The taste of transformation

As we marked World Food Day on Monday, here are five inspiring stories of individuals whose lives have been profoundly transformed by the power of food.
Representational image of Noodle Bowls
Representational image of Noodle Bowls

Food is elemental; it is the nourishing essence of life. Yet, its significance extends far beyond mere sustenance. As we marked World Food Day on Monday, Vaishali Vijaykumar brings five inspiring stories of individuals whose lives have been profoundly transformed by the power of food.

Food as an identity

Recently, at a friend’s mehendi ceremony, I relished the most delectable pav bhaji and brownies I have had so far. What made this experience satisfying was learning that these were prepared by 23-year-old Ramanathan and 27-year-old Rupak Rajendra Munje, two individuals with autism who run a small catering business called Buddies’ Kitchen. These young entrepreneurs owe their culinary skills to their training at The CanBridge Academy, a life skills training centre in Thiruvanmiyur, designed for youths with autism.

It all began during the pandemic when their mothers, Subbulakshmi and Ranjana Munje, discovered their sons’ talents. “Ramanathan and Rupak would work in small groups at CanBridge, meticulously handling tasks such as peeling, slicing, and dicing large quantities of vegetables. We stepped in, worked as a team by delivering chopped vegetables to our neighbours, and put their skills to use outside the academy. This modest attempt eventually paved the way for taking on small catering orders,” beam the mothers with pride. Following this, Ramanathan and Rupak have also been interning at Uncle Sam’s Kitchen for the past year.

Sharada Rajaram, who cofounded CanBridge alongside Kavitha Krishnamurthy, is happy that these young men are treated on par with their peers in the kitchen. “It’s an inclusive space where they showcase their abilities, not just through vegetable preparation but also in cooking. Work serves as their source of motivation, and they bring commitment and efficiency to their tasks,” she says.

In addition, they handle catering when they meet as part of the Special Child Assistance Network (SCAN) once a month, and when not at work, they dedicate their time to upskilling at CanBridge.

The boys are non-verbal and are deeply passionate about food, each expressing it uniquely. “They possess a keen sense of taste and are quick to identify missing elements in any dish. Their enthusiasm, inquisitiveness, and heightened awareness enables them to handle tasks independently, even as simple as brewing a cup of tea,” explains Sharada.

Rupak and Ramanathan’s journey has defied expectations and inspires people. Their next step is to gradually scale the business. The team’s message to society and parents of children with disabilities is clear. “Society must take responsibility for supporting families with children with disabilities, and parents should encourage their children to step out of their comfort zones. Their potential will surprise you.”

Food for a cause

On October 15, the YMCA Convention Centre was the stage for a remarkable gathering of food enthusiasts, all thanks to ‘Moi Virunthu’, an initiative by Help On Hunger foundation. For the fourth consecutive year, this Chennai-based NGO hosted a grand event on World Food Day to raise awareness about its mission to eradicate hunger.

Speaking about this year’s vision, Allen Samuel, an entrepreneur and the founder of the NGO, says, “Moi Virunthu draws its inspiration from a long-standing traditional practice. The feast is to crowdsource funds to feed the underprivileged. Each ticket, following the ‘eat to feed’ concept, is priced at `500. This not only allows individuals to savour veg and chicken biryani by Jaffer Bhai but also enables them to provide sustenance for seven homeless people.”

The roots of Help on Hunger trace back to the moment when Allen observed homeless individuals knocking on doors for food during the pandemic. Moved by this, Allen and his wife began offering homemade meals. What began as 20 meal packets per day soon grew tenfold.

Registered as an NGO in July 2021, Help on Hunger has flourished into a team of 73 dedicated volunteers who distribute approximately 350-400 food packets across 200 locations within the city. All contributions are transparent, and the food they provide to the homeless is the same quality they eat at home, including chapati, idli, and rice. It’s prepared at their centralised kitchen in Thoraipakkam. Their largest donation, a sum of `2,575, came from a flower vendor who wanted to make a difference.

The team has extended its reach by providing grocery kits to the Irular communities around Chennai, arranging milk cards for families in Kannagi Nagar, and adopting 175 members of leper settlements near Chengalpattu. They even introduced a breakfast scheme at a school in Tiruchy to address malnutrition among the children of salt pan workers, leading to improved attendance, reduced dropout rates, and enhanced nutrition for their families.

Allen’s primary goal is to eliminate hunger by providing dignified meals, which they’ve calculated to cost `35 per meal. With a track record of feeding over 2.87 lakh people, they are unwavering in their commitment to eradicating hunger. “I’m able to sleep peacefully at night because someone, somewhere has not gone to sleep hungry,” he sums up.

Food as a healer

On September 21, Sreya Vittaldev shared a reel about noodle bowls on her Instagram page @darthdevi, a topic familiar to her followers, but not the story behind the post itself. The description’s opening line read “Trigger Warning: domestic abuse, eating disorders, unhealthy romantic relationships.” What followed in the comments section were words of admiration, as her followers recognised the immense courage it took for Sreya to share her vulnerabilities with the virtual world.

As a chef and marketing consultant in the F&B industry, based in Bengaluru, Sreya’s perspective on food goes beyond the ordinary; she sees it as a form of therapy. In the absence of a safe emotional haven in close relationships, cooking allowed Sreya to reflect on her thoughts and find inner support. Discussing her post, she shares, “Noodle bowls hold a special place in my heart because I initially made them to please my former partner, who was abusive. It was our only connection in our relationship. I stopped making them after ending the relationship, as it’d trigger traumatic memories and haunting voices in my head. The defining moment in my healing journey was when I started cooking noodle bowls again. I’d remind myself that I was making it for me and me alone, drowning out those painful voices.”

Describing the empowerment she derives from food, she remarks, “Creating and enjoying our own meals is an act of defiance. We’re telling the world, ‘Hey, I had a tough day, but I won’t let it stop me from making this comforting bowl of rasam and potato rice’. I may be sad, but I’ll cook and nourish myself because I want to be there for myself in every possible way, even if it’s a simple meal.”

For individuals struggling with eating disorders and body shaming, Sreya reiterates, “Remember that no one has the right to comment on your body, especially in romantic relationships. If you find yourself in a toxic relationship, consider leaving because it can harm your relationship with yourself and with food. We must eat for ourselves and the body we have, not the one we wish for. Seek guidance from a certified nutritionist, and surround yourself with a close-knit community that supports you.”

Food for justice

G Rajalakshmi’s journey unfolds as a compelling narrative of her community’s steadfast determination to safeguard Pulicat, and they’ve harnessed the power of food as their weapon of choice. The women have been using their culinary legacy to raise awareness about the imminent external dangers encroaching upon their wetlands due to the Adani port expansion.

Their journey began three years ago at the Pulicat Seafood Festival in 2020, held as part of Chennai Kalai Theru Vizha. The women whipped up a seafood thaali named ‘Pazhaverkadu Meen Virunthu’, featuring beloved dishes from the age-old Pulicat cuisine. Since then, Rajalakshmi has not missed an opportunity to talk about the richness of her town and its food. A resident of Konankuppam near Pulicat, she has been educating the public, sharing recipes over phone calls with people from Chennai and giving interviews on YouTube.

She passionately shares, “Shrimp vadas, Kaanan Keluthi puttu (made using mackerels), era karukkal... our cuisine is a treasure closely held within the fishing community. These are made using species found in local waters, many of which remain unknown to urban dwellers. They are tasty and nutritious.”

Rajalakshmi, a key member of Meenava Kootamaippu Magalir Sangam, does more than just sell fish and flour from her home to support her family; she actively engages in various social and community-centric initiatives. As she reflects, “In the past, the participation of women would have been met with disapproval. Today, women are at the forefront of every battle. What better weapon than food? We may lack formal education, but food has given us the opportunity to become self-reliant. We are determined to use this power to create a positive impact in our society.”

The women of Pulicat are eager to take part in more food festivals to engage with the public directly. They are resilient, refusing to surrender in the face of adversity.

Food for empowerment

In 2006, L Rohini Perera’s family, from Pesalai village in Mannar Town, Sri Lanka, found themselves relocated to Rameshwaram along with 200 other families. A mere 15 days later, Rohini was in a rehabilitation camp in Thoothukudi, facing the daunting task of rebuilding her life. Cut to 2023, after surmounting countless obstacles, Rohini stands as a proud partner of Olai Puttu, a restaurant born from the determination of 12 remarkable women.

As Olai Puttu approaches its first anniversary on October 27, Rohini reminisces, “Last July, our town played host to the Neithal, folk art carnival, initiated by Kanimozhi Karunanidhi, MP for Tuticorin. We seized the opportunity to establish a food stall, which proved a resounding success. Our cuisine, rich in flavours of coconut oil and coconut milk, was embraced by everyone, setting the stage for the restaurant’s grand opening a few months later.”

This traditional Sri Lankan Tamil restaurant represents an initiative dedicated to fostering the self-sufficiency of Sri Lankan Tamil women residing within rehabilitation camps. The venture garners support from the Commissionerate of Rehabilitation and Welfare of Non-Resident Tamils, the Government of Tamil Nadu, the United Nations Refugee Agency, and the Organisation for Eelam Refugee Rehabilitation.

“Women hailing from Thalamuthu Nagar, Thaappaaththi, and Kulaththuvaaipatti were trained by professionals from Advantage Food Pvt Ltd and GRT Hotels to helm a restaurant. We serve an array of dishes, including thothal halwa, samba arisi idiyappam, olai puttu, maasai vada, eral vadai, eral gravy, nandu gravy, kanava fry, chicken kotthu, mutton kotthu, and more. Each dish is crafted in the age-old tradition, free of additives. They reflect the stories of our life back home,” she shares.

This endeavour has given newfound confidence upon the women previously confined within four walls. “We have acquired a sense of self-sufficiency and resilience. The trust placed in us by the community empowers us. I used to run a garment shop, which I had to close during the pandemic. This restaurant symbolises a second chance at life for many like me. We can scale the business with more support,” she notes.

Rohini, who also participated in the two-day Refugee Food Festival, Oorum Unnavum, held in June in Chennai, says, “The people of Chennai have wholeheartedly accepted us and our cuisine. Sri Lankan culture is renowned for nurturing both body and spirit, and that remains our collective mission and vision.”

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