Terra Earthfood seems to have found the tantalising balance between goodness and taste — think kuthiravaali murukku, ragi thattais and thinai pakodas fried in cold-pressed coconut oil! Its founder Meera Maran tells Shonali Muthalaly how it all began with a tray of organic mixture
“We never use the word ‘healthy’. We don’t advertise our products as tasty. To me, that’s a given.” Meera Maran, founder of Terra Earthfood, has a horror of being slotted into the booming, but self-righteous ‘health-food’ category. “As far as I’m concerned, if we are making a thattai, we’re making it in the best possible way. A way that is the least harmful to us and the earth. So when people ask us about our thattais, I’ll say they are made of ragi. I’m not going to list the benefits: someone who gets it, gets it. We don’t want to be preachy.”
Given her approach, it’s unsurprising that the successful company has grown organically since she founded it a year ago, purely on the strength of its products. Yes, they tick all the hip boxes of new-age food: ingredients that are unrefined, unprocessed, unpolished, unbleached, unbromated, unsulphured, non-GMO, organic and natural. They have products that are gluten-free, casein-free and vegan. They reinvent classic foods, reintroduce forgotten millets and use traditional ingredients such as cold-pressed coconut oil, hand-pounded rice and palm candy. Their biggest success, however, has been escaping the inevitable niche market that this genre of food generally occupies. Despite the fact that Terra’s products tend to be more expensive than items in the same category, people are willing to pay between Rs. 85 and Rs. 180 for a 250-gm pack of mixture, pakodas or laddoos. Not just because it’s good for them, but because they enjoy the taste.
Sitting cross legged at their low office table, set in the bright airy kitchen, Meera talks about how they began over a tray of mixture made with organic spinach, karpooravalli herbs, brown rice and Himalayan salt. “I’m basically an architect,” she says, adding that she got interested in food when her five-year-old daughter developed a skin condition, which doctors said could be managed only by steroids. When allopathy offered no solution, Meera and her husband Maran met a wellness consultant who said that all healing began with food. “So we began to read about how certain foods such as gluten, milk proteins and sugar are not accepted by the gut, and end up poisoning the body.” They stopped eating wheat, milk and sugar immediately. “When her skin began to heal in a week, we knew we were on the right track.”
However, going gluten-, casein- and sugar-free was not easy. “Treats were difficult. So were birthday parties, because they always serve cake, pizzas and cookies. To keep life interesting became a challenge. After all, I thought, my daughter has only one childhood. I didn’t want to ruin it.” Millets were the obvious answer. “We started eating dosas and idli with moong dal and millets. All polished items were off the table. We cut out white sugar completely. But we added good fat to our diet: coconut oil, ghee, cheese…. The results were dramatic. My husband lost a lot of weight and his health improved.”
Realising how much she enjoyed creating nutritious food, she toyed with the idea of doing it full time, but was hesitant to give up her successful architectural practice. When her husband was transferred to New Jersey, she moved to the U.S. for three years. “I was amazed by the variety of gluten-free products available. The number of options: coconut flour, almond meal live foods.”
After experimenting with these newly discovered products at home, she realised she still had a lot to learn. So she enrolled at the Culinary Institute of America, then the French Culinary Institute, both in New York. Then joined the Natural Gourmet Institute to focus on vegan food. “I wanted to know how to scale up. I didn’t want to be a home baker, just doing just one loaf.”
After experimenting with these newly discovered products at home, she realised she still had a lot to learn. So she enrolled at the Culinary Institute of America, then the French Culinary Institute, both in New York. Then joined the Natural Gourmet Institute to focus on vegan food. “I wanted to know how to scale up. I didn’t want to be a home baker, doing just one loaf.”
When she returned in 2012, Meera discovered a new building being constructed opposite her house in Neelankarai. Determined to make her new passion into a business, she asked school friend Lata Anand — who was then on a sabbatical — to join her as head of operations. “It was a leap of faith for her. All we had was an empty building. And me standing there with some recipes in my hand.” However, their first sale at an exhibition proved that this was an idea with potential. “In two hours we sold out, and were left with nothing but crumbs on the table.”
Things moved quickly after that. An aunt helped them make kudhiravaali murukku for Krishna Jayanthi, which proved so popular that a company ordered 800 packets! “We hired everyone we could find overnight. My housekeeper’s sister. A niece of my friend. We got a wedding contractor to bring us staff. Then realised that seasoned cooks didn’t like following our recipes. They insisted they wouldn’t work large scale.” They finally found a masterchef, and then started to hire people from their locality. “We realised it was better if they didn’t have a food background, because then they were willing to learn.
We have a nice motley crew now. The women here were fisherwomen, masons, maids… We decided to pay everyone well. If they are happy, they will give their best.”
In the background, a group of women carefully flattens balls of ragi for thattais, while the head cook lifts a massive ladle heavy with hot, deep-brown foxtail millet (thinai) ribbon pakodas out of sizzling coconut oil. As its powerful scent wraps the room, Meera explains why they use only coconut oil. “It’s one of the few fats that stays stable at that temperature. It’s also anti-inflammatory and it raises your metabolism.”
Walking through the kitchen, past antique cupboards filled with neatly labelled glass jars, she says, “We try to be as natural as possible. We still use plastic packaging for the products, as we have no other option. We hate it, and are thinking of alternatives. We try to source products locally, and hardly import anything.” Future plans involve expanding their range of foods. They already do cakes and breads. Now they plan to start making snacks such as power bars for gyms.
“Recently someone came to me with a doctor’s prescription, on which ‘Terra’ was written,” says Meera. “It was for a child who was prescribed a gluten-free, casein-free diet. It makes me so proud that people trust us. That’s our greatest success. “
Buckwheat pancake mix
Lemon-Coconut milk tea cake
Cocoa-Palm Sugar Kaju Katli
Fig-honey Thinai Laddoo
(For details, call 9940638931 or visit www.facebook.com/TerraEarthfood)