A chance photo of a homemade pickle uploaded on a Kashmiri women’s group on Facebook turned Sabira Mattoo into a successful entrepreneur. The 35-year-old who has created her pickle brand is now mentoring other women to become self-reliant.
“Women on the group used to share photos of their achievements occasionally. I too uploaded the photo of a mixed vegetable pickle I had made with the help of my mother-in-law. I was pleasantly surprised when group members enquired if I was selling it.
Sabira did not want to disappoint the enquirers. “So I promised to deliver six orders the same day. I prepared the pickle jars and contacted a local courier agency to make the deliveries. After that day, orders started coming every day," recalls Sabira, now running her home business successfully.
Chasing her dreams
“After studying hard most of the girls stay home and limit themselves to their kitchens. I did not want to do that. It is not always about money; sometimes you just want to do something for yourself,” she adds.
Her brand 'Panun Foods and Spices' sells a variety of pickles and other homemade traditional Kashmiri relishes to satisfy the cravings of 'spicy treat' lovers throughout the country.
She likes experimenting with recipes and has come up with some differentiated pickles with meat, mushroom, aloo bukhara (damson) etc. Pickles are an integral part of Kashmir’s food culture and are bought throughout the year but the demand peaks during the holy month of Ramazan and the marriage season in the Valley.
Sabira started selling online in 2019 and now she has a distributor who supplies to city’s leading departmental stores. Her husband, Muhammad Altaf takes care of the marketing.
Within three months after starting her business, her work had expanded so much that she had to hire three full-time workers at home and ten more women to sort, clean and cut the vegetables and help her in making the pickles.
Sabira who is an MCA from the University of Kashmir settled into domestic life after marriage. She developed an interest in making pickles thanks to her mother-in-law from whom she has picked up valuable tips on blending various spices for the pickles and cooking.
Home is where the business is
Sabira says that her kitchen at home is the centre of all activities for Panun.
Hygiene is very important in her operations and Sabira is especially careful about cleaning and drying all produce before the pickling and processing.
She uses a wide range of fresh organic vegetables in her preparations. Initially, she used organic vegetables from her kitchen garden. As her business grew, she has networked with a good number of community farmers for direct procurement of a wide range of organic produce.
Even though she has a set recipe for all her products, she likes to try out new ideas and often improvises. Traditional Kashmiri achaar (pickle) typically contains carrot, radish, cauliflower, garlic and kohlrabi (turnip cabbage) among other vegetables which are blended with a variety of spices including Kashmiri red chilli powder, ginger powder, coriander seeds and mustard seeds.
Some special vegetables are also added when they are in season. These include the different types of haak (collard greens) and nadru (lotus stem). Panun offers special pickles for every season and they include the variety of greens available at that time of the year.
Sabira has recently added a few more delicacies to her list which includes waer - a traditional mixture of exotic spices grounded together to form a fine paste which is used in the preparation of curries; and kehwa - aromatic Kashmiri tea infused with cardamom, cloves, cinnamon and other spices. She is now planning to launch praan (wild shallot paste) and other seasoning mixes as well.
"I don't hesitate to use the most expensive and high-quality spices in my recipes to provide my customers with the most flavorful pickles," says Sabira.
The packaging is also done at home.
She prints the labels at home and they are then pasted on the bottles.
A 500 gm Panun pickle bottle sells for Rs 400. Sabira says she uses olive oil in her pickles which makes a better choice in the pickle market. "I have always been health-conscious and I make sure to give my customers what I would give to myself,” she says.
Family is the anchor
Sabira says she wouldn't be where she is today without the constant encouragement and support of her family. "My inspiration for my business is my mother-in-law. She taught me how to make pickles."
She counts her husband as her greatest strength. Since the number of orders increased enormously just after a few weeks, Sabira found it very difficult to manage everything on her own.
"The printing machine had to be purchased, I had to look for suppliers who would provide me with vegetables in bulk, the labelling and other arrangements involved in business demanded assistance,” she says.
Sabira is also helping other women of her community who face economic hardships. At the moment, she provides the much-needed employment to around 15 women.
"All the women that I employ face difficult economic conditions and I wish to teach them so that one day they can stand on their own feet and make us all proud," she says.
Sabira encourages every woman to be the master of her fate and live life on her own terms.
"The best advice I can give is to follow your pursuits relentlessly. Your products should have value, and you must be brave to fulfil your dreams. It is never too late to start. Work on building a name for yourself and people should know you for the work you do,” she says.
Sabira begins her day around 9 am and the preparations of various pickles keep her occupied for the most part of the day. "It is very important to have something to look forward to every single day. I love making pickles and engaging myself with something I am passionate about gives me a deep sense of contentment," she says.
"The power of a pickle is felt most when a tiffin opens and the pungent fragrance spreads through the air. Open a jar of pickle and you end up opening a jar of memories,” she says with a laugh.
(Parsa Mahjoob is a Srinagar-based freelance journalist)