APTOS—As a young man, Bapcha Murty moved from his native Chennai, India to attend UC Los Angeles and become an engineer. He went on to a career in the Silicon Valley tech industry that spanned more than two decades in several companies.
But when Murty was laid off in 2017, a search for a new career brought him back to his childhood and to Mala, a family friend that cooked for his father.
Murty says it was her virtuosity with the complex, myriad flavors that go into Indian cuisine that inspired his new venture, and the company’s name—Mala’s Spices.
The company imports spices from India and packages them here. That freshness is vital for the best flavor, he says, adding that the majority of spices found on grocery store shelves are at least one year old.
“We try to keep ours less than three months old,” he said.
Murty runs the company with wife Niang Hangzo—she comes from Manipur, India—who also works in the tech industry. The couple lives in Aptos with their cat.
As someone who spent his life in the tech industry—often running sales teams—Murty says he is not a “foodie.” Instead, he and Hangzo say they enjoy making a small handful of dishes for friends, with a focus on flavor and quality.
With that philosophy in mind, Murty created Mala’s Magic—the company’s flagship product—a versatile blend of several spices that can be added to numerous dishes.
The recipe for this blend—so far the company’s only product—came after trying 100 different iterations and with tasting help from more than 200 friends, Murty says.
The couple encourages their customers and friends to find their own uses for Mala’s Magic, and to share the recipes they create.
“I think that’s really fun,” Murty said. “Things we’ve been eating for years suddenly we realize we can use it in different ways.”
Murty calls his company a “work in progress,” and says he plans to add to his product line with offerings such as condiments. He also wants one day to incorporate local produce, which would let him sell his wares at farmers markets.
Currently, most of his suppliers are classmates from college and high school who run organic farms in India.
But for the spice blend, he says it is difficult to find the same types of spices here in the U.S. that bring the flavor profiles he wants. This is true especially for the peppers found in India—and the smokiness and heat they bring—which are unique to that country.
“We still haven’t been able to match what we can get from India,” he said.
The company has a growing customer base of about 200, and in addition to California he ships to Ohio, Australia and Germany.
Murty does his production in the Commercial Kitchen Incubator Program run by the El Pajaro-Community Development Corporation. He says he has enjoyed the transition from the fast-paced tech industry to running his own business, although his role has changed.
“It’s actually been fun,” he said. “I like to joke that I’m the mail clerk and the CEO.”