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Candy shop owner recalls being stranded in India amid virus


WILMINGTON, N.C. (AP) – Sarah Taravath hates to fly.

She once drove a rental car back from Colorado to avoid a return flight. In 43 years, Taravath has only been on a handful of such in-country visits.

“I feel like I missed out on a lot of opportunities,” Taravath said. “Conferences, trips.”

So when Taravath had the chance to travel to India, she made sure she was able to go. It took a little bit of pharmaceutical help, but in early March she boarded a non-stop flight to New Delhi and slept most of the way there.

But her two-week trip still didn’t go as planned.

For nine days, Taravath traveled and filmed segments that featured the chocolate- and candy-making skills she developed as the owner of Fuzziwig’s Candy Factory in Wilmington. Then, with little warning, the country shut down amid COVID-19 restrictions and her flight back to the U.S. was cancelled.

Her first overseas excursion turned out to be less of a working vacation, and more of a full-immersion adventure.

“There I am, right in the middle,” Taravath said. “And I’m stuck.”

For the most part, she maintained a positive outlook, as elderly people and those with children received priority for emergency flights back home. The hardest part was being apart from her two children, she said.

But Taravath is someone who is used to making the most of the moment. When her family moved from West Virginia to Wilmington in 2014, she thought it was an ideal time to change careers.

“I worked in biotech. I just didn’t want to be stuck in a lab anymore,” Taravath said. “I thought, everybody’s always happy in a candy store.”

When in India for who-knows-how-long, and spending her days with chef Siddharth Talwar and his mother in a suburb near the capital, she became absorbed in the culture. She learned to knit and tie a sari. She helped with laundry. She can ask the price of mangoes in Hindi.

She played lots of cards with Pammi Talwar, who became kind of a surrogate mother, and she spent many, many hours in a real, authentic Indian kitchen.

Talwar learned to make homemade macarons, one of Sid Talwar’s specialties, but also watched the hours and preparation that go into authentic Indian dishes with the help of Pammi.

“Anything she was doing, she taught me to do,” Taravath said.

She admits the situation could have been awkward, at best. But from the beginning she said she was accepted into their home.

“It never seemed like we were newly acquainted. It was like we all had always known each other,” Taravath said.

ON TO INDIA

In the U.S., Taravath married into an Indian family and she first met Talwar on an online group call. She soon learned that he was a finalist on the fifth season of MasterChef India and that he has his own “Cook with Sid” YouTube channel.

They started having discussions about candy, food and chocolate making, which led to the initial invitation for Taravath to appear in his videos and work with him on a project for the StarPlus channel.

They hadn’t even finished filming when the pandemic changed their plans, but it didn’t change Taravath’s intentions for being there.

“I thought I knew Indian food,” she said. “But it’s so much more than I ever thought. It’s almost like chemistry, or an art.”

Take Butter Chicken, for example. This dish, developed in in the 1940s, is relatively new to the Indian repertoire but has since become widely available and globally loved. Taravath is a fan, too.

“But it’s completely different there,” she said. “It’s an all day process.”

The chicken for the dish, also called Murg Makhani, is first double marinated overnight, then grilled or roasted in a tandoori before it is enveloped in a “silky, seamless” sauce of butter, tomatoes, almonds, cashews and spices. Then there are the secret ingredients: a sprinkle of toasted and powdered dried fenugreek leaves and a dash of honey.

It sounds simple enough, and many recipes are. Taravath now knows, though, the intricacies of cooking this way.

“It makes a huge difference when you put the tomatoes in and when you put in the different spices,” Taravath said. “If you put them in at the wrong time, or in the wrong order, the taste is completely different.

“You can almost cook by smell. That’s how you know when to add something or when it’s ready.”

She and the family ate four meals a day, so Taravath gained weight, right? Instead, she lost 10 pounds.

“I think it’s because everything is fresh, and it all takes a lot of time,” she said.

And time was aplenty for Taravath, Sid and Pammi.

“In that country, lockdown means locked down,” Taravath said.

Travel was always restricted, but more so when there were too many cases of the virus in one location — as denoted by a required app. Groceries, and in some situations only meal rations, were delivered to homes. Fruit and vegetable vendors were allowed to sell in some neighborhoods.

“It was a huge eye opener,” Taravath said. “But I think I came out of it a better person.”

It wasn’t until July that she was able to begin her return to the States.

“I got a flight to Amsterdam,” she said. “I was very lucky to get it, and it cost me $4,000.”

Taravath is a part of a Facebook group fittingly called Americans Stuck in India, which currently has 1,600 members, many of whom are still waiting to come home.

“Imagine if a family of three or four had to take the flight I took,” she said. “It could cost $20,000.”

After a two-week quarantine in Myrtle Beach, Taravath returned to Wilmington in August.

AT THE CANDY SHOP

Taravath opened the only North Carolina location of the Colorado-based Fuzziwig’s franchise in 2016. Since then, it has gained a following for the wide selection of bulk candies (at times, there are more than 400 of them), like specialty M&M;’S and Jelly Belly jelly beans. It’s the kind of thing that makes great themed gift bags and birthday presents. Taravath also sells ice cream, retro treats and cotton candy.

She was able to re-open the shop Labor Day weekend.

“I just wasn’t sure how it would be, with the theater closed,” she said. “But there were still people strolling around Mayfaire. And they wanted to come into the candy shop. It’s always good to see smiling faces.”

With business doing better than anticipated, she’s returned to making caramel apples and other fall-time treats, and planning Halloween-related specials and her own costume.

“Halloween is my favorite holiday,” she said. “We’re going to offer a prize bag to anyone who comes in here in costume that whole week.”

The prolonged trip to India, though, continues to influence her decisions. She still talks to Pammi Talwar most days and Sid Talwar is hoping to come to Wilmington in November to make handmade macarons, fruit pizza by the slice, and desserts inspired by Indian flavors for the shop. Taravath said she’s lucky that Fuzziwig’s is a business that allows owners lots of creativity.

Many hours in India were spent brainstorming business plans. She now wants to implement them.

“That’s what we did all the time. We talked about ideas,” Taravath said. “Now, we are going to reinvent Fuzziwig’s.”

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