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Indian spice and everything nice

Posted: August 2, 2008 9:30 p.m.
Updated: October 4, 2008 5:01 a.m.

Clockwise from left to right, Shrimp Tandoori, Santa Clarita tri tip with grilled zucchini and asparagus and Chicken Masala over rice. All three plates were marinated with Mohan Sikand's own blend of spices.

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When Mohan Sikand was 6 years old, he decided he wanted to live in the United States - San Francisco to be precise.

"I think I saw San Francisco in a movie, and that influenced me," he said.

It was an ambitious goal for the young man from Bangalore, India. Bangalore, located in southwestern Indian, was not yet known as the "Silicon Valley of India."

"Bangalore used to be a great place to live when I grew up there," Sikand said. "But in the last few years it has grown tremendously."

Sikand, 64, moved to the United States well before the term "Silicon Valley" became a household term - when computers were still reserved for the government and large corporations.

Coming to America
At 21, Sikand arrived in Syracuse, N.Y., to study for his masters in Engineering at Syracuse University. Stepping off the airplane he found the city smothered in snow.

Sikand was unaware that Syracuse is known for its snowfall. The Syracuse metro area routinely receives more snow on average than any other large city in the United States.

"The day before I arrived Syracuse had a record snowfall. I'd never seen snow before. There was snow in the mountains of India, but not where you lived," he said. "In Syracuse there were drifts 10 feet high.

Houses were buried in snow. It was the most amazing experience."

Sikand said the heavy snowfall was just the first of many unique experiences as an immigrant to the United States.

"I was young, and I was excited to be in the United States," he said. "It was a new beginning in a new place."

His first day of class at Syracuse also offered up excitement for Sikand.

"I had a class late in the afternoon and I wasn't clear on the layout of the classrooms. I was searching for the correct room and opened up a door - and there was this girl, nude. It was an arts building, and this was the figure drawing class," he said. "She was at the very front of the classroom where I opened the door. The class was stunned, they were not used to seeing a Sikh with a turban, and I wasn't expecting a nude girl. We both caught our breath, then someone in the class told me how to find the right classroom."

Cooking as a hobby
The exotic food of America was also a fascination for the college student.

"I lived on hot dogs and hamburgers for weeks - and it was thrilling at first, but the novelty eventually wore off and I began to miss my mother's cooking," he said.

Sikand found other Indian families in Syracuse who would welcome the engineering student to their homes for a meal.

"You can only eat off Indian families in town for so long," Sikand said.

He wrote home for copies of the recipes he was craving, then discovered he couldn't buy the spices he needed in Syracuse.

"I looked high and low for the spices - back then you never even heard of cilantro," he said.

Sikand asked for spices to be mailed to him from India.

"I grew my own cilantro and chilies, and my family sent me spices and recipes. I learned all my mother's secret ingredients," he said.

Sikand soon refined his Indian cooking skills and discovered sources for his spices in New York City.

At Syracuse University Sikand discovered one of the music professors had a fascination for Indian music and food.

"Every few months she'd have a function that would feature Indian food," Sikand said. "I was president of the Indian Association at Syracuse at the time and she contacted me about cooking for the event. I cooked the meat and someone else would do the vegetables."

Sikand would often feed 300 people during the professor's events.

"Everyone loved the flavors," he said.

After graduation Sikand worked in Syracuse as an engineer for eight years. He had several roommates during his time in Syracuse and taught each of them to cook Indian meals.

"They all learned to cook Indian meals and they loved the food," he said.

U.S. citizenship
Sikand soon was pursuing the American dream and became a U.S. citizen in 1976.

"I gave up engineering and went into business for myself," he said.

He moved to Houston and bought a clothing company, where he imported clothes from India to distribute in the United States.

As the economy changed, Sikand continued to move west.

"I moved to Los Angeles to work with my brother who decided to manufacture clothes in India and distribute through Los Angeles," he said.

The 1994 earthquake shook up the Los Angeles clothing industry so Sikand found a new opportunity working the stock market.

"The stock markets close at 1 p.m. in Los Angeles so I found myself cooking for my family," he said.
Sikand and his wife, Sharon, (who works as a physician's assistant at the University of California, Los Angeles) have two children, Gina, 28 and Sant, 30.

The couple have lived in the Santa Clarita Valley for 20 years where both children graduated from William S. Hart High School. Sikand's daughter works for Realty Executives in the SCV, and his son lives in Philadelphia.

"Sant played football for Hart and for Syracuse University. He could have been in the NFL, but he hurt his knee," Sikand said.

A new business is born
Sikand found that he still enjoyed cooking his favorite Indian meals but hated the cleanup.

"In Indian cooking there are a lot of spices, a lot of different ingredients," he said. "I'd use a little bit of this, and a little bit of that, and I experimented to refine the taste. Then I decided to put it all together into one package."

Thus Prima Enterprise was born to offer up Tandoori-style Indian spice blends to consumers. Sikand's spice blends are based on his mother's secret recipes but with his own twist.

"My wife is the one who pushed me to market the spices," Sikand said. "Everyone who tries them loves the spices."

Sikand has also received regional and national acclaim for his spice blends.

In 2000 he won the top prize for a non-culinary student at the Western Food and Hospitality Conference.
In 2007 at the America's Best Food Show in Anaheim, Sikand won the prize for "Best Shrimp" using his spices.

Cooking Pleasures Magazine sent samples of Sikand's spices to 500 subscribers and received an 83 percent approval rating.

"The magazine told me they routinely get back ratings around 66 percent, so 83 percent is astonishing," he said.

Sikand has also received rave reviews from Food Network celebrity chef and author Sara Moulton, Jamie Deen, of the Food Network and David Rosengarten, a noted food authority.

"I've received such flattering compliments. I can't believe it," he said.

In addition, his spices are used in restaurants and institutions (the University of Southern California is numbered among the buyers) throughout the United States.

"Bristol Farms sells turkey with my spice blend," he said.

It is all about the food
Sikand said he feels more American than Indian now and has adopted the barbecue as one of his favorite methods of cooking. He has developed a tri tip masala spice rub that he feels will put Santa Clarita on the map.

"I went to the Santa Maria Elks Club and challenged their tri tip with mine," he said. "I received a huge positive response. They loved it."

Sikand said he wants the people of Santa Clarita to tell him if his spice rub for tri tip can earn the right to be called Santa Clarita tri tip.

"They can contact me through my Web site, www.primaenterprise.com," he said.

In addition to the tri tip spice blend Sikand also sells spice blends for rib masala, steak masala, chicken masala, chicken makhni, chicken karhi, chicken curry, shrimp masala, fish masala, chana masala and rice pilaf.

Sikand describes his spices as "flavorful with savory heat." He said he kept the "heat" mild so it doesn't cover up the flavor of the spices.

"I tell people if they want more heat, just use more spice," he said.

The 14 spices included in Sikand's blends include garlic, tajpatta, black cardamom, green cardamom, javetri, marathi mugu, chili powder, turmeric, cumin, coriander, cloves, cinnamon, black pepper and star anise.

Sikand said his company's signature phrase is "spice up your life," and he wants to put "not just a chicken in every pot, I want to put a Tandoori chicken in every pot.

San Francisco
When Sikand finally got to San Francisco he found "a charming city." However, "it was raining when I visited." He decided that San Francisco was a nice place to visit, but he likes living in the SCV.

In true SCV spirit, Sikand is also giving back to the community. He is donating $5,000 work of his spices - 1,000 bottles - to Carousel Therapeutic Riding Ranch for the nonprofit's signature fundraiser, Heart of the West on Aug. 23.

Sikand plans to add a blog to his Web site to encourage customers to give him feedback on his spices.
"I am very serious, I want to put Santa Clarita on the map and see if the people will embrace the Santa Clarita tri-tip name," he said.

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