Fancy a plate of chicken dum biryani for Rs 60? Or a meal of chapathi and chilly chicken for Rs 40? The new hotspot for affordable and delicious food in Kochi is not a restaurant or a diner, but the counter of the district jail here in Kakkanad. Daily collection at the ‘Food for Freedom’ counter of the jail, that sells food cooked by inmates, has soared to Rs 80,000 after recent additions to the menu.
“When I took charge as the superintendent in July last year, daily collection at the food counter used to be Rs 25000-Rs 30000. At that time, we used to sell only chapathi-egg curry/vegetable curry. Sometimes, I used to sit at the counter and people would come to me saying, ‘sir, it would be great if you could have more items on the menu.’ That’s how we started biryani and different chicken curry items. Now, our daily collection is easily Rs 80,000,” said Jail Superintendent G Chandra Babu.
The ‘Food for Freedom’ counter, that sits on the side of the Seaport-Airport road at the entrance to the jail, opens early in the morning and functions till 7 pm. Items sold in the morning include chapathi, sold for Rs 2 a piece, vegetable curry and egg curry for Rs 20. Packets of chicken biryani begin to be distributed around 10 am and the last packet always goes out before 2 pm. Post noon, more dishes like chicken curry, chicken 65, chilli chicken and chilly gobi fly out the counter as fast at they come in.
“Biryani always sells fast. Chapathi is also in high demand because there are a lot of people in flats here working in offices who may not have time to cook. On most days, we sell out all the items. There’s rarely anything left,” said Alphonsa, who works at the counter.
George, who works with Bharat Petroleum Corporation Limited, is a regular customer at the counter.
“My children love the biryani. They don’t add stuff like ajinomoto so it’s good. It’s good-quality food,” he said after buying food.
The jail food counter also has a ‘share meal’ system through which people can offer to buy coupons which can be used to provide food to the hungry. “Each coupon comes for Rs 25. Some people are very generous. Earlier today, one person bought five coupons. They are stuck on the board there,” said Alphonsa. The coupons are also used to distribute food to an orphanage nearby.
A total of 28 prisoners work in shifts to prepare the food and are selected by jail authorities on a regular basis. They get a daily wage of Rs 148 for the work they do. Since the district jail houses only remand prisoners and those who have a sentence of less than six months, inmates involved in the cooking process change regularly when they go out on bail or after they finish their sentence. But that doesn’t affect the quality of the food, promises Superintendent Chandra Babu.
“Our staff oversees the cooking process. Detailed steps and instructions for cooking are told to them (inmates). We have food quality inspectors also,” said a police officer.
The profits earned from food distribution go to the government treasury. The district jail also has vegetable patches for spinach and banana. “Last month, we made Rs 2500 from selling spinach grown inside the jail premises,” said Chandra Babu, with a hint of pride.
Most importantly, being involved in activities like cooking and gardening, the superintendent says, are ways of improving the mental faculties of the prisoners. “They are not sitting around in cells, hatching plans or gossipping with others. They are cooking food for our people. They are giving something back to the society,” he said.