Here we speak with Arjun, the co-founder of Pico and the brand behind the Hari Chutney in the India Box. Learn about Arjun’s unique journey before founding his company and also what Pico hopes to communicate to the world regarding Indian cuisine and flavors.
We’re so happy to partner with you. Can you tell us about how your business got started?
Nilgai (the producers behind our sauce brand Pico) was founded in 2011 along with my co-founder and CEO Abhay Jaiswal. We had met in London a few years before, and began by discussing the opportunities in packaged food in India, and how we could enter the market with some of our own ideas. Back then, India only processed a shocking 3% of its agricultural produce, compared to 80% in the USA and a lot of the Western World. The impact of this was that India’s rapidly growing middle class population only had a few key food brands to choose from, and choices were extremely limited.
At the same time, there wasn’t enough familiarity with authentic international flavours, so ‘localization’ was a key part of a successful food business. That’s how we came to the idea of an Indian hot sauce – an international style of applying a burst of flavor to your food, but made from locally sourced produce and playing around with essentially Indian flavor. Before we began this project, we knew that the same sauces would have a big opportunity abroad as well, where Indian flavors could be presented in a Western format to people looking for easy access to Indian tastes even if they didn’t know how to prepare an Indian meal from scratch. From day one we set out trying to create a portfolio of products that could satisfy both the international as well a the Indian need for a creative approach to Indian condiments.
Your company is based in Mumbai, but what’s your background?
I was born in New York, but I consider myself ‘a London boy’, having lived in Central London for 22 years of my life. After high school in London, I studied at Oxford University, where I majored in Italian and Linguistics. The great thing about studying a language in the UK is that you have to take a compulsory year out and live in the country that you are studying. So while I was in Italy, I focused on answering one question by the time I returned to Oxford for my final year of university: what was I going to do after I graduated? I split my year into 3 parts: I worked in a law firm in Rome as an apprentice and quickly decided that law wasn’t for me. I took my fine art skills to the next level in a course in Florence, which I loved.
As it turns out, I use my artistic talent constantly even today because I have designed all of our Indian packaging in-house, and continue to use my design skills in our marketing and any creative / design output for the company. But the main experience that I gained while living in Italy was the 5 months that I spent working as a chef in a restaurant in the Italian ski resort of Bormio. There, I learned a lot of my culinary skills and got to explore the technical and operational side of running a food business. When I came back from my year in Italy, I was convinced that I wanted to get into food, and a year later at the age of 22 I moved to Mumbai, India, to set up Nilgai Foods + Pico and begin my journey as a food entrepreneur.
Could you tell us about the production process for your chutney in the India Box?
Hari Chutney, which literally means green chutney, is made in different ways across India. It is one of the few items that you find across the country, but depending on where you are, the taste can be completely different. In some areas, the base for the chutney is coconut. In other areas, the green color comes from different leaves like mint or mustard leaves. We have chosen to replicate the authentic tastes from the city of Mumbai, one of the most vibrant street food capital’s of the country.
The process of making our Hari Chutney is subtle and a delicate art. If you have ever left vegetables on the stove for a few minutes more than necessary, you will know how quickly leafy greens turn brown. For us, the blanching process that is long enough to sterilize the ingredients but short enough to retain the color of the vegetable is extremely important. Our Hari Chutney, therefore, has a few additional steps in the cooking process than our other sauces, which gives it its vibrant color and powerful, fresh taste.
What’s the overall goal for your company?
We believe that India today is a rapidly changing kaleidoscope of cultures, mind sets, and styles. The stereotypes that people have about the country are far from accurate, and within some of the biggest cities there is a thriving counter culture that is driving experimentation intellectually, culturally and aesthetically. Food is no exception here. Our mission is to embody this bold, new India and present a new face of Indian packaged foods to the outside world.