Local News Matters weekly newsletter
Start your week with a little inspiration. Sign up for our informative, community-based newsletter, delivered on Mondays with news about the Bay Area.
It’s well over 20 years since Subramanian Krishnan started Shastha Foods, and his dreams have grown steadily grander. By the end of 2021, his consumers had eaten 150 million dosas, and his mission in life had changed.
“I’m waiting to sell a billion dosas,” he says in a signature booming voice, “to make the dosa a household name in the United States.”
Krishnan’s warehouse in San Jose is a sprawling 33,000-square-foot space housing a spotless 7,000-square-foot kitchen with rows of stone grinders imported from South India. Giant vats of soaked parboiled rice and lentils are lined up in preparation for upcoming batches. Inside temperature-controlled rooms, however, a general sourness prevails. This sour scent is the smell of sweet success.
To Krishnan and his workers, it means that Shastha’s batters are actually at work, fermenting and rising before they are siphoned off into labeled containers. A sealing machine slaps a cover on each container. Soon, batches of batter are loaded onto refrigerated trucks to be ferried to stores across the Bay Area. Each 64 ounce box of dosa batter sold by Shastha Foods makes approximately 32 nutritious lentil-and-rice crepes.
Until March of this year, Shastha Foods sold its batters exclusively to Indian American stores and also filled individual orders around the country through FedEx. In early March, however, Krishnan began placing his dosa batter in 10 of 35 locations of the multibillion dollar global retail chain called Costco in the San Francisco Bay Area. It would not be farfetched to say that Subramanian Krishnan has arrived.
In a valley of innovators in hardware and software, Krishnan’s journey is somewhat atypical. For 18 years, this accountant oversaw a business in San Jose selling Intel processors to Indian outfits. By 2003, his business, then located in India, went belly up. He was broke. At a difficult time in his life, Krishnan imported Coffee Day filter coffee from India, establishing his career as a distributor of Indian food and spices into the United States. It’s a big part of the operations at Shastha Foods even today, with more than 600 products passing through his warehouse.
The decision to import coffee also heralded his switch from selling processors into selling processed food. Soon, in a very small but targeted way, Krishnan entered the Indian American food market in the San Francisco Bay Area, making batter for two South Indian staple dishes made from rice and black gram.
Krishnan’s timing could not have been better. Uber Eats and DoorDash had not yet arrived on the scene. Clearly, Krishnan had addressed a need in his own ethnic community in a valley known for its frenetic pace of life. The idli and dosa batters flew off the shelves.
For consumers who buy Shastha’s batters, making an idli or a dosa is a snap. The batter itself is quite another matter. It’s painstaking. It’s a multi-stage process involving soaking the grain, grinding it with very little water to a specific consistency and fermenting the batter overnight in a warm space. Fermentation is tricky, and you get ideal results only by consistent experimentation.
What renders an idli or a dosa healthy is the black gram. In its raw form, this lentil has high levels of protein, potassium, calcium, iron, niacin, thiamine and riboflavin and folic acid. Enhancing the wholesome nature of idli or dosa is the flexibility; either dish can be served at breakfast, lunch, tea or dinner. A dosa, served plain or stuffed, resembles a crepe. An idli is steamed and hence even healthier.
For Krishnan, the food business has proved exciting. The culinary offerings from India are the result of centuries of tweaking and perfection. At a time the world is worrying about climate change and sustainability, agriculture in India holds great potential, Krishnan points out.
He is an avid researcher, sourcing grains from many different parts of India on his frequent travels through India. Krishnan travels to villages that specialize in heritage varieties of rice and has learned how a grain like millet requires much less water for growth than rice or wheat, is more resilient and can be grown without pesticides.
In his expansive kitchen, Krishnan continues to experiment with dosa and idli batters that address people with dietary needs. Oats, quinoa, millet and many healthier varieties of rice are just some of the grains he uses for batters aimed at a specific audience. The possibilities are endless, he says, as he looks toward how he can revolutionize the eating habits of Americans.
“Maybe we will sell a billion dosas and have bigger arches than McDonald’s,” Krishnan says at a recent event showcasing all his products. He’s well aware that the popularity of the dosa as a food may be guaranteed only when non-Indians line up to pick up Shastha’s batter at Costco.
Thanks in part to social media and global connectedness, the goodness of dosa and idli are being noticed by consumers who aren’t of Indian heritage. Dosas have also become popular food truck fare and Krishnan’s dream of bringing the dosa to everyday American life may not be a pipe dream, after all.
“It teaches you about fermentation, patience and how something simple can be so complex. From the crispy texture to the incredible accompaniments, dosa is the great equalizer of foods,” he says. “It brings together all walks of life, from vegan to gluten-free and everyone in between.”
Like Krishnan, Sarasin, too, has been a savvy and enthusiastic ambassador of regional foods from India. Both talk about the misconceptions over food originating from the Indian subcontinent. The Western world assumes that Indian food comprises samosa, naan and tandoori chicken based on the fare they see at commercial establishments and restaurants.
Krishnan is working hard to change this mindset. The strength of food from the Indian subcontinent — there is no one standard “Indian cuisine” — is really based on its many different cuisines, each of which has its own unique flavors and food treatments.
Building his business around food has been his main focus but Subramanian Krishnan says he has also remembered to give back to the community that supported him. He donates generously to several dozen causes and charities close to his heart. Among them are Community Seva, which feeds the hungry in the Bay Area; One School at a Time, which seeks to improve public schools in India; India Literacy Project, an India-based literacy program; Cancer Institute Foundation, focused on the cause, prevention and treatment of cancers common in India; Sankara Eye Foundation, which seeks to eradicate curable blindness in India; Sankara Nethralaya, an eye-care hospital in Chennai, India; Inclusive World, a San Jose-based nonprofit that develops skills and abilities of differently abled individuals; Maitri, a Bay Area nonprofit that helps abuse survivors from South Asia; and Akshaya Patra Foundation, a non-governmental organization in India striving to end classroom hunger.
In fact, many of these same charities appear on a drop-down menu when a customer is checking out at https://shasthaonline.com/; the site states that Shastha Foods will contribute 3% of the purchase value to the selected charity.
While he feels fortunate to be even capable of such philanthropy, this dosa king dreams of the day when signs for a dosa will appear along America’s highways.
When his dosa batter landed at Costco, it signified a giant leap. Quite naturally, he was over the moon. “It’s an important step for mankind,” he says, beaming.
Shastha Foods can be found online at https://shasthaonline.com/.
Kalpana Mohan lives in Saratoga. She has known Subramanian Krishnan since 1985. She is the author of “Daddykins: A Memoir of My Father and I” (Bloomsbury, 2018) and “An English Made In India: How A Foreign Language Became Local” (Aleph, 2019).