn her master’s degree in education with a concentration on counseling, cooking always has been there.
Still is, big time. The 43-year-old Turlock resident owns and operates Mohini: Bringing Authentic Flavors Home. She makes four blends and two seasoning rubs using coriander, turmeric, paprika, cumin, fennel, star anise, cardamom, fenugreek and other spices. The blends are chai spice, classic curry powder, vegetable curry powder and garam masala powder, and the seasoning rubs are tandoori and curry.
Singh sells her products at Mollie Stone’s Markets in the Bay Area; at Village Fresh Market in Turlock; on her website, www.mohinisblends.com; and, when they open this spring, at the Modesto and Turlock farmers markets. She buys her spices – all dried seeds and pods – in bulk in the Bay Area, then grinds, blends and fresh-roasts them at Village Fresh, where she spoke last week about her work.
“The roasting is to bring out the aroma. There’s always that process between overroasting and underroasting. You want to roast it to where the oils extract and the aromas blend, but you don’t want to overroast it because then it blackens and you get a darker seasoning,” Singh said, standing by a store display of her products, which range in price from $6.99 to $7.99 a bottle.
“Most all major brands have a curry powder … and you can go online and buy tandoori,” she said. “Where I pride myself is I’m 100 percent confident they can’t duplicate it. People buy my seasonings because I’m part of it, I make it with my own hands.
“I’m not for the customer who just wants to buy a cheap curry powder. I’m for the customer who wants to buy something created within the past six months, roasted, freshly made, because I want my food to taste a certain way.”
Singh learned the roasting process from her mother, who didn’t want her daughter to have anything to do with cooking as a career. “Initially, I just learned how to cook by watching her and wanting to do it,” she said. “Then you come to the States, and because they were immigrants, they don’t necessarily want you to go into food because ... they don’t see a career in it.”
The family moved to the United States in 1984, when Mohini was 12. As a college student pursuing her undergraduate degree in psychology, she worked at places including the Children’s Crisis Center of Stanislaus County and Sierra Vista Child & Family Services. By 2004, she was pursuing a master’s degree in psychology and thinking of a career in counseling and social services.
But one day while Singh was cooking dinner, her young daughter asked what her dream was. She replied that it was to cook for people in some fashion, to share her heritage and the food she grew up with.
Singh, now divorced and whose daughter is 17 and son is 11, began teaching classes on cooking healthy, traditional Indian cuisine. She put together kits for her students that included the 14 spices commonly used in Indian food, but found that the cost was more than many students wanted to pay. “It saddened me that even though they all loved the food, not many could actually afford to prepare it at home,” she says on her website.
She shared her frustration with her mother as the two waited in line at a coffee shop one day. “She says (slipping into her mother’s accent), ‘Oh, that’s too bad. In Fiji, we used to just get together once a month and make blends – for veggies, for meat.’ And I’m like, ‘I’ve been doing this for three years, and you all of a sudden decide to tell me that?’ She goes, ‘Oh, it’s very simple.’ It was that light-bulb moment, like ‘duh.’ ”
Now, the spice blends and seasoning rubs are just one way Singh has her hands in cooking. Her “main thing,” she said, is working at Bistro 234 in Turlock with executive chef LeRoy Walker, who’s also her boyfriend. “You could call me the creative chef because I come up with new, innovative things for the restaurant, and not always Indian in origin. I create macaroons and desserts, the coconut curry we serve mussels with, tandoori short ribs, a taco soup made with my seasonings.”
She works with Modesto entrepreneur Dan Costa, making bulk sauces.
And for five years, she’s been preparing chilled meals to go – entrees, salad, rice and dessert – for Village Fresh customers to pick up every other Friday night and heat at home. Currently, she’s making 60 to 70 such meals.
Singh said she’s grateful to Village Fresh Market owner Jim Pallios for the arrangement they have. She uses his store’s meat and vegetables for her to-go meals, and his store’s kitchen to cook them and make her spice blends. In turn, he gets a cut of the meals and the spice sales and “awesome customers in his stores on Friday nights,” she said.
And because she was never a trained chef, Bistro 234 has given her the opportunity to hone her skills and learn how to prepare food for customers, she said.
Though she will graduate in May and plans to work in counseling, “I don’t know that I’ll ever leave food,” Singh said. She said her goal is that all she does now will morph into something new and exciting – and successful.
Deke Farrow: 209-578-2327
Meet Your Makers
Today, The Modesto Bee begins an ongoing series of occasional video reports and stories on “makers” in the community. We intend to cover a broad range of creative types, from visual artists to performing artists to artisans to culinary composers whose palettes are our palates. If you’d like to be profiled, please tell us a bit about what you do, including a link to a website, if you have one. Feel free to attach images. Please email both Andy Alfaro at firstname.lastname@example.org and Deke Farrow at email@example.com.