A Middle -Eastern spread
A Middle -Eastern spread

‘Kabuli pulao’ in Khirki

  • At Khanapados, a tiffin and catering service in the urban village of Khirki, nine refugee women from Afghanistan, Somalia, Congo and Iraq recreate flavours from back home
  • One can choose from any of the seven set menu platters or from a separate snacks selection for tea

You need to negotiate your way through a maze of houses and tiny shops in Delhi’s Khirki village to reach R block. As you walk up a long winding staircase in one such building, you can hear a gaggle of sounds—of children calling out to one another, the whistle of a pressure cooker, the whirring of a grinder, and women’s laughter. It is here that you find Khanapados, a kitchen managed by nine refugee women—four Afghan, one Iraqi, two Congolese and two Somali—under the aegis of Khirki Living Lab, a space for engaging the community through art projects.

As I walk in, tiffins are being packed with chicken curry, vegetable stew, bari isku karis, or a one-pot-meal with rice and meat from Somalia, sambusa, made with minced meat or potatoes, the Afghani bolani—a flatbread with onion and chicken filling—and more.

The Khirki Living Lab is the brainchild of Sreejata Roy and Mrityunjay Chatterjee of the artist collective Revue, which has been doing collaborative projects with the local young adults and women of Khirki and Hauz Rani since 2014—both settlements with a huge migrant population. “The kitchen is one of our several initiatives on reclaiming spaces through art in the neighbourhood," says Roy. Today, Khanapados acts as a tiffin service and catering unit, and, more importantly, as a place where the women exchange food memories and recipes.

The roots of the tiffin service go back to 2017, when the Khirki Living Lab was selected for a grant, “Contemporary Take, Beyond Cultural Heritage Programme", by the Amsterdam-based Prince Claus Fund for Culture and Development. The idea was to create The Museum Of Food, a documentation of food memories and recipes of migrants and refugees in Khirki and Hauz Rani, and through that look at the network of social relationships formed during the daily act of cooking and eating together. This took the form of the Khanapados kitchen last year.

After a series of workshops, the women participated in their first pop-up in December at the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art, as part of an exhibition by Revue. “Over the past year, we have developed a schedule. One day each week, ladies from each nationality come and cook in the kitchen—say, Monday is for the Afghanis, Tuesday for the Somalis, so on and so forth. On Friday, we do a half-day workshop with all," says Roy.

The day I visit Khanapados, it is the turn of Ladan, 46, from Somalia to cook. She has whipped up a spicy chicken curry, burh with bhaji, costo, or spinach, with tomato and onions, dalakh bilash with capsicum and onions, and an Indian dal. The pièce de résistance is the fiery tomato chutney called bisbas with ground green chillies, coriander leaves and lemon.

Hailing from Afgooye, in south-western Somalia, Ladan came to Delhi in 2011 with her three children. She was introduced to Roy recently through a common friend and has now become an integral part of the Khanapados team. She deftly places big vessels of curry, rice and vegetables on the table, packing tiffins with the help of her Afghani teammates, Mari Saidi (45), Hoor Kareemi (55), Fariba Azizi (55) and Rabiya Taraki (35).

Khanapados has emerged as a space where women share recipes and their love for food
Khanapados has emerged as a space where women share recipes and their love for food

Once the task is completed, they settle down for lunch. The bonding is evident as they banter in broken Hindi and hand out food to each other’s children, studying in the next room. “When I came to Khirki with my six kids, I didn’t know anyone. Then, somehow, I got to know Sreejataji and the others. This space has now become indispensable as it is an escape from the depression of being away from home," says Saidi, who is from Kabul. She comes in at 10am and stays on till whenever the orders are ready.

The women have also developed a healthy fondness for each other’s food. While Ladan likes the mantu, bolani and Kabuli pulao that the Afghan women dish out, others relish the chutney that she makes. However, some dishes continue to be a novelty for most, such as the Congolese combination of fish and plantain. “They boil the plantain and have it with a savoury sauce and fried fish. It’s not a combination a lot of us are used to. So, we don’t include it in the tiffin menu," says Roy.

With each passing month, the women have grown in confidence. They efficiently take orders on the listed WhatsApp number from organizations in the neighbourhood, such as Don Bosco Ashalayam, Ambedkar University Delhi and Gati Dance Forum, which order snacks and meals regularly for their meetings and workshops. “For the Eid iftar, the UNHCR also ordered food from them. Some eateries in Champa Gali (Saket) have now expressed interest in doing a pop-up with them," says Roy.

You can choose from any one of the seven set menu platters, priced at 325 for chicken, 230 for vegetarian, and 450 for mutton, featuring dishes such as Afghani nakhod pulao, Congolese moamba, or chicken with peanuts, and more.

Ita Mehrotra of Artreach India, a not-for-profit arts organization in the vicinity, often orders from Khanapados. “Their food is really good and these women make it so affectionately. And they always send in something special as an extra," says Mehrotra.

What also works in their favour is the generous portion size. For instance, Mehrotra recently ordered seven plates of food on Eid and got portions enough for 10 people. “The food is always fresh. And it’s ecologically sensitive. There are no plastic plates and bowls involved. They get the food in their containers, which you then transfer into your own containers," she says.

They even have an online magazine themed on “Grandmothers’ Kitchen". There is a piece on Gloria, who is from the Republic of Congo and has vivid memories of her grandmother teaching her mother to cook salted fish with eggplant and smoked fish in a broth of okra and coconut milk. Gloria now follows those recipes in Khirki.

“Initially, there was conflict based on language, even based on class within ladies from the same nationality. It’s interesting to see them negotiate the baggage of egos and emotions and create a unique food service from within that," says Roy.

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