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Overseas Indian

Published on: Nov. 17, 2020, 10:31 a.m.
An Indian’s culinary journey in the land of the Vikings
  • Sehjpal is the queen of Indian cuisine in Norway

By Sekhar Seshan. Consulting Editor, Business India

She was all of five years old when her parents moved from Shimla with her and her little brother to Norway. “My father, who was a government employee, did not want to move – but my mother Raj talked him into it, because she wanted a better future for us,” says Sarita Sehjpal, 48, now a restaurateur in Kristainsand in the southern part of the country. “Her brother, my mamaji, was already living there.”

Growing up in Norway, little Sarita acquired fluency in the local language, apart from her own Hindi and Punjabi, which were spoken at home. After nearly four decades in the land of the Vikings, she is still deep-rooted in Indian values and ethos, which she inherited from her mother and is committed to pass them on to her children, she says.

Her entrepreneurial journey began when, at age 13, she ran a grocery kiosk with her mother. Then, in 1993, the young woman started a restaurant with her family. “I had no clue about how to run it, without any kind of formal education or experience in the line – but my dreams were bigger than the fear of knowing that I lacked knowledge,” she recalls. Today, Mother India is the oldest-running restaurant in Kristiansand – which is a beautiful city on the southern coast where everyone is friendly and speaks English. 

“When we started, I did not know how to make Indian food; but I developed a passion for learning the art. Today, it is my life!” she says. Eight years later, Sehjpal started to play with the thought of introducing Indian food to the entire Scandinavian nation by selling it in grocery stores. Many people warned her against the venture: she was a woman, with a minority background, and she wanted to enter the retail market where only big companies dominated.

But all these warnings worked as fuel to the fire that was burning inside her. “I got even more determined to follow my dream. Again with no experience, I started to build my SaritaS brand. The concept was to produce Indian ready-to-eat meals for the retail market.” Her brother was working in India for a Norwegian company, but moved back to Kristainsand to join her in building the brand into a household name in Norway. The duo set up a food producing factory and offered chilled Indian food for the Norwegian market, then started to export it to Denmark too.

‘Living brand’

The following year, SaritaS was acquired by a big company, Rieber & Søn, which in turn was acquired by Orkla Foods a year later. The food giant had one condition: that Sarita and Raj should join Orkla and she had to be the ‘living brand’. This lasted for seven years, after which they bought the SaritaS brand back and started a new company, Indian Gourmet, with some Norwegian partners.

Along the way, the minority immigrant has blossomed into a distinguished name in Norwegian society, whose life story - Step by Step - is taught as an inspirational biography in an English textbook in Norwegian schools . She started three restaurants in Norway, one of which, Mother India, was conferred the title of the best Indian restaurant in Norway twice. In 2009, she won the ‘Businesswoman of the Year’ award in Southern Norway. She had the honour of being the chief guest and delivered a speech on Norwegian Constitution Day on 17 May 2011.

Sehjpal has also been an actor, bestselling author, social worker, evangelist for women’s empowerment and motivational speaker. Her Sarita’s India was sold widely across Norway and was even nominated for a literature prize. She was the lead actor in a three-hour-long video documentary, Saritas Krukke (Sarita’s Jar), in which she travelled around north India and introduced Indian cuisine and heritage to Norway, which was broadcasted by the Norwegian National channel TV2.

Today, having made SaritaS arguably the biggest Indian brand in Norway, with a portfolio of chilled Indian ready-to-eat meals, Indian sauces, chutneys and the like, Sehjpal’s ambition is to grow even bigger with SaritaS brand and add new items.  

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