COVID comfort food inspires new business of spices and wellness for Indian entrepreneur

Prem Pitchiah, along with his wife Delphine and child Eian, have brought the wellness spices of their home country to their Ottawa business.

It all started when Prem Pitchiah caught COVID in early 2020. 

“It was a scary time and not a lot of people knew what was going on,” Pitchiah says of those early days of the pandemic when the virus was new and vaccines were still in development. 

What Pitchiah did have, besides a fever and intense cough, was plenty of advice from his mom, dad and grandma back in India. 

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Pitchiah came to Canada in 2015 for a master’s degree at the University of Ottawa and took up work as a quality assurance engineer in the tech sector. When he got sick with the dreaded virus, his family back in India told him to drink plenty of turmeric milk, which is a common home remedy in his homeland. 

“A lot of people drink soup here when they’re sick but turmeric milk with pepper is something that’s a common drink to give (in India), especially when a kid is sick,” Pitchiah explains. 

Pitchiah recovered and, in addition to feeling fortunate for being young and fit, he remembered the soothing comfort the turmeric milk had provided him. It was that experience that inspired Pitchiah to found Pestle & Pods Inc., which makes spice mixes and coffee alternatives that harness the power of “superfoods” like turmeric, beetroot and cacao. 

Initially, Pitchiah had tried several turmeric latte mixes available on the market, but quickly decided he could do better himself. Turmeric can have a subtle but earthy taste, he says, which makes the balance with other flavours important. 

“I wanted to create a turmeric beverage that is not just super healthy, but also can be super delicious,” Pitchiah says. 

He came up with two mixes in his kitchen and shared them with his neighbours in Stittsville, most of whom were not familiar with Indian flavours. When they came back asking for more, Pitchiah knew that he was on the right track. Around this time, he also developed a masala curry mix in an attempt to replicate the delicious and healthy meals his mother had made for him as a kid. 

Within a few months, he found his way to the Stittsville Market. He and his wife, Delphine, packed the curry and latte mixes in white plastic bags, printed cardboard labels and glued them on by hand. At the market, he found turmeric to be a trendier superfood than he had expected, thanks to its anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties being well-touted in Canada.

“Then I thought, okay, I think I have a product here and I should probably get, like, a better package,” he says.

He upgraded his packaging and expanded Pestle & Pods’ offerings to include caffeine-free cacao chai and beetroot latte blends. He has also developed additional seasoning blends, all of which are now available from local retailers including Natural Food Pantry, Ottawa Artisans and Herb and Spice.

Flavour is what Pitchiah says distinguishes his blends from other wellness foods on the market.

“There are products like this, I’m not reinventing it, I’m just giving it in the most delicious way so people can actually enjoy these,” he explains. “That’s my value, because I’ve tried a lot of these so-called superfood companies and it’s just not enjoyable.”

He says the next steps for Pestle & Pods include developing a coffee substitute mix for new mothers and continuing to grow the distribution network.

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