We were what we ate

Four members of refugee communities settled in Delhi talk about the food they left behind.

Written by MAYURA JANWALKAR , Somya Lakhani , Sarah Hafeez | Published:October 30, 2016 12:10 am
Eshe Shutum outside the monastry in Majnu ka Tila. (Source: Express photo by Praveen Khanna) Eshe Shutum outside the monastery in Majnu ka Tila. (Source: Express photo by Praveen Khanna)

‘We never ate out of the fridge like our children in Delhi do’

For 35 years, the Tibetan refugee colony at Majnu ka Tila in north Delhi has been home to 82-year-old Eshe Shutum. Her hands resting on her yellow-ochre skirt, she sits outside the Buddhist temple at the centre of the colony. At the thought of the food she last ate in Tibet, her black eyes gleam.

“The food back home was not very different, but the taste was,” says the octogenarian, “We ate everything freshly plucked from our farms. Whether it was cabbage, cauliflower or potatoes, they were tastier in Tibet,” she says. Shutum was 26 when she left Tibet, and lived in Arunachal Pradesh and Dharamshala before settling in Delhi. A few metres away, on a bench outside a food stall, sits Samden. “We never ate out of the fridge like our children in Delhi do,” adds the 83-year-old. Eating out was an alien concept.

The milk from dri, the female bovine from Tibet, is special. “We had seven-eight people back home whose job was to milk the dri. It would make such good quality butter. You don’t get anything like that in India. Perhaps, in Ladakh, but I haven’t been there ,” she says. The dri milk, with its naturally sweet flavour, is a popular beverage, consumed without any accompaniments. “The milk is fragrant. The dri forages in the thick forests and eats the freshest of greens. When you drink that milk, you can taste herbs in it,” says Samden.

First-generation Tibetan refugees reminisce about yak meat too. “We would eat wheat, barley, yak meat, goat and buffalo meat. A child would start eating meat almost as soon as he or she would start walking,” says 60-year-old Yanton. “In Tibet, it never gets as hot as it does in Delhi. In such weather, dishes made with Yak meat are energy-boosters. How can I expect to get yak meat anywhere in Delhi?” he says.
— Mayura Janwalkar

Frankline Egwim from Biafra, Nigeria. (Source: Express photo by Oinam Anand) Frankline Egwim from Biafra, Nigeria. (Source: Express photo by Oinam Anand)

‘I’d like to go back home for good, but my home is burning’

“When Ram was in exile, I am sure he missed his food. Have you thought about that?” says Frankline Egwim. A Biafran who has been living in Delhi for two years, Egwim is a Nigerian passport holder, but refuses to be recognised as one. Biafra was a country from 1967-70, and ceded to Nigeria after a brutal civil war. He first came to India in 2011,

One of the many who left their homes in search of a living, and settled in 2014.

At a tiny cafe in Parmanand Colony, north Delhi, the 36-year-old eats French fries with visible disdain. Back home, in Imo, where he grew up, they do things a lot differently. “We don’t use vegetable oil. We use red oil instead. It has a strong smell,” says Egwim. In Delhi, Egwim, like many from the Biafran community settled in Delhi, relives those flavours in his kitchen and the few canteens in Delhi that serve Biafran food. The preparations are elaborate — there are soups such as ofe ogbono (slippery textured, usually made with fish) and ofe egusi (made with melon seed), and rice dishes such as jellof or “party” rice (made of meat, rice, tomato and dry fish). Once a year, Egwim goes home, and brings back with him ingredients such as red oil, spices, yams, noodles, stout, and even milk.

Back at home, rare as his visits are, Egwim’s first demand is an ofe (soup) with swallow (a semolina-like accompaniment), cooked by his mother. She cooks another delicacy, which takes a month to prepare — Ukwa tree seeds are picked a month in advance, left to dry for weeks and washed. Named after the tree, the dish can be roasted or boiled. “This is the one thing we cannot replicate here,” says Egwim, who exports women’s garments, jewellery and accessories, and is married to an Assamese girl, Niramli. “Ideally, I’d like to go back home for good, but my home is burning. There is a military clampdown, I don’t have a choice,” says Egwim.
— Somya Lakhani

Mohammad Salim with his child at home in Delhi. (Source: Express photo by Oinam Anand) Mohammad Salim with his child at home in Delhi. (Source: Express photo by Oinam Anand)

‘We are used to freshly caught fish from the waters’

Fatima Khatoon and her husband Mohammad Salim rarely cook on a gas stove. Wood, for Rs 30 a bundle from the “mills” in Kalindi Kunj, is the only fuel they can afford. Salim, a Rohingya Muslim refugee, and his family fled their village in Rakhine, Myanmar, nine years ago. The state military forces and Buddhist populace incarcerated his father because he tried transporting rice and vegetables from his village in Buthidaung to the neighbouring ones in Maungdaw, without adequate permits.

“Life is impossible there. We can’t own boats, marry, or even travel out of our villages without permits and sanctions from the state,” says Salim. After his father was released, they fled to Bangladesh, before coming to India.

Salim craves the fresh ‘korul’ his mother used to cook in Myanmar. “In Bangladesh, and even in India, people eat stale fish. But we are used to the fish freshly caught from the waters,” he says. Though all the rice, vegetables and fruits the Rohingyas are used to eating back home are available here, they miss the fish and “the meat they do not want to name here”.

The state-sponsored persecutions against the Rohingyas in Rakhine have intensified, says Salim, and more people are fleeing. “My cousins are planning to leave. I have asked them to bring korul, pawsan rice and a basket of vegetables,” he says.
— Sarah Hafeez

Omar Khadim with his popular kebabs in Kabul Restaurant. (Source: Express photo by Oinam Anand) Omar Khadim with his popular kebabs in Kabul Restaurant. (Source: Express photo by Oinam Anand)

‘It has been a year and I have not got a single day off’

On most nights, when Omar Khadim spreads out his bedroll in the crammed kitchen of Kabul Restaurant in Bhogal, south Delhi, he scrolls through the images on his smartphone. Between breathtaking views of his hometown in Nangarhar, Afghanistan, are images of bulani (an Afghan version of aloo paratha), local grapes, and a famous Afghan burger. The Afghan bakeries and burger joints next door disappoint him.

Over a year and a half ago, when Khadim and his friends had gone to the neighbourhood dargah in Nangarhar, they saw beheaded bodies of two imams. Reports of atrocities by the Taliban made him decide they didn’t want to live in fear. “A relative, who had migrated to Sweden, suggested we move to India. He said life would be peaceful. He wasn’t wrong,” says the 19-year-old. His five brothers, two sisters, mother, a cousin and an uncle were soon in Delhi.

Back home, Omar rarely walked into the kitchen. In the past one year, he has mastered the Afghani chicken karahee. The restaurant’s regulars swear by his tikkas and shammis. “I check whether it’s an Afghan or an Indian, and put spices accordingly. The Indians hate our bland food while the Afghans can’t stand too much spice,” he laughs. There is much that Omar misses about home, but with his family here with him and most of his friends moving out of Nangarhar, he knows it is no longer home.
— Sweta Dutta