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Monica Bhatia and Abena Foli, accomplished food scientists with diverse cultural backgrounds, share their journeys of blending heritage flavors with expertise in creating award-winning products, EQUII high-protein fermented bread and POKS Spices’ West African Seasoning. They also discuss the challenges and crucial brand-building lessons they faced in the food industry.
January 4, 2024
Monica Bhatia and Abena Foli grew up half a world away from one another: one in urban New Delhi, India, the other on a farm in Ghana. After emigrating overseas, both women built accomplished resumes and skillsets in the United States: Bhatia as an Ph.D. biochemist and fermentation specialist, Foli as a food scientist and product developer.
As the pair explained in last fall's SupplySide West panel discussion, “Women of Color Food Scientists Introduce Heritage Ingredients,” they both carried the flavors of their childhood with them wherever they went.
For Bhatia, the flavors of fermented rice and lentils in South Indian crepe-like dosas were something she always craved “and always wanted to understand more.”
Foli’s dream was to bring recognition to what she calls the “West African holy trinity” of spices: a bold blend of chilis, ginger and garlic that has long informed cuisine across the Caribbean and American south.
Both are now combining their heritage and expertise in a pair of award-winning food products: EQUII high-protein fermented bread and POKS Spices' West African Seasoning. In a discussion appropriately located near the SupplySide West “tasting bar,” they shared their stories and the crucial brand-building lessons they learned along the way.
While working with other brands on sustainability and fermentation, Bhatia said her mind often turned back to the fermented food of her youth.
“Fermentation was something I was doing and I felt we were really creating impactful ingredients, but I never saw the adoption that I felt like they deserved,” she explained. “That’s something that stayed with me: How can we create a bold vision and create food with impact?”
Advances in fermentation led her to see how this age-old process boosts the texture, flavor and even the fundamental nutrition of some of the world’s most common foods like flour and bread.
“Wheat flour is the No. 1 ingredient in the world, and there are many other grain flours,” Bhatia said. “What is common among them is a lot of carbs. With fermentation technology, we can take some of these, what I call ‘extra carbs,’ and convert them into complete proteins. Complete proteins are proteins that our bodies want us to eat.”
The light, airy texture and savory flavor of dosa flour, however, was also fundamental in her vision of the perfect bread. “It’s chef-crafted and tastes artisanal,” Bhatia said of EQUII’s bread, which offers 10 grams of protein per slice. “I’m really proud that I was able to bring my background in fermentation, but also how I grew up with foods, to create something that’s good for us and [which] we can eat every day.”
As the child of a farmer, Foli saw firsthand how “thankless” she said the job can be, and how the dual threats of weather and tenuous supply chains doom crops. She knew that basing her spice on her beloved African red bird chili and petite belle green chili would be an uphill battle from day one and would likely do little to benefit people like her father.
So instead, she used her food science background and sought out more easily available Western peppers that achieved the same bright, bold flavor profile. Combined with garlic and chili, she felt she was near the sweet spot without having to soften the spice with excess sugar or salt.
“If we’re going to bring bold West African flavors, we wanted to do it in a way that has been traditionally done,” Foli said.
She sent samples of her prototype product to the West African community, surveying them on taste, texture and price—and received some hard critiques.
“My dad gave me one out of five,” she explained. “He’s my biggest critic and my biggest fan. But I needed that push, because he said, ‘You can take it, you can do it better.’ All of that information helped me to fine tune the product.”
The dialog with her community also helped her lean away from her initial label of an “all-purpose seasoning” and embrace her roots.
“We have to be confident owning our brand proposition, which is ‘West African Seasoning,’” she said. “There’s nothing like this on the market. This is a category we can grow on our own.”
Nick Collias is a writer and editor with over a decade of experience working in the health and fitness industry. From 2016 to 2021, he was the host of the Bodybuilding.com Podcast, interviewing elite athletes and training thought-leaders on a wide range of exercise, nutrition and lifestyle topics. Additionally, he has worked for the last 20 years as a longform print and online journalist, as well as a book author, ghostwriter and editor.
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