Sweet & Spicy, From Manhattan Via India

| 17 Feb 2015 | 12:58

A home chef is whipping up artisanal, Indian-infused chocolates from her East Village apartment

Pragati Sawhney flashes a deep smile as she gets ready to make chocolate in the kitchen of her East Village apartment.

She stands barefoot in front of a table piled with flower and fruit extracts. She puts the chocolate chips in a saucepan and sets them on the fire, occasionally stirring. Once the chips melt, she pours the chocolate on a marble counter and spreads it with a plastic spatula.

Her home smells like chocolate and her dress is no longer white.

Sawhney tastes the chocolate obsessively with a little spoon, before adding some secret ingredients, which differ depending on the batch. She wakes up everyday thinking about a new flavor and how she could combine chocolate with exotic products. Chocolate, for her, has to be an elegant creation.

"I always wanted to be someone that does something creative," she said.

Sawhney, 38, splits her time between New York and her native Vasant Kunj, India, where last year she started her own online chocolate business: Chockriti. Choc stands for chocolate. Kriti means work of art in Sanskrit.

Sawhney's background is not in the culinary arts. She has a bachelor's degree in Dentistry and a master's in Public Health. She also did a semester at Columbia University Business School. But her passion for chocolate proved greater than her desire to become a dentist.

"I explored the world of chocolate," she said. "Being in public health, I thought that I should have created something healthy."

In 2011, after finishing her studies, she returned to India. She enrolled in a chocolate-making class. She also experimented at home on her own, trying to transform chocolate into a work of edible art.

Sawhney worked on developing rich flavors with natural ingredients. "A lot of commercial chocolate uses butter and syrup," she noted.

So far, she's created 30 flavors of chocolate, including orange blossom (pure orange extract blended with California almonds and dark chocolate) and Jasmine green tea (organic Jasmine and green tea leaves brewed in fresh cream).

"I like to experience different feelings," Sawhney said. " I always ask myself: 'What am I doing?' It is a matter of taste."

Her chocolate ? 12 pieces cost $20 and 16 run $25 ? is gluten and alcohol free with no compound chocolate, artificial ingredients or added milk. She uses 100 percent cocoa beans. Every piece is handmade with ingredients imported, variously, from India, France, Great Britain, Japan and the Arab world.

Sawhney, who sells about 20 boxes of chocolate a month, isn't making a living from her labor-intensive business yet. It usually takes her three to four days to prepare batches of 16 different flavors, whether she's working out of her New York apartment or back home in India.

"As an Indian girl from traditional parents, I live at home with them. When I am in New York, I live with my brother and sister," she said. "I want to continue this beautiful chocolate journey and I am waiting to get this venture profitable."

Taran Dhanju, a medical technologist who has known Sawhney since childhood, settled in Toronto in 1992. She reconnected with Sawhney - and found out about Chockriti on Facebook last year.

"Sometimes, I taste her experiments, like the chocolate cupcake, which is not really a cake but a chocolate," she said.

Chungwon Kim, a holistic health counselor, is another fan. "When I think about Pragati's chocolate, I get goose bumps," she said. "She has a brilliant mind."

Sawhney is working toward selling her chocolates in stores and opening her own shop. She also hopes to have a social impact in India, where she's hired three women to help her make chocolate. She believes that teaching them chocolate-making skill could help change their lives.

"In the future, I would like to hire more Indian women, giving them the opportunity to learn how to run a business," she said.