Wellington’s award-winning spice girls

By Francesca Emms
Photography by Victoria Birkinshaw

Featured in Capital #73
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When Keryn Kalyan walks through the door she can tell immediately what her mum Shobha’s cooked for dinner. “For me the garam masala is the meat smell, and if it’s coriander I think ‘Oh we’re having vegetarian’.” It was the same for Shobha, who remembers as a pre-schooler  knowing the smell of cumin seeds meant fish and cardamom meant it was a special time of the year. “When it was Diwali time, my mum would make Ghughra, little pasties with semolina and cardamom inside, and I could smell the aroma of the cardamom from up the street. She roasted the semolina and left it to cool and I could smell it on my way home,” she says.

A century ago Shobha’s grandparents migrated from India and settled in Otorohanga. “They had quite a few children, five sisters and three brothers. My grandparents both passed away quite young and the children ended up all going their own way.” Shobha explains that her mum, Mary, couldn’t find a suitable husband in New Zealand, so saved up and went to Fiji in the hope of meeting someone. She was introduced to Ratilal. They liked each other but there were a couple of issues, “He couldn’t speak English and she couldn’t speak Gujarati. And they were both very poor.” Ratilal’s family didn’t support the match, so he told them that he was going off to play a game of soccer, but instead went to the airport and eloped with Mary to New Zealand. The couple settled in Lower Hutt and stayed there for the rest of their lives. “They had an amazing marriage. They taught each other how to speak their lingos. They didn’t have any money but they were very happy.”

They were both excellent cooks, says Shobha. Mary had been taught traditional Gujarati methods by her mother. Ratilal had been brought up with authentic Gujarati cooking too, and would sometime contact his sisters in India to get a recipe. Shobha learned from watching her mother cook, and passed this learning on to her three daughters, of whom Keryn is the youngest. “We often ate authentic Gujarati food, but we also broadened our skills and introduced the girls to a whole range of foods from different cultures. Their palates are now well seasoned! Although they all have their own unique cooking styles, it’s so special for me to see that they’ve carried on their Gujarati cooking skills just the way I taught them, using all five senses.”

Shobha and Keryn passed the recipes on again in 2020 with the release of their self-published  Gujarati recipe book Pass It On. “This is the first time our treasured recipes have been written down.” The mother-daughter duo Best Cover, for their bright pink image showing Shobha’s hand passing spices into Keryn’s, at the PANZ Book Design Awards in October. They were the runner-up in the best cookbook category.

Shobha makes her own spice grinds and pastes. Instructions for them are included in Pass It On, and they are used in most of the recipes in the book. One of the signature spice mixes is the family’s Garam Masala, a blend of roasted and ground spices  is mostly used for meat and poultry dishes. They highly recommend making your own spice mixes, rather than grabbing a packet off the shelf. Not only will the spice blends enhance the depth and flavour of your dishes, but making them at home will leave your house perfumed with exotic aromas. “Each individual spice has its own flavour and adds its own personality to a dish. It’s easy to adjust the recipes to suit your taste by making them sweeter or more peppery.”

In a special collaboration with Capital, Shobha and Keryn have created a “Capital masala”. It’s similar to a traditional garam masala, but warmer with slightly sweeter notes thanks to the addition of nutmeg, and extra cinnamon and cloves. Keryn’s already used it to make chicken curry (recipe available here). “It’s tested and we think it’s pretty delicious!” This mix can be used in a range of meat and vegetarian dishes. Store spice mixes in an airtight container or jar in a dark cupboard. They’ll last for months (if you don’t use them up first.)

Capital Masala

Makes: ⅔ cup
Prep time: 15 minutes
Roast time: 20 minutes


2 tbsp coriander seeds
2 tbsp cumin seeds
2 tbsp green cardamom seeds
1 tbsp black peppercorns
3 x 9cm cinnamon quills 
1 tbsp cloves

½ tsp nutmeg, freshly grated

1 tbsp star anise


  1. Sift the coriander and cumin seeds individually and discard any sticks, stones or anything foreign. 
  2. Preheat the oven to 150℃. 
  3. Place all the ingredients on an oven tray. Slow roast for 20 minutes or until aromatic and slightly darker in colour, stirring every 10 minutes. 
  4. Place the tray on a wire rack to cool completely. 
  5. Grind the spices to a fine powder using a spice or coffee grinder, and store in an airtight container in a dark cupboard. 


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