The first product from CIFT’s business incubation initiative has rolled into the market, ‘Freedom Kitchen,’ ready-to-cook curries

There is nothing that even remotely spells food at Central Institute of Fisheries Technology’s (CIFT) food processing plants in Willingdon Island. Huge iron and steel machines sit quietly in various corners of the plant as Nitin Singh of CIFT shows us around the processing plants. This looks like an unlikely place for experiments with food. But it is a place which helps budding entrepreneurs develop their products and give wings to their dreams.

No more hassles

Hisham Kabir of Ideal Caterers is the first entrepreneur to complete business incubation, courtesy the Business Incubation Initiative of CIFT, Matsyapuri.

‘Freedom Kitchen’ is what Hisham calls his brain-child. His product, he says, is about freedom from chopping, cutting, cleaning and stewing in front of the kitchen ‘fires’ and about cooking easy.

Three ready-to-cook gravies – Kumarakom fish curry, Nadan chicken curry and Kerala chicken curry were the first to roll out. It is as simple as cutting open a vacuum-packed pouch, adding the contents to fish or chicken (half kg), water and cooking for 10 minutes. The gravies are available in supermarkets around the city and are priced at Rs. 69 per packet but are currently available at Rs. 49 as an introductory offer.

“We, Malayalis, have a problem with consuming anything ready-to-eat. Some degree of cooking has to be involved for that sense of safety while eating something out of a packet,” says Hisham. He says his product is perfect for these rushed times when none has the time for anything let alone cooking. “Don’t we all do it, cook chicken curry and freeze half of it for use the next day? This is where I got the idea which ignited the spark.”

With the seed of an idea firmly planted in his mind he set about looking for the know-how. Extensive research yielded no results until somebody suggested CIFT. He found, online, that CIFT had been doing work in the field of food processing.

CIFT provided him the solutions he was looking for. This came with years of experience in food processing, machinery and with experts ready to provide any help, and game for any adventure.

“We had not done anything so far with chicken as our area of expertise was more to do with seafood. But when Hisham came up to us with his business proposal we decided to work with him and we are proud that he has ‘graduated’,” says Dr. T. K. Srinivas Gopal, Director, CIFT. Hisham joined CIFT’s business incubation initiative in 2011 and his products hit the market this year.

The plan was, initially, to ‘get into’ frozen foods and he worked extensively on developing frozen food, with the CIFT team’s assistance, but he quickly realised that besides attitudes to ready-to-eat food, there were practical and logistical constraints.

Storage, at his end and at the stores, would be a problem and improper storage would impact the product. Hence, ready-to-eat Amritsari fish curry and Spaghetti Bolognese, besides other products, gave way to ready-to-cook curries. While talking about trials Hisham says he gave biriyanis a shot, but gave up because “it wasn’t viable!”

These lessons in reality, as he calls them, helped him immensely. After repeated rounds of experimentation with various quantities and combination of masalas and cooking Hisham and his team struck upon the perfect recipe.

This experimentation also involved conducting consumer surveys based on samples and tasting, and the feedback was incorporated into the recipes. These preservative-free gravies have a shelf life of 18 months. Packaging using Retort Technology ensures that there is no bacterial contamination.

The packaged gravy, which is cooked 75 per cent, is put into the Retort machine where it is cooked at extremely high temperatures and cooled immediately. The initial cooking of the ingredients involves manual labour but after that it is all mechanised. Once the product development at CIFT was done, Hisham started production at a factory in Kothamangalam.

Hisham’s background in catering and the restaurant business made conceiving the recipes easy. This gave him the confidence to venture into a not-so virgin territory. “We know about cooking huge quantities, about masalas and recipes and that is our USP. Ours is not a by-product of a masala business.”

The going has been tough, at times, he says, he was tempted to give up but did not entertain the thought for “too long.”

Experience has taught him many lessons which, he jokes, he will put in a book, ‘What They Don’t Teach at IIM’. But the best advice he has got and will offer is “get started and just do it.”

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