After returning to Edmonton from Quebec and completing her degree in political science, Damini Mohan was cooking four six-course meals a day. It was 2012, and Mohan says she was very depressed and unsure of the future, and her niece was becoming overwhelmed by how many times Mohan invited her over to eat.
“She said, ‘You need to stop having me come over, I’m tired of coming to your house,’” Mohan says. “‘Start selling your food somewhere else because you’re making fantastic food.’”
While applying to master’s programs and law schools, Mohan began looking at local farmers’ markets as a way to channel her food-focused energies. But it was at the farmers’ markets that she found what she had been looking for.
“Suddenly, this thing just exploded. I was like, well, this is really good. I’m having so much fun doing this and actually making money doing something that is fun,” Mohan says.
Instead of going back to University, Mohan created MiniKitchen Foods, which has since grown from her parent’s kitchen to a community commercial kitchen to eventually her own co-packing facility.
Minikitchen started off with a focus on Southeast Asian cuisine. Mohan says she wanted to introduce a part of that culinary tradition that wasn’t as well represented in North America. “I think when people think of Indian food or South Asian food in particular,” says Mohan. “They think of those yellow tomato and cream sauces. And that’s such a narrow view of what Indian food is.”
And once Mohan hit her stride, she started getting creative as well. “You know we are in the treaty six area — so what can we use from what is found here?” Damini says. “We find Bison here. Why don’t we make bison Samosas? You know what else we find here? Saskatoon berries — why don’t we incorporate these in some condiments and chutneys and then dehydrate them and like throw them in, almost like pemmican in our bison samosa?”
The kicker with Minikitchens is that their entire facility is peanut and tree-nut-free, heavily avoids gluten, and the only thing that isn’t completely plant-based is the beef and chicken samosas. Their El Gringo line of foods even has several options for people with sensitive stomachs.
Now, after the pandemic, some things are shifting. In 2019 Minikitchens was at 52 different farmers’ markets, but Mohan and her family were starting to become burnt out with the long hours and lack of quality time. And when COVID-19 came, Mohan lost two family members to the virus and began to start re-evaluating.
“That was like a thing where it’s like, hey, what is actually important? Is trying to work, work, work, the most important thing? Or is it important to have those memories and spend time with your family?”
Minikitchens is now pivoting its strategy. It no longer can be found at farmers’ markets, but instead, its lines of various sauces, spices and chutneys can be found at grocery stores like Sobeys, Freson Bros. and Popowich Meat Company. And in addition to the Southeast Asian foods that Minikitchens has become known for, their company has begun to expand to include El Gringo Foods — a line of sauces, salsas and chips. As a co-packing facility, they help other businesses get their food products developed, packaged and ready for the market right here in Edmonton.
The pivot has allowed Mohan and her family to enjoy quality time again. Mohan says that food is something that brings people together. “We’re always having big meals. It gives us time to sit down and just decompress, relax, hang out.” Which is something she hopes her food can do for other families.