After being recognized by the prestigious Good Food Awards with their innovative Idukki Black Pepper bar, Madhu Chocolate co-owners Harshit Gupta and Elliott Curelop spoke to NextShark about their journey in the food industry and what their win means for an LGBTQ Indian American-owned craft chocolate company.
An innovative new flavor
“Who’s going to eat curry-flavored chocolate?” “Is it going to just be for Indians?” When Gupta and Curelop began Madhu Chocolate, condescending questions like these were all too common.
In 2022, South Asian staples such as butter chicken and samosas thrive across North America, far beyond the communities that brought them here. Fusion creations like naan pizza and paneer tacos are met with drools. And yet, there arguably remains a distinct lack of appreciation for Indian desserts, fusion or otherwise. Until now, that is.
On Jan. 14, Madhu Chocolate’s Idukki Black Pepper chocolate bar was announced as one of the winners of the Good Food Foundation’s annual award competition, honoring small businesses in the food industry who excel not only in the categories of taste and innovation, but also in their dedication to ethical and sustainable ingredient sourcing. The 68% dark chocolate bar features both beans and single-origin black pepper from the Indian state of Kerala for a truly luxurious, savory experience.
The awards selection process
Though the winners were only recently announced, winning a Good Food Award was a truly involved process. Idukki Black Pepper had initially been submitted for a blind taste test in the summer of 2021. Then, Gupta and Curelop were notified that they had made the finalist list last November. Earlier this month, they received the news about their recent win.
The selection process is as extensive as it is lengthy to ensure that only the finest brands win the title. Though it may have seemed daunting, Gupta and Curelop were excited for the opportunity to push their production to new levels of ethical sourcing. “We were moving in that direction anyway, and this really helped to give us that push toward where we really want to go,” Curelop said.
Part of the reason Madhu Chocolate has become so passionate about sustainable and ethical ingredient sourcing is because their products mostly come from farmers in South America and/or South Asia whom the pair want to ensure are adequately compensated for their part in the process of making chocolate. However, ethical sourcing is not always simple.
“The sources, if we look on Google or something, are not there. All of these are hidden somewhere and you really need to have some contacts to be able to find them,” Gupta added, citing the difficulties a small business faces when exploring different options.
However, the Good Food Awards offered the chocolatiers connections and a foundation to help them grow. Madhu Chocolate had previously entered the 2020 Good Food Awards but did not win an award despite receiving high scores. “Our products were not as refined then as they are now,” Gupta noted. “We’ve come a long way from who we were then.” Feedback from consumers and industry veterans alike helped the pair refine their products in taste, ingredient sourcing and presentation, helping them reach the award-winning quality their products boast today.
Using family legacy as recipe
Back in 2015, Madhu Chocolate began simply as a hobby. Upon returning from his first “big fat Indian wedding” in India with Gupta, Curelop began experimenting with different Indian flavors, both sweet and savory, after trying traditional Indian desserts for the first time while abroad. “The core flavors, the spices, the flowers and everything are things that I knew people would appreciate. I thought, ‘This is amazing! How is this not all over the place? I’m a 30-year-old man. How is this the first time I’m trying these?’” he laughed.
Gupta describes the connection as an “aha!” moment. “Chocolate is versatile. Chocolate is accessible. Chocolate is a very familiar thing for people. If you put cardamom in it, then it might become a little unfamiliar, but it’s still familiar that enough people are willing to make the leap.”
Once the pair began creating fusion-flavored chocolates, they looked to their roots instead of recreating familiar flavors. Gupta and Curelop both have fond memories of sharing meals cooked by the former’s mother, Madhu, after whom the company is named.
“She’s an amazing cook and spends hours in the kitchen,” Curelop shared. “She has her own masala chai recipe. Our Masala Chai bar’s recipe is based on the same spices, proportion and tea that she uses.”
Several of the pair’s other recipes were inspired by those of Gupta’s mother, with many evoking beloved childhood memories. The Hindi word “Madhu” itself means “sweet,” a fitting name for both their inspiration and her namesake.
“As soon as I tell someone that this is my mom’s recipe,” Gupta said, “they’re immediately interested. We could fabricate stories, but then it’s not real or natural.”
Some of the brand’s bars were also inspired by Curelop’s own family legacies, though with an Indian touch. The Orange Clove bar, for example, comes from a Christmastime family tradition of using oranges and cloves for aroma around the house.
Making an impact
Now that the pair boast a Good Food Award certifying their products’ quality, they are determined to inspire others in the industry — especially minorities — to take chances and experiment with their own ideas.
“Chocolate has been so Eurocentric, so much about, ‘Oh, chocolate should have sea salt in it,’ ‘Chocolate should have almonds in it.’ There have been no other options provided to consumers that they might have been interested in,” Gupta said.
He also noted how frustrating it can be when naysayers assume that ethnic-inspired flavors cannot have mainstream appeal: “It’s food. When it’s something-inspired, that does not make it only for that specific ethnic group.”
As a company that is proudly both immigrant and LGBTQ-owned, Gupta and Curelop feel especially proud of how far they’ve come and how their success is a testament to show that anyone can succeed in the industry, even if they are marginalized. “Yes, there is a customer base for you,” they declared. “There is a platform for you to grow.”
What’s next for Madhu
The pair hope that this win will pave the way for other marginalized food lovers to turn their creativity into a career. “I’m an immigrant, and I was able to achieve my American Dream of opening a business that puts my culture in front of everyone in a very proud way,” Gupta added. “I hope I can inspire some people to do something similar, in any form. Chocolate is not the only medium.”
In the upcoming months, Gupta and Curelop plan on experimenting with new flavors, including other familiar South Asian desserts such as carrot halwa. They also plan on releasing small batches of the experimental sweets to receive feedback before potentially expanding their lineup. If the COVID-19 situation improves, they will attend the Good Food Awards ceremony in March and meet retailers across the country to promote their products.
For now, foodies can get their hands on the newly released Pistachio Chocolate Spread as well as old favorites through Madhu’s website and from select retailers in and near Austin, Texas.
Images via Madhu Chocolate