May Fridel went from high-powered financial consultant to self-starting entrepreneur transforming lives with food and spices, including her own son. As he encountered a host of illnesses growing up, Fridel found herself reaching back to her spice merchant ancestry rooted in Kerala, India. Ultimately, Fridel left her finance career to found Passion for Spices in 2008. What began as an organic spice company with occasional classes has branched out like a lotus blossom, with Fridel offering a variety of spice- and flavor-forward regional cooking classes alongside some high-caliber chef talent. Her cooking and its impact on health was so powerful that Fridel was approached by the American Diabetes Association to write the Indian Cuisine Diabetes Cookbook, with 140 recipes from Spiced Apple Pancakes to Whole Roasted Masala Branzino that put spice and health back into harmony in your kitchen. And next year, she’s slated to give a talk on spices and herbs at Oxford University. Chefs love her stuff, too. They use her spice blends at 90 Acres at Natirar and the Grand Summit Hotel, among other places.
We caught up with Fridel, self-described food literacy expert and entrepreneur—who is busy making another 1,000 or so of her organic garam masalas and curry blends for the holiday season—to ask about the power of spices, how to cook with bold flavor, and whether she really believes spice can heal.
Table Hopping: You have a “spice background,” something not very common in the U.S. Can you tell us about that?
May Fridel: My family were spice merchants from Persia who settled down in Kerala [on India’s tropical coast]. We had thousands of acres of spice estate. And we really did everything sustainably, from thousands of years back.
TH: Do you come from a culinary family?
MF: They’re all really good cooks in my family. My great aunt, Mrs. K. M. Mathews, she is like the Julia Child of Kerala. She’s been inspiring for all of us. And we all entertain a lot. Every life event is surrounded by food.
TH: A food family is one thing, but you quit a high-powered financial sector job in New York to start your business. Why? How did it begin?
MF: My son had all kinds of immune system disorders. Asthma, allergies, nut allergies. It came to the point where was in the hospital with pneumonia and I was working from 7am to midnight. I decided “I’m not doing this anymore. It’s not healthy for my family, it’s not healthy for myself.”
When I quit my job, I started practicing some of the cooking practices I had observed as a child. I was able to transform my child’s health, incorporating some of the techniques and principles of that lifestyle. Not long before the doctor [had been] saying, “You have to do surgery.” I didn’t do anything but focus on the food. Now he’s a top runner for his high school.
TH: Passion for Spices does provide nutritional assistance—you have a Culinary Literacy Center on your website, including a Spice Guide—but you also sell organic spice blends and offer cooking classes. Can you tell us about those?
MF: We started [the cooking school] with the kids’ classes, but we’ve upgraded to adults. And we do corporate team-building. I teach and we have professional chefs teaching also. Sam Kadko is our chief educator. He has 20 or 30 years of experience at the Institute for Culinary Education in New York. We figure out the curriculum together. And we showcase real culture.
TH: Speaking of culture, you did a Japanese family cooking class on November 17. What other regions do you cover?
MF: I teach mainly Indian and Asian. But we’ll do anything from Indian to Korean to Japanese to French to Moroccan. And we talk about history and culture, not just cooking. What we do is an experience.
TH: And the spice blends? Why develop them when one thing we do have access to here are spices at gourmet and ethnic markets?
MF: I’m very particular about sustainability and I see a lot of issues with the quality of spices and ingredients here. One of my issues with spices is I couldn’t find good quality when I came here. I had to start my own line of organic spices. I get my spices from India and manufacture the blends here. A lot of farmers, they’ll spray their farms, and you don’t want any chemicals on your spices. I only source from farms where I know that for thousands of years, they’ve never sprayed. Even the packaging for the spices is 100 percent recycled.
One is a savory blend, the other is a Garam Masala. The Keralan Curry and Kashmiri Garam Masala. I just made oatmeal cookies with that one, it’s so tasty! The nutmeg and cinnamon and cardamom and clove. But it can also be used for pastas, pies, tarts, lamb. It’s very versatile, savory and sweet.
TH: The garam masala sounds like it might actually work for some seasonal holiday baking?
MF: It’s fantastic for gingerbread! You don’t need too much, just a teaspoon, really, and it transforms pumpkin pie. People say they’re addicted to it. In fact, we’re all sold out! We’re working on another 1,000 packages before Christmas. And it’s kosher, too. I go to a lot of synagogues as well; they’ll sell it in the shops.
TH: Your cookbook with the American Diabetes Association seems to coalesce a lot of what you teach at Passion for Spices. Is that a good place to start, if you can’t make the classes?
MF: Yes, and it’s not only for people with diabetes but to prevent diabetes or cook healthy, simply. It’s easy-to-use, practical recipes. It took three years to write. There are fabulous recipes, meat to vegetarian to vegan to classic breads. It tells you how to have an Indian pantry, how to make a ginger-garlic paste, how to make yogurt. The techniques it showcases in the book—that’s a kind of “spice practice.” It’s a balanced diet with immune-system boosting spices. And it’s really good food.
TH: The business seems to be expanding—11 years and counting. What are your plans for 2020? Travel? Tech? Teaching?
MF: All of the above! On the Culinary Literacy Center section of the website, we have a person here developing a resource section called “PACIFY.” That stands for “Probiotic, Alkaline, Balance, Circadian Rhythm, Inflammation, Fermentation, You.” The “You” is really important. In India I grew up with meditation and yoga. You can do so much to create change within yourself. I do my yoga, I do my practices. I have a business that is really starting to thrive. I can do that with a clear head and a clear mind. You can do it, too. You can re-engineer your body and soul.
TH: And travel? That seems like a natural offshoot.
MF: We already have good connections established in India, Spain, Tuscany and Rome. I plan on calling it a “Spice Trail” or “Spice Journey.” We’ll do everything sustainable, learn history, spices, culture. And I’m preparing a paper to present at Oxford next year. The Oxford Food and Cookery Symposium, on herbs and spices.
TH: Wow! How did that come about?
MF: They invited me. I’m connected with a lot of good food writers and food historians around the world. But for now I’m updating the Passion for Spices class schedule. We’ll do “Beer and Bison” in 2020, tapas next month. But first I’m going to update the Passion for Spices blog with a Thanksgiving menu!
More information and links to purchase May Fridel’s Indian Cuisine cookbook for the American Diabetes Association can be found here. Her spice blends are available for purchase here and the updated course catalog for the cooking school can be found here. All Passion for Spices classes take place at Calvary Episcopal Church, 31 Woodland Avenue, Summit. 908-380-0644Click here to leave a comment