Flavours of solidarity

Food has a special way of uniting people and creating moments that go beyond cultural boundaries.
Dignitaries on stage at the curtain raiser
Dignitaries on stage at the curtain raiser (Photo | Ashwin Prasath)

CHENNAI: You can almost smell the delightful fragrance of ripe palmyra fruit as Lalitha talks about one of her favourite snacks, panangai paniyaram, offering a taste of Sri Lanka’s exquisite flavours. This is a beloved snack crafted from extracted juice, simmered until richly caramelised, and combined with steamed flour and sugar. It is crisp on the outside, tender, and flavourful on the inside. In 1990, when the food entrepreneur moved from Sri Lanka to India, she was only 12 years old. Amid the treasure trove of nostalgia stored in boxes, she occasionally unlocks the memories of food and brings them to life in her kitchen. “My mother used to cook food and I wasn’t very aware of what dishes she made. But slowly as I garnered an interest in cooking, I asked around and tried making Sri Lankan dishes I grew up eating,” she says. Taking memories from their native was the only option for those like Lalitha.

Food has a special way of uniting people and creating moments that go beyond cultural boundaries. Thus, when the UNHCR Field Office in Chennai wanted to celebrate World Refugee Day to honour the resilience and perseverance of refugees worldwide it brought in a food festival, Oorum Unavum. As the institution announces the second edition of the festival, 30-70 dishes are set to be prepared by 75 refugees from Sri Lanka and Myanmar currently residing in Tamil Nadu.

United by food

“The theme of this year’s festival is ‘Ellarum Inbuttirukka’ (Happiness for all). In 2023, when we organised the food festival for the first time, it was a unique experience for all. This year we are extending it for three days. Through this, we want to celebrate inclusion,” says Satchithananda Valan Micheal, head of Field Office, UNHCR Chennai at the curtain raiser on Saturday at ITC Grand Chola. B Krishnamoorthy, IOFS, commissioner of Rehabilitation and Welfare of Non-Resident Tamils, Mike Muralidharan, chairman, Ethiraj College for Women and chief operating officer, Bahwan CyberTek Group, Nawabzada Mohammed Asif Ali, heir-apparent and Dewan to Prince of Arcot, Damodharan Kothandaraman, celebrity chef, Suhasini Maniratnam, director and actor, M Sasikumar, director and actor, Tarun Mahadevan, managing director, Advantage Foods Pvt Ltd, Areti Sianni, chief of mission, UNHCR India and Maldives, also attended the event.

Panel discussions on solidarity and solutions for inclusions were also held. Sharing her thoughts on refugees and the necessity for solidarity, Areti Sianni says, “There are over 120 million refugees around the world. Displacement is a defining feature of this. They have been reported to have been displaced due to war, violence, or human rights violations. I look at solidarity at three levels — personal, institutional, and the one that extends beyond the confines of Tamil Nadu or India. There should be a chance for dialogue and we should find ways to work together to improve the situation of refugees. Ultimately, solidarity cannot be separated from solutions.” She expressed gratitude to both the Indian government and the Tamil Nadu state government for their dedication to assisting Sri Lankan refugees.

An invitation to indulge

The festival, set to be held from July 5-7 at Semmozhi Poonga, is organised by UNHCR in collaboration with Organisation for Eelam Refugees’ Rehabilitation (OfERR), Advantage Foods Private Limited, various departments of the state government, stakeholders, and others. The New Indian Express is the print partner. The event will showcase 10 food stalls offering a diverse array of cuisines from Sri Lanka and Myanmar, open daily from 10 am to 8 pm. Live music concerts by On the Streets of Chennai band will entertain attendees from 6 pm to 8 pm on the three days. Additionally, there will be a limited number of pre-booked lunches available each day (with 500 lunches expected to be served per day), which can be reserved via email or phone, subject to availability.

The event concluded with Vasanthakumari Vijayakumar, a food entrepreneur who has been working as a trainee teacher at a rehabilitation camp, extending her heartfelt invitation and calling on everyone to savour the dishes. “From vegetarian and non-vegetarian snacks, main course meals to desserts, we have a lot of items,” she says. Mentioning thothal, a sweet prepared with coconut milk, palm jaggery, and cardamom that nobody should miss tasting, she reminds us that each dish tells a story. In this case, those are stories of cultural identity.

To pre-book your lunch, call: 9176483735;

Email: oorumunnavum@gmail.com

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