It is 2013. Senthil Kumar Balu was in Perth on a short stint as a visiting academic at Curtin University’s stem cell research centre. The door opens as Senthil Kumar Balu walks into his friend’s house with a chocolate cake. This was the first time he had ever used an oven or even attempted baking. He placed his contribution on a table amidst the other food that the guests had made for the potluck dinner.
Everyone gathered around with disposable plates and cutlery. Amidst the chatter and the chewing, Senthil noticed a hand go for his cake. He held his breath as his eyes grew wide from nervous anticipation. “This cake is delicious!” exclaimed the guest. Senthil instantly let out a sigh of relief as everyone began reaching out for the delectable dessert.
Once he returned to Chennai, he decided to dabble in baking a little bit more. “It was never on the cards,” he laughs. Nevertheless, the researcher indulged in kitchen experiments as a hobby. As he got comfortable in the kitchen, the health-conscious biologist-turned-weekend-baker began looking for healthier substitutes for core ingredients like white flour and refined sugar.
Problems are fascinating. Finding a solution is exhilarating. “Cancer is one of the oldest problems that nobody has quite found an answer to as yet,” he reveals as he discusses the thrills of researching ways to bring down cancer stem cells. During his research, he came across alternate therapies. One particular area of study caught his eye. “Food can be medicine. It can also be poison,” he reveals as he describes the aha moment that turned his hobby into his second career.
January 2016, Wholesome Rhapsody became the face of Senthil’s outrageous idea—to make palatable desserts for people with dietary restrictions and terminal illnesses. “My friends loved what I made and encouraged me to start the venture,” he smiles, “Besides, there was nobody in Chennai already doing this.”
Merely using healthy ingredients to make the desserts was not enough. It was also equally important to understand in which state the ingredients would deliver the nutrients to the body. “For instance, carrot as a kheer or halwa is more nutritious than in its raw form in a salad or juice,” he reveals. As an example, he takes us through his process of baking a cheesecake at a lower temperature for a shorter period to ensure that none of the nutrients are destroyed.
Senthil’s baking experience was backed by thorough research. However, the challenge that followed was the game-changer. “How do I make healthy food palatable?”
Years of experimentation and appreciation for food added up to this moment. Senthil understood flavours and within no time, he was whipping up cakes with mouth-watering unique flavours. “I started using fruits that grew in the South Indian belt like mango, jackfruit and custard apple,” he lists.
Very soon, Senthil had an extensive menu of healthy cakes made with a unique combination of ingredients. At first, customers were baffled by the concept of healthy dessert. Desserts were always associated with flavours like butterscotch, vanilla and chocolate. Senthil faced his first real challenge—marketing his concept of healthy desserts in flavours that were never heard of before.
The extensive menu had several customisation options to choose from. “One could choose to use buckwheat, ragi or rice instead of flour for the cake,” he exemplifies as he describes how the extensive customizability made ordering difficult in the first few months. Nevertheless, Senthil spent time educating his customers and ensuring they understood every aspect of what they were eating.
Although customers would usually come to the baker for gluten-free or vegan desserts, he very soon became popular for his special pastries for people with breast cancer, diabetes and prostate cancer. “People with breast cancer have to reduce their oestrogen intake so I use ingredients like almonds, Brazil nuts and millets,” he explains, “On the other hand, a prostate cancer diet is supposed to have high oestrogen, so I use ingredients like flaxseed and soy.”
Later that year, Senthil collaborated with The Banyan, an NGO focused on mental health. He was chatting with the resident psychiatrist about the diet of the women housed by the organisation. The casual conversation led the baker to teach the women his unique recipes as a part of a baking workshop. The women who underwent the training are now baking cakes for The Banyan’s Nalam cafe.
Over time, Wholesome Rhapsody grew a niche client base with regular customers. “There have been days when we had to bake ten cakes,” he reveals laughing. The home baker and his friend, Sabarish, tirelessly work every day to make sure to satisfy everyone’s craving. The desserts are available to be shipped across India. The stability of the ingredients ensures it has a shelf life of about one to two weeks even though no preservatives are used. Alongside running his business, Senthil sees himself making an impact on the health policy sector. “India has an abundance of local food that is rich in nutrients but is not being used to its full capacity,” he reveals as he emphasises his goal of building a transparent and truly local brand.