Uttam Mukherjee and Dr. Aakanksha Sinha have loved to cook their whole lives. Living in America, they missed the food their families made in India.
In 2018, the couple set out to open a restaurant that brought the foods they grew up with to their new home in Seattle.
“Looking at the business side and the social impact side, we wanted to find a way to bring those things together,” Sinha said.
Sinha and Mukherjee co-own Spice Waala, an “unapologetically authentic” Indian street food restaurant in Capitol Hill. They pride themselves on serving complex flavors and dishes that go beyond the curries and naans served at a typical Indian restaurant in America. They started selling food at the South Lake Union Market in 2018 and opened their storefront in April 2019.
Sinha’s career as a professor of social work at Seattle University is what brought the couple to the city in the first place. However, after their success selling their food in the South Lake Union Market, they knew Seattle would be a good place to take Spice Waala further.
Mukherjee said Indian food in America is often not authentic and based on foods mostly from Northwest India. Their goal with Spice Waala is to introduce Americans to a broad range of food that is often ignored.
The couple describe India’s street food as is the “common denominator,” where people of all social classes eat the same things.
“We didn't find the kind of food that we grew up with in Delhi and Calcutta represented here, and especially street food, which is really complex but really affordable,” Mukherjee said. “It's a really good equalizer for a lot of people."
Sinha and Mukherjee run their restaurant with three values in mind: authenticity, community engagement and social justice. Sinha said they make sure to pay their employees more than minimum wage and share profits with them.
Since the majority of Spice Waala’s profits were made from takeout and delivery orders before the pandemic, it has been able to adapt and garner customers by offering weekly specials that take customers on “a journey of the flavor profiles around India,” Mukherjee said.
Though Sinha and Mukherjee have run into issues due to the pandemic, such as a heightened concern about the health and safety of their staff, they’ve stayed true to their values since the start of it.
Through their pandemic food program Bhojan, meaning “meal” in Hindi, they’ve partnered with local organizations such as YouthCare and Community Lunch on Capitol Hill to serve 7,000 meals to those in need. Mukherjee said Spice Walaa also donates a portion of its monthly earnings to local nonprofits.
“We didn't just want to do something where we were only donating,”Sinha said. “How we attach it to our values was through Bhojan.”