From Afghanistan, With Love… Rebuilding Lives, One Meal at a Time

The Afghan ladies catering in Delhi

Five years ago, Sara, a young woman in her thirties, fled from Kabul, Afghanistan with her four children after her businessman husband was killed by the Taliban. Today, she calls Delhi her home. With one heart always in her city of birth, she has finally made peace with her violent past, to look ahead towards a future where her life and her children’s lives are not threatened by guns and bombs; a future where she and her four children can wake up to see the sunrise without the shadow of death looming over them.

And Sara is not the only one. There’s Zainab who left Kabul after she lost her husband to a cardiac arrest and feared for the lives of her eight children in terror-torn Afghanistan. It is now her seventh year in Delhi. Fatima is a mother of two boys who became a widow six years back when her soldier husband was murdered by the Taliban. Their numbers are on the rise. Young widows with children to feed.

For many the scars have not healed and a turbulent past is not easy to set aside, let alone erase from memory. But this feisty group of young Afghan women, all single mothers, are not the ones to give up. In a new land, separated by language and culture, coupled with a stigma of “refugee” life has been anything but easy. However, as the saying goes, every cloud has a silver lining; here too, it was the UNHCR that helped piece their life together. With no education or professional qualification, these women resorted to that one task of their daily lives for survival, cooking. For Sara and the others, cooking came naturally to them. Back in Kabul, there was no concept of hiring professional cooks for lunches/dinners, home-cooking or parties. It was a task manned and executed by women. And this is what came to their aid.

Hard at work

UNHCR, (UN Refuge Agency) in collaboration with ACCESS, a national livelihoods promotion organization, came up with the idea of a catering service, offering traditional Afghan food. And thus was born ILHAM which means positive in the Dari language. As Aditi Sabbarwal (UNHCR) puts it, ILHAM with a four-member team, set up their first food stall in the September of 2015 at the Dastkaar Asia Haat to test the waters. The response was overwhelming which resulted in their first catering order by the US Embassy in November, the same year. And there was no looking back. From cooking at the Taj Vivanta to having their own take-away facility, ILHAM has wooed the taste-buds of the dilliwalas.

What strikes as an interesting reflection is the significance of the mundane “act of cooking.” For centuries, women have been enslaved by their domestic tasks. The gendered division of space led to the kitchen being the sole domain of women. Culinary skills became a yardstick to measure women’s virtues and as women’s history has shown, it helped patriarchal forces confine women within the rigid boundaries of the “home.” But women crossed this gendered threshold, reclaimed their voice, their space, their rights and the lines between the private and the public blurred. Yet, for these Afghan refugee women, their culinary skills became their instrument of survival; helping them rebuild their lives, one meal at a time.
They are not trained chefs. They are a group of women, with an indomitable spirit to carve a secure future for their children through something that is an ordinary feature of their socio-cultural fabric, cooking.

Delhi folks today can savour the authentic flavours of Afghanistan simply by clicking into Foodcloud (food app) or a phone-call. From a Kabuli Pulao soaked in fresh saffron and sprinkled with nuts and raisins, Qorma-e-Gosht where chunks of lamb are cooked slow with a mix of Afghani spices and yoghurt, Chapali Kebab made of mince chicken marinated in rich spices or a Manthu, Afghani dumplings stuffed with mince mutton and sauted with vegetables, the food is a delectable carnival of taste.

And if you thought what’s in it for vegetarians then you would be surprised to see the range. The Borani Banjan made of tomatoes with yoghurt, the bamia, a ladies-finger dish, the gulpi, an Afghani variant of the humble cauliflower rendered lip-smacking delicious with the accompanying spices and yoghurt, there is enough and more for the vegetarians in the city.

And of course, what is Afghani food without their signature desserts, beginning with khajur, an Afghani donut, the baklava and the firni. All cooked and brought to the platter by single refugee mothers, through a labour of love and a desire to build a secure tomorrow.

May the sun always shine on them!

Since the ladies have fled the Taliban, they were reluctant to be photographed

  • Written byAnasuya Shreedhar

    Anasuya Shreedhar is a PhD scholar from India, working in the discipline of Women and Gender Studies. Her research looks at the relationship of food and gender in the urban Indian space through the lens of Feminist Food Studies. She had been a copy writer for a number of television channels in India before returning to academics.


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