In 1964, homemaker Pushpwati Khaitan started Nari Shiksha Kendra in Ghaziabad to empower women in her local community with a means of livelihood. Making traditional pickles and pure hand-ground masalas was what kept them busy all day, and even after over 50 years of its existence, these pickles have retained their original flavour. Today, they are sold under the brand name, Aamra.
Led by Jaya Bajaj (50), whose husband is the nephew of Pushpawati Khaitan, the artisanal food brand sells everything from traditional to contemporary products. She named the brand after the wild mango variety available outside schools in Kolkata, where Jaya grew up. “These are sprinkled with colourful churan powders and served up. The memory of the bright and bold colours and flavours inspired me to name the brand Aamra.”
Aamra also translates to ‘we’ in Bengali, and stands for a sense of community within the women who work here as a family. Their production unit in Ghaziabad brims with joy and warmth of women who make each product by hand using the freshest, high-quality ingredients, and in small batches.
“They earn as much or more than their husbands, and that has instilled in them a newfound confidence and self-reliance. They are also more equipped to help their children with better quality of education,” says Jaya, mother of two.
Jaya feels her upbringing in Kolkata also reflects in Aamra’s offerings. “You see the influence in some of the products such as our pungent mustard, a staple condiment in Bengal, or in our signature chili and lemon pickles, which I grew up eating with traditional Marwari fare at home,” she says.
The brand offers a repertoire of products including pickles, dips and sauces, salad dressings, spices and seasonings, honey and gift boxes. Jaya has grown the Aamra workforce from two women to more than 20, and the community continues to grow.
“Till a decade or so ago, I had been doing most of the sales and marketing work myself. In the last few years, we have recruited women who do everything from business development to social media to managing operations for us,” adds Jaya.
Passion for food
Jaya grew up in a joint family in Kolkata, and has fond memories of her father, uncles and grandfather whipping up special dishes. From early on, Jaya learnt the flavours of different spices; and she always knew a career in food was her calling.
Later, when she got married, she was eager to help out with Nari Shiksha Kendra. “They made some traditional pickles which were stored in martabans in a cool dark ‘barni room’. Row after row of barnis and the nostalgic aromas of the pickles, felt very special. I really wanted this pickling tradition to continue, and I was motivated to find ways to reach the pickles to a wider audience,” says Jaya.
Indian retail chain Fabindia partnered with Aamra in 2005, and stocks its products at over 100 stores across the country, under Fabindia’s label. Today, NSK's products sell from over 200 (online and offline) stores through white-labelling for established artisanal brands, and through their own website.
Experimenting is key
Most of Aamra’s pickles are heirloom recipes, that have been handed down to them over generations. “We are always on the lookout to add to this range. We recently added a Mango Gur Pickle that was a recipe that my grandmother had given to my mother. Other than this many of our pickles recipes have been adopted from friends and family,” she says. The secret of Aamra’s age-old pickles lies in the martabans or ceramic jars they are stored in. These are placed in a dark room to draw out natural flavours.
Besides classic recipes, Aamra keeps adding different sorts of dips, sauces, and salad dressings derived from all around the globe. “We also reinvent recipes based on what we learn from nutritionists and our customers’ preferences. For instance, there’s been a shift towards less salt, and substituting jaggery for sugar,” says Jaya.
“I think we are slowly moving away from mass produced items to locally sourced and produced goods. This movement naturally makes us seek traditional ingredients and recipes as these have not only stood the test of time but are being rediscovered for their nutritional benefits too,” she adds.
She claims that Aamra’s pickles use everything that is naturally available around them - salt, spices and sunlight to enhance their nutritional value. These pickles are rich in Vitamin A and K, as well as probiotic bacteria.
For empowering women at the grassroot level, enabling them to be financially independent is essential. With Aamra, Jaya hopes to empower women and continue the tradition of bringing high quality condiments to the tables of Indian food lovers.
(Edited by Athira Nair)