As we cross a tapered lane in the middle of Delhi’s Wazirabad area, we are received by a swarm of flies that rise from the open drains running alongside the lanes. This is a place which even Google maps isn’t aware of and cab drivers find almost impossible to find – located in Wazirabad, home to a scattered population of minorities and refugees.
“Mostly refugees live here. I have a few friends but not many”, Abdul Rahman says as he waves to a friend. Rahman is a Somalian refugee who came to India in 2016. He stays with his mother, Shukri, and younger brother, Abdul Fatah in a two-room apartment.
On setting foot in his house, we find three women in headscarves and two kids chattering incessantly around a table of food. These women are single mothers, who have come to India from Somalia. They and their sons are refugees who are now living in India. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has started a catering service called Macquul, which allows them to introduce Delhi-ites to Somalian cuisine.
“Even if they had catered at events like Dastkaar Nature’s Bazaar and also at various college fests in Delhi, Macquul still needs handholding”, Aditi Sabharwal, their project coordinator who works with the UNHCR stated.
Shukri, who had a family of six – a husband, a daughter and three boys, lost her husband and daughter during the civil war in Somalia. She blames the al-Shabaab group for it. “They were shot at home. So, we had to flee. My second son died on a boat to Libya…but we have a new life here. I have so many friends. I talk to everyone – the autowalas, the subziwalas, the people at the grocery shops. Everyone knows me. I like this life”. Her face breaks into a smile.
A spread has been laid out for us, and the children have been involved in ensuring that all the dishes are garnished properly. “Khana khao please (Please eat)”, Laila interrupts. On the table are a lot of delicacies. Their most popular creation, as Abdul Fatah, Shukri’s younger son says is the Somalian mutton kofta, paired with the khamiri roti. Khamiri is Urdu for yeast, it is a soft and chewy flatbread. The khamiri roti prepared by Shukri was soft, piping hot and had a tangy aftertaste. In Somali, hilib kuuskuus literally means “meat that has been formed into balls”. It’s also known as kofta, and has its origin in the Middle East and the Indian sub-continent.
“The Somali kofta is the same as the ones you get in Delhi. The spices are the same. When I make it, I feel as if I made it at home”, Shukri struggles to explain its antecedents and intricacies in bits of Hindi and English strung together.
Somali food is usually cooked by women and vegetarian dishes are of less importance than meat dishes. Their main dishes include – surprisingly – pasta, shawarma, pita bread, hummus, koftas, stews (or maraq) served with rice and a banana on the side. Spices such as cumin, cloves, sage and cardamom dominate the cuisine, which is a blend of East African, Arab, Turkish and Italian cooking. It also has much in common with Indian foods – sabayad (similar to desi paranthas), anjeero (like a South Indian dosa), sambuusa (resembles a desi samosa) and halwa.
The thought behind Macquul is to target Indian diners with both vegetarian and meat options. But getting past stereotypes and prejudices is difficult. “When Macquul started, there were nine people. Now there are only two. Somalian people do not want to come out. People sometimes ask us where we are from and why our hair is different from theirs. Some get threatened by our skin colour and height. When I say I’m from Africa, their questions never end. So, I just tell them main insaan hoon (I am a human being) and exit the conversation”.
“Some people doubt our food, some people feel glad because they get to taste something new. It is basically how people always are – of two types – good and bad”, Shukri says. At this point, Abdul Fatah adds, “I act like they are walls because they behave like one”.
Laila, Shukri’s partner for Macquul, offers us biryani. With a garnish of caramelised onions and coriander, the biryani is similar to ours. As the afternoon slides into evening, Laila slowly starts opening up and discusses what she thinks is the need of the hour – fish. “I love Mumbai. I love to eat fish. I want to eat good food with freshly fried fish. And that is all”.
Shukri, whose favourite Indian food is dal-chapati, misses her friends back in Somalia, more than the food. “Sometimes I remember the dosti (friendship). What else can I do?”, she says. Memories of home, obviously, refuse to leave. But she takes heart that she has rebuilt a life for herself and her sons here.
Macquul is a new venture. They still don’t have a commercial space and operate out of Shukri’s kitchen. The money is not consistent yet. So Shukri has to take up odd gigs like helping patients in need and cooking for their family – gigs she has picked up through the friends she has made in India.
I ask her why she chose the name, Macquul.
“Because it means possible”, Abdul Fatah says confidently, as his mother looks at him with a smile.
To order food from Macquul, call +91-9818944096 (also available on WhatsApp)