In February 2015, Prajna Desai curated the Dharavi Food Project, a cooking and discussion workshop, for the Dharavi Biennale. The food project recorded recipes from women from one of the world’s largest slums. Dharavi, bang in the middle of Mumbai, is both cacophonous and industrious, and home to over 750,000 people from different parts of India, including Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh.
“Eight homemakers from various communities across Dharavi prepared 40 dishes in live demonstrations designed to teach, share and showcase everyday cooking to an audience of their peers… This was the first time, the women confessed, they had actively examined something that is second nature to them… In discussing their cooking, recipes, ingredients and method, the women also conversed about what food means in their personal lives. Despite being routinely characterised by authorial effacement and a sense of gender-defined duty, cooking is also a way to express themselves, they said.” writes Desai, an art historian and curator of contemporary art with a doctorate in pre-Columbian art and architecture from Yale University, on Blog.frieze.com.
The Dharavi Food Project eventually inspired ‘Indecisive Chicken: Stories and Recipes from Eight Dharavi Cooks’, a book that “blends food, art and labour in Dharavi”. The recently released book presents “a colourful parade of unfamiliar Indian recipes, while exploring why and how women cook, and what food means to them beyond its life in a meal,” says Desai on her blog.
The cookbook features 35 working-class recipes supplied by Desai’s band of eight women, from anganwadi workers to home-makers. These include Kavita Kawalkar’s poha kheer and ambadi pulao (with carrots and moringa); Sarita Rai’s pharas (semi-circular pockets of rice dough filled with chick pea flour and served steamed or deep-fried); Bharti Majewadia’s Javla gravy, a dish dominated by prawn; Rizwana Querishi’s Zabardast chicken fry; and Jigna Majewadia’s Bhan ka dhokla. In her bi-lingual book (English and Hindi), Desai writes that Jigna’s dhokla is “a bit of yesterday, today”. “Including leftovers into a fresh meal can shorten cooking time, but not here. Jigna uses stale white rice to painfully transform the signature snack food called dhokla into a bit of a novelty item. Typically, dhokla is made of fermented besan batter, which is then steamed… You might say Jigna’s bhan ka dhokla is dhokla by a stretch. Instead of the quintessential variety, hers is made of softened rice and soured buttermilk.”
The book’s title is inspired by a remark by one of Desai’s interviewees. She said that she didn’t prefer cooking chicken because of her husband, who thought it was a “silly bird”, but then remarked that it didn’t really matter because he didn’t like chicken anyway. The book, published by Dharavi Biennale and Prajna Desai, is available on Amazon.in.