So Many Markets, So Many Samosas

By Gretchen Schmidt / Photography By Robert Parente | October 01, 2015
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Samosas

When you visit farmers markets from the Keys to West Palm Beach and Orland, there’s one vendor you can count on seeing: Nisha’s Flavors of India, serving freshly made samosas, flatbreads, prepared foods and chutneys. She’s, well, everywhere.


Yes, there really is a Nisha. Her full name is Ashmin Nisha, but everyone knows the ubiquitous paratha vendor with the sunny smile as “Nisha.” This season, her savory foods are in a whopping 50 South Florida markets, plus 30 more markets in Orlando and in Texas. She’s working on bringing her Flavors of India to farmers markets in Los Angeles and Atlanta.

FROM FIJI TO FLORIDA

Nisha’s story begins in the Fiji Islands in the South Pacific where she was born. At 16, she moved to the United States to go to school, then married and lived in San Francisco, where she was a frequent farmers market visitor. Her life took a turn in 2007 when she and her New Delhi-born husband sold their California house and bought a gas station in Houston.

“We went broke with the gas station deal, and I was pregnant at the time,” she says. Desperate times call for bold actions, and Nisha decided to sell Indian food at a farmers market. She’d been studying the business, and had even thought of the name. She had always cooked at home, using recipes from her mother and mother-in-law, so she knew what foods to make. Two weeks before giving birth, she launched her first market in Katy, Texas, selling vegetable and chicken samosas and parathas with five dips, all made in small batches.

“By 11am we sold out,” she says. Immediately, she lined up more markets: Rice University, Urban Harvest markets, the biggest in Houston; and, eventually, markets in Austin and San Antonio. Nisha’s Flavors of India was up and running.

But soon all was not well at home. Two years ago, she separated from her husband, and got in the car and took off for Miami, even though she had no friends or family here – “I didn’t even know one person,” she says. Her GPS, simply set to “Miami,” led her to a parking lot by the Wells Fargo bank downtown. “I sat there for two hours, crying.” And then she got to work. Nisha found a room to rent and a commercial kitchen to share. She worked her way through the bureaucracy to get licensing for her new business, not an easy task – “they didn’t know what category my food was.” Nisha’s Flavors of India debuted at one of South Florida’s oldest farmers markets, the Saturday market on Grand Avenue in Coconut Grove.

Nisha of Nisha's Flavors of India
Making Samosas
Cilantro for samosas
Chutney for samosas
Stuffing Samosas
Frying samosas

SETBACKS AND SUCCESSES 

Her stand was, once again, a success, and that market remains one of her best. Nisha signed up for other markets and negotiated a move to another kitchen, the Sunrise location she uses now. There were setbacks – a slow first summer season and a necessary $20,000 kitchen hood – but she persevered, adding markets in Key West, Pinecrest, Fort Lauderdale and other suburbs, and hiring and training more workers.

A little more than two years after that tearful afternoon in her car, Nisha has made her Flavors of India a fixture in all of the major markets in South Florida, bringing to 80 the number of booths she’s operating in Florida and Texas, and a staff of 20.

To manage, she adheres to a tight schedule. Her week starts Tuesday, when she buys all the food for the week. The staff starts prep work and cooking. Wednesdays and Thursdays are devoted to cooking, packaging and labeling. Friday she drives to Orlando to deliver foods to markets. On weekends, she is in the kitchen at 5am, using her inventory sheet to stock the coolers. They will be picked up at 7am by the market sales team, along with tents, sample setups and signs. Her employees work on commission, unless the day is rained out, limiting sales; on those occasions, they are paid for their day.

SPICY OR NOT? For all of South Florida’s cultural diversity, people from India and Pakistan make up only tiny percentage of the population. But, Nisha says, “people know Indian food. They know the health benefits of turmeric.” For those who say they “don’t eat curry,” she gently educates them that it doesn’t always mean spicy hot. “We say ‘curry’ because we have a combination of spices – coriander, cardamom, turmeric – that bring out the flavor in food. Garlic, ginger, chile pepper is my base.”

Nisha’s product line is straightforward, ranging from $6-8 per item. Bestsellers include samosas, available in chicken, potato and garbanzo bean, and spinach and feta; frozen prepared foods like chicken tikka masala, chili chicken curry and vindaloo; and stuffed parathas in spinach, pumpkin or potato/lentil. Fresh cilantro and peanut chutney and a creamy yogurt, cream cheese and mint combination are sold as dips. There are also mango chutney, apple and green chili chutney and a jalapeño version; eggplant bharta, channa masala, and a vegan dal masala. Many of her products are vegetarian and some are vegan.

Nisha sources some produce locally; for her Texas markets, nearly half of her ingredients must come from the area. “In Houston, there is a rule at all markets that 40 percent of the ingredients must be local – it’s 50 percent in San Antonio – and they do check receipts,” she says.

Nisha inspecting samosas

Once or twice a month, Nisha participates in Carnival Cruise Lines’ Chefs Table at the employee cafeteria in Doral, but otherwise, she is not looking to add catering gigs, expand her product line, or even sell wholesale. “I can’t do what [bigger stores] want me to do,” she says. Instead, she maintains a laser focus on growing her business by adding farmers market locations. Atlanta and Los Angeles are on her radar. “She’s figured out how to do it,” says longtime market organizer Claire Tomlin of The Market Company. “Most vendors can’t figure out how to manage even a second market.”

To maintain a presence in so many markets, Nisha looks for good workers and personally trains them to share the goodness of healthy, tasty Indian food. She gets to know her employees and their own stories. “I have the best employees,” she says. “To talk to them, you would think this is their business.” At the market, you might spot Nisha – just look for the woman, who is doing things her way, gratefully. “I’m very thankful!” she says. “This is what I want to keep doing.”


Debbie Otero

{ Stuffing, Spreading, Stacking Samosas at Nisha’s }

Every week, workers make 10,000 samosas at Nisha’s commercial kitchen in Sunrise. Asma Iqbal stuffs and folds chicken samosas, sealing flour tortillas with a flour and water paste after stuffing them, while other staff fill parathas with spinach and prepare cilantro for fresh chutney. Nisha examines the samosas before they get fried to a golden brown. She uses Mexican tortillas instead of making her own wrappers because of the volume she sells and the results she gets: “They’re pretty and more crispy.” she says. Wheat tortillas are also used to make stuffed parathas, but the discs first get a quick toast in a hot pan to char them and add more flavor. The fillings – spinach, pumpkin, potato and lentil – use traditional spices. She says she may use different techniques, “but I don’t mess around with flavor.” Debbie Otero, at the University of Miami farmers market, has worked for Nisha for one year. Otero, who has survived two bouts of breast cancer, says Nisha has had a lot to do with her recovery. “I’m taken aback with how generous she is. She treats us like family.”

NISHA’S FLAVORS OF INDIA
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Florida locations: 
Most major farmers markets in Miami, Fort Lauderdale, the Keys, West Palm Beach and Delray Beach

Article from Edible South Florida at http://ediblesouthflorida.ediblecommunities.com/shop/samosas-nishas-flavors-of-india
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