On Fridays, the breakfast menu is a tall glass of milk and biscuits, while lunch is soyabean pulao. It may not sound like much, but it’s exactly what the patrons — children between six months and five years, recognised as “severely malnourished” by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture’s (AKTC) Early Childhood Care and Development survey — need.
Prepared by women working with the Zaika-e-Nizamuddin (ZeN) and served at Nizamuddin basti’s polyclinic, the food is lapped up in minutes. Six days a week, the women prepare two meals for the children who live in the basti and the rain basera nearby.
“When we started five years ago, we used to make til ke ladoo, chivda and chocolate toffee. Now the menu is bigger. We also do demonstrations for mothers on how to make nutritious food like poha,” said Fatima (30), one of the 11 women part of ZeN.
The women also prepare food for six adults — a paralysed teenager, a pregnant woman, and four tuberculosis patients. “We would like to do more, expand this service, but for now this is what the funds allow us to do,” said Shahnaz (24).
The programme is currently funded by the Tata Trust. Their kitchen, partly funded by the Australian High Commission, is on the second floor of Mashak Manzil inside the basti. Donning aprons and caps, a few prepare 55 plates of dal kachori, while others pour Rooh Afza in plastic glasses for a livelihood project meeting next door.
Apart from providing meals to children and women, ZeN also caters to parties, gatherings and heritage walks, and their menu ranges from chicken and mutton biryani to korma and vegetarian hara bhara kebabs. The women also deliver the food.
Swati Batra, women’s livelihood coordinator at AKTC, said, “We are working on a delivery system because they cook and deliver, and that’s a bit much. Maybe we can ask the boys in the basti to be a part of this.” On a Friday afternoon last week, the women experimented with paneer korma. After a quick tasting, it was added to the menu for a bulk order on Sunday. “We also do food typical to a home in the basti, such as shaljam ghosht (a winter delicacy), chawal ki roti and mutton khichda… yeh humaari naani-daadi ki recipes hai. We want to make Nizamuddin’s cuisine famous,” said Noor Jehan (25), the group’s supervisor.
They held their first pop-up at Mashak Manzil last month, where they served the special dishes. The job means different things to different people. “I work as a cook at a home in the basti; I go there twice a day and earn Rs 5,000 a month. I then work here. If this takes off, I will leave that job. Here we are businesswomen, entrepreneurs. In those homes, we are like servants,” said Shahnaz.
Fatima, whose husband and mother-in-law were initially against the idea, said, “Now they sometimes help me, and proudly tell relatives that I cater food. My mother-in-law even suggests how to make a dish better.”But for Sahiba, the struggle continues. “My husband says I should stay at home and take care of the children. I tell him that all the extra expenditure comes from what I earn here.”
The women also maintain a monthly bachat khaata, where Rs 300 a month from their salary is saved. “Only one earning member in the family isn’t enough, we all come from financially poor backgrounds. What we earn is spent on the children — tuition fees, book, copies, pens,” said Sakina (26).