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Aarey colony in Mumbai’s suburbs is well known for its milk depot and natural forest reserves, but if Cassandra Nazareth has her way, it will soon be known for its local, tribal cuisine. Since January, she has been organizing lunches cooked by tribal women in the green, rural setting of Aarey, mostly in thatched huts surrounded by patches of kitchen gardens.

The monthly lunch is organized as part of the Tribal Women Empowerment Programme under the aegis of We Will Help (WWH), a group that works for the uplift of the community. Nazareth is one of the project managers of WWH. She started the luncheon initiative after she read about the “Save Aarey" movement, triggered by the Maharashtra government’s plan to build a Metro III carshed in Aarey, which will lead to uprooting of about 2,200 trees. Aarey is located next to the Sanjay Gandhi National Park, and its complex ecosystem consists of rare species of fauna, some of which are protected under the Wildlife (Protection) Act.

“I was curious to know what the local people are doing to save Aarey," says Nazareth, who started interacting with the women in two padas, or hamlets. She had earlier worked with women groups like Stree Mukti Sanghatana, and is currently part of a Women Welfare Association in Borivali, so working with women was a natural choice. She tried to teach the women in one of the padas stitching, but they had neither the skills nor the sewing machines. “They said they can cook instead," says Nazareth, and that’s how she came up with the idea of the lunch.

Nazareth hopes this initiative will mobilize people into lobbying with the government to change its mind and protect the environment.

The next lunch, its fifth, will be held on 29 May. The response has been overwhelming; WWH had to stop registration at 75 people in their third lunch. This time, the registration is open to 100 people.

Swapnil More, senior manager of WWH, says the Aarey lunch provides a different experience from the regular restaurant one, besides being an outdoor activity. “When you come to Aarey, there is a sudden drop in temperature. There is a calm feeling, you are amid nature and then you have an authentic tribal lunch experience, and not an imitated, artificial one," says More.

Aarey has 27 padas and each pada differs from the other in physical features. While some look like urban slums, others are more like villages. Their cuisine, however, is similar.

“The speciality of tribal cuisine is that they don’t use powders from local stores, but grind all the masalas themselves on the day of cooking," says Nazareth. Some of the dishes that shall be served on 29th are dal, rice, bombil dry chutney, dry prawn chutney, bombil fry, prawn fry, green vegetables, chicken curry and a modak with stuffed jaggery and coconut. Some hot favourites are bhareli vangi (brinjal stuffed with peanuts and hand-made spices) and thecha, a chutney made of fried mashed chillies and garlic. The food is made on a wood fire. The vegetarian menu changes in keeping with the vegetables available.

From the 29 May session, they will also sell their chutneys, including bombil and prawn, and thecha, in bottles, besides having a pop-up stall which will sell items like quilts and bags made by the women.

The WWH also plans to launch a tour of Aarey; people can visit its poultry farm, bread factory and cattleshed.

To sign up for the lunch, you can register on Bookmyshow.com. “This helps us because now people have to pay in advance," says Nazareth. “Earlier, a lot of them registered and did not come, which really killed us," she adds.

The money earned is used to pay a salary of 500 to the cooks every month. The number of cooks varies. It started with 25 women from two padas—this time, there are 35 women from five padas.

The lunch is on 29 May, 1pm, at Jivacha Pada, opposite the Aarey Garden restaurant. Tickets, 325 (adults) and 275 (children), available on in.bookmyshow.com

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