‘Barfi Queen’ Harbhajan Kaur On Becoming An Entrepreneur At 90

How late is too late or how soon is too soon? Especially, when it comes to turning your lifelong passion into a business. As a young girl - who grew up in the small town of Taran Tarn, Punjab - Harbhajan Kaur’s journey in the kitchen started fairly early. While she learned all the nuances from her mother, it was some of her father’s recipes that held the closest to her heart. Recipes that she brought with her to her new home, and won everyone over, especially her biggest fan and cheerleader - her husband. However, if there’s one thing this gifted cook truly desired, was an “honourable life”, to know “how it feels to earn your own money”. And thus, Harbhajan’s daughter and grandchildren made sure she gets to live her dream, so what if it was conventionally ‘too late’ to make a foray into a business? With the support of her family and a stash of recipes (some going back 100 years) Harbhajan made her first batch of ‘Besan Barfi’ for sale, and the rest, as they say, is history.

She is now the face of one of the most beloved up-and-coming F&B brands. And in addition to ladoos, the brand is also known for fantastic Panjiri and pickles. Recently, we got candid with Harbhajan. Excerpts from the conversation...

1. When did you start cooking? Who taught you how to cook?

I grew up in a small town called Taran Tarn in Punjab and in those days, girls were taught to cook at home from a very young age. We would help our mothers and grandmothers with all household chores including the kitchen.

While it's evident that a mother is a girl's first teacher, however in my case, growing up I saw my father making delicious sweets on every occasion, which were relished by the whole family and I knew then that I would want to cook like him. I used to observe him in the kitchen and still try to replicate his way of cooking food and sweets.

2. Do you remember your most treasured compliment?

My husband was my biggest fan. He would lovingly call my kitchen ‘Bhajan’s Dhaba’ and would invite people home to taste the food I would make. He enjoyed everything I have ever cooked for him and would always say that I cook the best food. His words still hold a very special place in my heart.

3. What prompted you to start your own business at 90?

I remember sitting with my daughter Raveena Suri for our usual evening tea and she asked me if there was any unfulfilled desire in my life. I remember my eyes welling up as I told her that I have lived a very fulfilling and honourable life but don’t know how it feels to earn your own money. That night the whole family came together and decided that I should do what I enjoy the most – cooking, and what I am best at - making besan barfi.

The next day my daughter brought the ingredients and asked me to get down to fulfilling my dream! I made some barfi and packed it in a few pastry boxes. I also made some tomato chutney, for which we got small jars. My grand-daughter hand-painted some stickers and coined the tagline, “Bachpan yaad aa jaaye”. Then my daughter took me to an organic Mandi where I was welcomed very warmly and she asked me to sit all by myself and interact with people. It was a totally new experience for me. I made everyone taste the samples and my entire produce was sold out! The icing on the cake was the appreciation and love I received from everyone. I went back home feeling fulfilled and elated with my first-ever income that I had earned with my own hands!

Eventually, we started visiting the market every fortnight with my products. For me, it was more the joy of feeling productive and good about myself, than the amount I earned. In November 2019, my grand-daughter was all set to get married. She urged me to make Besan Barfi for the wedding guests and the whole family came together to help me make 300 boxes of my barfi! Soon enough, the sweetness of the barfi made waves across the city and orders started pouring in.

4. How much did you earn from your first order?

I sold my first order at a farmer’s market in 2019 and earned my first pay-check of Rs. 2000. Since then, there has been no looking back.  

5. The biggest challenge you faced in the early days of business?

We started as a small home-grown business with the simple thought of sharing my ancestral recipes with the people of Chandigarh. However, with God’s grace, in a pan of a few years, the volume of orders has drastically increased. The major challenge was production and logistics, but my children somehow never let me face any difficulties. My grandson Manav Suri, who is a renowned Chef took the entire production to his cloud kitchen and my grand-daughter Mallika Suri took over the brand and handled all logistics and other requirements.

6. What do you think you cook the best? What’s your comfort food?

Honestly, I cook only what my family enjoys to eat; only what they ask me to cook for them. They love my ‘Stuffed Tinda’ which I make in curd, Idli Sambhar, Gur (jaggery) ka halwa and Moong dal halwa.

My comfort food is chai and mathi, which I enjoy with my daughter Raveena every evening. It is our mother-daughter time and cherish it with very sip!

7. Three tips to make the perfect barfi?

The most imperative aspect while making besan barfi is that you must use pure and fresh ingredients, without adding any preservatives. Pure desi ghee is the backbone of my barfi. Secondly, the besan must be stirred continuously to avoid forming any lumps or burning it. Lastly, remember that patience is key while preparing the besan for the barfi. Let the mixture cool down completely before slicing the barfi, else the barfi will break.

8. Most useful cooking tip that has helped you in your cooking?

My father used to say that one must cook everything with a heart full of love and pure intentions; the end product will be wonderful.