02 November 2015

Creative Good / Stuffed toys of favorite foods to help rural India, Part 2

Happy Bellies is a Kickstarter project bringing fuzzy version of favorite Indian foods into our arms, while delivering life-saving technologies to rural India.

Here's Part II of my conversation with Diana, one of the creative minds behind the initiative. We get candid about Happy Bellies and get a 'lil bit more personal.

If you missed it, check out Part I here.


Stop 3

We meandered over to Chinatown, since Diana was craving some quality Chinese food. We were pretty stuffed by that time, but couldn’t resist sitting down at Dim Sum Garden (1020 Race St.) ordering xiao long bao and sheng jian bao (steamed and pan-fried Shanghainese dumplings, respectively).

Me: What was your first exposure to Indian food? Or India?

Diana: I don’t remember … Indian food wasn’t something that my family ate regularly. My first actual exposure to the food was probably when I first studied abroad during college. That’s when I understood that there were different types of Indian foods, not just naan and chicken tikka masala. Every region has its own specialty. In South India where I was, they had the masala dosa, the idlis, the vadas, the filtered coffee -- all these very, very special things.

We then started talking about food poisoning, different regional foods, then diverged on a tangent to the documentary “Searching for General Tso.” Discussing the film lead us to comparisons between Indian and Chinese food and…

Happy Bellies, Chinese style?

If you were to make Happy Bellies out of Chinese food, what would you make?

That’s hard! You need to help me with that. Chinese food, like a distinct kind of shape… Like a char siu bao. People have already seen those on keychains, right. You can do it out of dimsum: har gaw, siu mai, char siu bao, chicken feet…

[I laugh] I don’t know about chicken feet. 

I guess you could make it out of dim sum, but it would be hard to make it out of a stir-fry. I don’t know how you’d make a Happy Belly stir-fry.

Unless you had a mini wok with smiling vegetables in it or something.

Haha yeah … Maybe a fortune cookie?

It’s true that some of it’s been done. For instance, I’ve seen dumpling keychains.

I have too. And I mean, they’re really cute and of course [East] Asians would do it first. They like everything cute. I don’t think Indians care about it as much.

You be the judge: Cute or no? via Happy Bellies

What is considered cute in India?

That’s a good question. I don’t think they have a good sense of that. Or, usually what many people think is cute, I think is tacky. Our soft toy manufacturer thought that nobody would buy our stuff. Hopefully that’s not the case, but we’ll see.

Why did he think that?
Because he thought, why would people buy food? He eats this stuff everyday. And so he said, You need to make it cuter, with big eyes and big features. You could just do that more. And we said no, this is how we wanted to do it. We thought this [way] was cute on a more subtle side.

Ooh yeah, ok. Design in India. Everything’s super flashy and colorful, patterned and not just nice Indian patterns like pretty paisleys and whatnot, but like bling in your face: too much color, too much sparkle. Being subtle is not really a thing.

So if the samosa were covered in sequins, maybe it would appeal more?

Appeal more to the mass Indian market? I don’t think that’s quite the audience.

Then who is the audience?

Maybe non-Indians who like Indian food and appreciate it. Indians abroad who miss this stuff and think it’s funny? People who have been to India and have eaten the foods and are like, that was awesome.

What is the aim besides raising money for Essmart?

Sharing our love for Indian food! And it’s also funny. [The characters] do come with educational cards but honestly, you’re not going to buy something you haven’t already experienced yourself. If you’ve never eaten an idli, you probably don’t want an idli because you would think, “That’s weird. I’ve never heard of it.”

I’m actually curious to eat one! And I’ve never tried an idli.


Yeah! Now I look at the toys and wonder what an idli tastes like.

I should get you an idli. We should go back to that chutney place [we passed earlier] and get one.

[We laugh.]

But yeah, there could be potential in Indian restaurants. The big chains might want to buy some and sell them as souvenirs. We could see them in the tourist market in India. But I’m not quite sure who the customer might be.

I guess that’s what Kickstarter is. An experiment. Have you ever done one?

Never done one before. We’ve done an Indiegogo [campaign], but Kickstarter is, like, you need to hit a goal in order to actually get all the money and be funded. So, it’s interesting because now we’re trying really hard to push.

So how have you been getting the word out?

Fortunately, we have a network. One of the girls who is on the team – Avantika, the Stanford product designer -- has West Coast networks, which is great. Jackie and I have East Coast networks. But, we want to go viral and we’re not quite sure how to get to that. Also, we’re not sure if it’s a product that can go viral so, who knows! 

So we’ve been tweeting, Facebook-ing, Instagram-ing, blogging, food touring, and going to Indian restaurants and food trucks to put up posters and talk to owners and have them promote our stuff as well. And then, I’ve been emailing a lot of food blogs, start-up blogs, and I even started looking at Asian American blogs because I’m Asian American.

Maybe you could find one of those YouTube stars. [See Part I for vague reference.]

[Gasp] Do you know any Indian American YouTube stars?

No, I know very few YouTube stars, if any at all. But that could be interesting.

Stop 4 

A craving for something refreshingly sweet to offset the savory spurred us to search for bubble tea. As we perched in the open storefront window of Tea Do (132 N. 10 St.), I asked a few final questions – really, the last ones this time.

Thanks, Josh!

So tell me more about learning to cook Indian food, after 3 years* of living there.

Right! I only have recipes because I don’t know how else to do it. I have Indian friends who put spices together and do something with it, but for me … I have no idea what turmeric by itself tastes like or what coriander powder by itself tastes like or what a garam masala is. How do you adjust the spices and in what proportions and how much do you put and how powerful is a teaspoon of all of these things? I just don’t know. So far, I’ve been following recipes and measuring out spices.

Where have you mostly been getting your recipes from?

There’s a cookbook that Hannah, my husband Josh’s sister, bought for him -- and I just took it. He wasn’t going to use it anyways. It’s very UK based.

The other cookbook I brought back from the US was pretty appropriate for the cooking implements that I have in India. Like, I bought a mixie recently. A mixie is like a grinder or a blender. It has different attachments that do different things, and every household has one. So, I have one now!

I do a lot of curries in general because I like curries. Chicken curries, usually.

You’re being saucy.

I like being saucy. I like sauces. I like rice. I still haven’t made a chapatti on my own yet, though. I’ve made chapattis at other people’s houses. They are little circle bread things made out of wheat flour, basically flour and water. You roll them out and put them on the [flat pan].

It sounds like lots of fun.

Yeah. You have to understand … Like as I was saying before, I didn’t grow up with Indian food. So I don’t know what flavor I’m actually aiming at, and I don’t know how to adjust the flavors, either. The dish I end up with isn’t authentic since I change parts of the recipes to make them better for my taste. Fortunately Josh, who is Indian, is not “pure.” He doesn’t really care as long as he can eat it. So I make my own type of food.

Tell me a little more about the spice box.

Oh, my spice box! I bought it at Metro, which is like the Costco of India. It’s like a Tupperware container but made of stainless steel, and inside there are seven bowls for spices and a little spoon. So far I put in turmeric, coriander, cumin, garam masala … I think I put in some fennel seeds. And cinnamon!

What I didn’t realize about spice boxes is the ease of cross contamination of my spices. I was telling you this earlier, but I make French toast pretty often and one day, I tried to use the cinnamon from my spice box. It ended up tasting like turmeric and other spices, like a masala French toast. French toast masala.

But that could be tasty!

Yeah… but not when you’re expecting something else. [laugh] So I realized if I wanted pure spice, I would have to take them directly from the packages they come in.

So, my spices! It’s really fun. And I think in Indian food you just mix spices anyways, so they only give you one spoon for everything.

Maybe it’s all about the mixing.

Yeah it’s all about the mix. The masala mix.

Is that what masala means?

Spices. Usually a mix of spices.

Interesting. So a tikka masala is…?

What’s tikka? I dunno. That’s evidently a British dish.

That’s what I’ve heard, too.

But it’s in India now. [in a singsong voice] Chicken tikka masala! Also in Minions.


They say “tikka masala.”


* Note: Diana has actually been living in India for precisely 39 months.

To learn more or simply get your dose of cuteness and humor, head to the Happy Bellies Kickstarter page or their website.


“Creative Good” is a new series on creative ways to bring good to communities around the world. I love hearing about new initiatives, so if you have suggestions for a company, project, or person (or something else!) to profile, get in touch!

01 November 2015

Creative Good / Stuffed toys of favorite foods to help rural India, Part I

Imagine your favorite Indian restaurant: the spices in the air, the richness of curry, the crunch of samosas, the buttery-ness of fresh naan – all ending in a cozy food coma.

Ever wish you could extend that delicious comfort? Well, you can: in the form of cute and cuddly stuffed toys called Happy Bellies.

courtesy of Happy Bellies

Happy Bellies is a staff-picked Kickstarter project launched by three food lovers living in Bangalore – Diana, Jackie, and Avantika – who want you to be able to hug your favorite Indian foods, no matter where you live. The proceeds will go towards bringing life-changing technologies to villages in India, through Diana and Jackie’s non-profit Essmart Global.

** The campaign ends on November 3rd, so don’t wait to check it out! **

Diana is a close friend of mine from grad school and happened to be in Philly earlier this month. While we embarked on our own mini food crawl through Center City, we chatted about Happy Bellies, the different characters and crews, product design, and Diana’s efforts to learn Indian cookery – with plenty of tangents in between.

This is Part I of our meanderings, with Part II to follow.


Stop 1

We started at Metropolitan Bakery (262 S. 19th St.), a Philly mainstay. I wanted to try the millet muffin, which I had heard about on the podcast the Local Mouthful. While our conversation there wasn’t really quote-worthy for this post, we did have some laughs about AirBnB’s Obama O’s, YouTube stars, and savvy swag by presidential candidates.

Stop 2

Fried chicken and donuts? Yes please! The conversation got back on track at the Center City location of Federal Donuts (1632 Sansom St.), over za’atar-spiced fried chicken accompanied by a particularly delicious honey donut.

Me: How did you come up with the idea for Happy Bellies?

Diana: Actually, nobody on the team did. Esther, my college roommate, had come to India to visit me last year in August. We did this crazy all India tour, and we were eating a lot of food. I think we were in Shimla in north India, but were eating a south Indian food, idlis. She’s very visual -- and is also Asian and in architecture – so Esther was like, “Oh these look like little pillows! So cute!” And then, “What if we made them into little pillows?” That was the question.

What are idlis?

They are made out of fermented lentil and rice. So they’re like steamed rice cakes in a way, but a little sour. Idlis are a very popular south Indian breakfast food. But they’re kind of tasteless until they take on the flavor of the sauces. It kind of relates to the character ‘Lil Idlis. We made them little children because they have no taste of their own. They’re very impressionable.

So then how did you go from, “Maybe we should make them into pillows?” to starting an Essmart spinoff -- for lack of a better word?

I don’t think we took it seriously until June of this year. We were in a fundraising mode, trying to be creative and seeing if we can supplement our operations with something completely different. I don’t know if there’s quite a market for it, but it’s fun and ridiculous – kind of like us.

Where did the name Happy Bellies come from?

I think we ripped it off of somebody.

[We laugh]

There’s this bakery near our office that’s called Happy Belly Bakes. It’s one of my favorite bakeries because they have amazing cupcakes, my favorite being the banana walnut cupcake.

There’s also a thing called “Delhi belly,”when you go to India and you eat the food and get diarrhea. It’s really bad. So, we’re still dealing with Indian foods but we are in contrast to Delhi belly. We are Happy Bellies! Yay!

So how did you pick out which foods to highlight and make into characters?

We chose the foods mostly based on their shape – and, I guess, how well known they are. I mean, personally my favorite food is not on the list. It would be a chicken kotu parotta.

What is that?

A parotta is south Indian, sometimes called a Kerala parotta. It’s a flatbread that’s layered and really rich. Like a flat croissant. I don't know how to explain it… It’s awesome. It’s like really oily, full of ghee and made up of a lot of layers.

And what do you eat that with?

Usually it comes with some kind of korma, like a veggie curry. But the way I eat it is kothu parotta. “Kothu” means “cut.” So, on a flat area, [chefs] take this stainless steel cup and they go boomboom-boomboom-boomboom-boomboom-boom and they chop up the parotta. Then they mix in egg and chicken and masala spices and cilantro. It’s so good. The first time I ate it, it reminded me of [Chinese] chow fun.

Ooh, interesting!

I was like, “Oh my gosh!” And the best one I’ve ever had was in Polachi, Tamil-Nadu, down south close to the Kerala border. The parottas are crispier there. It’s ridiculous. So good. But … chopped up dough and chicken don’t make a good stuffed animal.

It doesn’t look like anything.

Likewise, you can’t do a gravy, like a butter chicken or --

Or a tandoori chicken.

Yeah, that doesn’t look like a good stuffed toy.

[We both laugh.]

But what do look good are south Indian breakfast foods, which is a cuisine all in itself so you need to honor it. [Our characters] are the trinity, the triumvirate of the south Indian breakfast foods. Like the masala dosa, which is similar to an idli but the batter isn’t as fermented. It’s like a crepe with potatoes inside. We named it Dozing Dosa because it makes you really sleepy after you eat it.

I like that name.

Yes, it’s very cute. And then we have idli because it’s also classic, and they’re really cute.

Then vada. They’re kind of like savory donuts. We made them Auntie and Uncle Vada because vada are something that oftentimes people make at home and serve around teatime. They could also be a morning thing, but we needed something to represent south Indian hospitality.

Everyone also seems to be an auntie and uncle.

Yup! That’s true. If you don’t know the name of your elder, just call them auntie and uncle and that’s perfectly fine.

So we chose those [three]. For our other crews - our other groups - we had wanted to do, for example, something based on foods in Kerala because they’re really funny-looking. But we decided not to do that because nobody knows what they are outside of India -- like an appam, or an idiyappam. We ended up going with the street foods because they’re a bit more famous.

We had to do a samosa. Even though I don’t really eat that many samosas when I’m in India, everyone knows what a samosa is. So we made it Superstar Samosa for that reason ‘cause it’s so famous. And then jalebi wasn’t on our list initially –

Is that the one that looks like – no offense --

It looks like poop!

I was gonna say worms!

It’s basically deep-fried dough coated in a sugary syrup. Our first iteration of the jalebi was much thinner, much more like jalebi. But we wanted it to be cuddlier, so we asked the manufacturer to stuff it more. Then it started to look like a pile of poop, and now… We’re going to change the dimensions. It needs to be cuddly but can’t look disgusting.

[We both laugh]

Then we chose pani puri, which are little fried crispy balls that are filled with flavored water.

Now, do you have a favorite character?

It’s hard to say. [pause] On the website, I wrote that it was the idli because Avantika already took the dosa. I would get the dosa, though. It’s the cutest and most accurate. The idlis are also very cute, but our first prototypes were closer to life size, which I thought were adorable. But we made them larger so that all together they’re like a cushion. I’m not quite sure how I feel about it.

So when we sent our stuff to the designer, our manufacturer –

What kind of manufacturer are you working with?

He’s a soft toy manufacturer. We just Googled a lot and found a guy in Bangalore who was actually decently responsive.

Are they all handmade?

[The fabric] is cut with machines but the embroidery is hand done.

How are you hoping that the Kickstarter will relate to Essmart, either in the short-term or the long-term?

In the short-term, fundraising. We’re funding it out of Essmart money and we’ll take all the proceeds back to Essmart as a revenue stream. Will it be a long-term thing? I have no idea. If it’s successful and people want to buy them, who knows, maybe we’ll set up another company and sell it. But right now we’re just seeing where the Kickstarter goes, and if there’s interest.


Check out Part II for more on Happy Bellies, glitter and sparkles, 
the struggles of cooking Indian food, and more.

To learn more or simply get your dose of cuteness and humor, head to the Happy Bellies Kickstarter page or their website.


“Creative Good” is a new series on creative ways to bring good to communities around the world. I love hearing about new initiatives, so if you have suggestions for a company, project, or person (or something else!) to profile, get in touch!

01 October 2015

[#invisiblefight] 30 Things

As part of Invisible Illness Week, I wanted to share a relative snapshot of my illness and a bit of what the day to day is like. I can be particularly wordy (despite being a Twitter user ... those restrictive 140 characters), so it was hard to keep my responses to a minimum. But I did my best to not write a novel! (Novel writing is a task for November...)

The meme below is a II Week and Rest Ministries initiative. I tried to answer as candidly as possible, editing my responses in some places but trying to keep what first came to mind. If I were to fill this out tomorrow, I might give a different response -- all of them true. Every question is the tip of an iceburg.

I'd encourage you to fill one out for yourself and to read others' responses. They're little windows into a life that otherwise might remain, well, invisible.

26 September 2015

[#invisiblefight] Invisible Illness Awareness Week 2015

September 28 through October 4 is Invisible Illness Awareness Week. Started in 2002 by Rest Ministries' founder Lisa Copen, it's an annual week devoted to raising awareness and supportive encouragement for the many around the world who are dealing with invisible chronic illnesses.

Last year was the first time I had heard about it, and since then I've been thinking about this year's initiative. What I look the most forward to aren't the facts, although those are helpful for educating myself and others about chronic illness. But it's really the personal stories that hit me, putting human faces and names to the seemingly-anonymous figures floating around in medical journals and in the media. And knowing a bit more about the struggles of those around me makes my own feel lighter.

This year's theme is My Invisible Fight. So, what is your fight? 

Or is your friend, family member, neighbor, colleague, labmate, or classmate in the midst of a fight that you might not know about? Maybe this is the time to find out -- or at least be willing to serve as an open ear and heart. You never know who might need it.

Check out the website, the Facebook page, and the blogs dedicated to the cause. I hope to be blogging next week to share a bit about my own fights. See you then!

20 March 2015

3 years, or when enough is truly enough

Yesterday was a milestone of sorts.  Here is what I wrote:


Today is a funny kind of anniversary, bittersweet and strange.

A little over three years ago, I went to Sierra Leone and came back with malaria-like symptoms.

Exactly three years ago -- March 19th, 2012 -- I was nearly paralyzed by an unknown illness.  And it's been a long road since then.

In the beginning, I played the "what if" game.  What if I hadn't gone to West Africa?  What if I hadn't gotten sick?  What if I hadn't eaten that burrito (the mundane dinner I had that "fateful" night)?  What if I had just finished my thesis when I was supposed to instead of extending it one semester more?

15 March 2015

Rounding up with a slice of pi(e)

Apple pie from Petsi Pies, true to the spirit of the day.

For some people, yesterday was simply Saturday, March 14th, the year 2015.

Here at MIT, where mathematical constants play a part in most people's everyday business, it was

Super Pi (π) Day
Day: 3.14.15
Time: 9:26:53

the first day in my generation's lifetime when we would celebrate ten digits of Pi, twice in a single day (if you count AM and PM).

The next one won't be for another 100 years, so I was among the many on campus and in the Boston area who made sure to celebrate well and indulge in pie in all forms -- from traditional fruit-filled pies to custardy cream ones to pizza pies and even shepherd's pie served in the dining hall (arguably not qualified for Pi Day given its non-round shape, but we're not picky around here).

22 February 2015

Buried in snow, so where does it go?

Hello from the land of snow, snow, and more snow that is Boston, Massachusetts, USA.

We've had the snowiest month ever (98.7" and counting), the second snowiest winter ever (see graphic), and more white stuff is on its way as we speak.  Plus some rain and above-freezing temperatures tomorrow to throw some snow melt and ice in the wintry mix.

The stats (updated daily by the city):

285,728 miles plowed
74,862 tons of salt
174,725 hours plowed
98.7 inches (8.225 feet) total snow fall

While this 'winter from hell' (aka Snowmageddon, among other names) is already a cliched subject in the news, as a visual person and student of the built environment, I have still had lingering questions.  For instance, how much snow has there been?  How can I make it personal?  We've seen graphics galore on the amounts and quantities, but I thought it would be fun to visualize myself buried in the heap:

Yes, that is actually a scalie ("silhouette" used in rendered images) of me.  
My entire M.Arch class was converted into scalies, and some of my classmates are featured here as well.
(And no, that dog wasn't part of the class, just there as a height reference and for cuteness factor.)

05 February 2015

Miscellanea, etc. / 05 Feb 2015

Happy new year!

Although we're already a month into 2015, the year still feels fresh and brimming with possibilities.  It's also brimming with snow here in New England.  Some of the snow drifts and shovel-crafted mountains are taller than my head -- which isn't very difficult, given that I am only a smidge over 5 feet (or about 1.5 m for the rest of the world).

One of my new year's resolutions (a post on resolutions to come) is to write and blog more often, perhaps up to once a week if I can get my act together.

A glimpse of campus under cover -- about 2.5-3 feet.

And now, the miscellanea for this week: Five links that have caught my eye in the last few weeks, a mix of serious, random, and fun:

January 12, 2015: Five years since the Haiti earthquake, or is it three centuries?

A wordless comic with splashes of color illuminating a hunter's inadvertent adventure.

While waiting for Season 2 of Serial (my winter podcast discovery), a fun hyperlinked illustration to satiate the appetite.

Does joint pain have anything to do with the gut?  Some say yes.

Keeping your personal information out of the hands of data brokers.


Don't fall too far down the rabbit hole, though.