Last month Vijay Mediconda, a software professional from Hyderabad, India, tested positive for COVID-19. All adults in the family – Mediconda, his wife and their mother – were infected and isolated at home, and one of the couple’s three children developed a fever. “Virus took away energy” [from] our bodies,” says Mediconda. “There was a lot of fatigue, so we couldn’t do much other than rest.” Cooking was the last thing on the family’s mind. Thankfully, Mediconda’s neighbor took home-cooked meals for two weeks. Food left at the door of the family.
The second COVID-19 wave hit India in early March this year. For months, the country’s infection and death rates climbed, reaching official numbers 349,186 deaths, excludes non-reported ones. Social media was flooded with urgent requests for oxygen, bedding and medicines. And as an increasing number of people were confined to their homes, they did not have the energy to cook for themselves, home cooked food was also part of this essential list.
In early April, renowned Indian chef Saransh Goila, founder of the restaurant chain Goila Butter Chicken, started receiving messages on social media from his followers asking if he was aware of home cooks who can prepare meals for COVID-affected families. While restaurants continued to provide home delivery and takeout, those who were infected with COVID wanted comfort food that was not greasy and light on salt and spices. Goila soon realized the need for a centralized repository of home cooks in India. “When you’re sick you want homemade food,” he says. “You wouldn’t want to eat restaurant food every day.”
Taking advantage of his huge social media presence, Goila asked the home cooks to get in touch with him. “Generally, neighbors, family and friends help you with the meal. But with rising COVID-19 cases, it is not possible to expect help if they are also infected,” he says. What started out as a Google spreadsheet soon shifted to a listing portal Number of verified home cooks nationwide. Today it enlists more than 4,000 home cooks, restaurateurs and volunteers in 300 cities. While most offer free meals, others charge a nominal fee of less than $1.50 USD for vegetarian meals and $2 for non-vegetarian meals, packed in disposable containers or in traditional boxes, also known as tiffins – steel or brass stacked food container paneling. The database is just one aspect of the domestic effort to feed COVID patients.
This model of eating home cooked food for COVID-19 patients is an example. The concept of tiffin in India has been in existence since the 19th century. During the colonial period, the British preferred tiffin as a snack after a light lunch. For Indians, the dabba was a meal that they took to work, as they could not go home for lunch. Home cooks who regularly cooked for members of their family earned a living by making extras for customers, and since 1890, the famous Mumbai Dabbawala Hundreds of thousands of Mumbaikars in Mumbai have been given boxes at their offices, returning empty boxes at the end of the day.
But their jobs have been affected by the closure of offices due to the pandemic. Most of the dabbawalas have returned to their hometowns or have taken up alternative work as daily wage labourers. Mumbai has less than 500 these days, down from 5,000 before the pandemic. But the need of the hour is that the dabbawalas deliver food to the COVID patients admitted in the hospitals and the COVID centers set up in the city. And over the past two months, the home cooks, who have always provided the dabba, have joined those who want to cater to COVID-19 patients and help their country in distress.
Usha (who does not have a surname) had closed her textile printing business last year due to the pandemic. Soon after, the Chennai resident started making and selling traditional Indian spices, pickles and papadams in his kitchen to earn a living. At the start of the second wave of coronavirus infections, a friend feeling vulnerable to the virus asked Usha to provide her and her family with four meals a day for a week. They loved her food, and as the word spread, Usha started receiving requests from other COVID-infected families. Today, with the help of her husband, she cooks and distributes around 95 free meals a day. Dunzo, a delivery service.
Usha’s cooking has become a ritual. Her day begins at 4:30 a.m. As an orthodox Brahmin, she enters the kitchen only after taking a head bath, and she cooks while chanting verses, verses in Sanskrit. Usha refers to the free food that she provides in the form of prasad – food offered to the Lord and eaten by the devotees. For lunch, she cooks sambar, a lentil stew with vegetables, accompanied by rasam and two dishes of fried vegetables. Dinner consists of traditional South Indian dishes, such as idli or dosa with sambar and chutney, roti with curry, or vermicelli with vegetables. If a customer mentions a special occasion, such as a birthday or anniversary, she will include an Indian sweet.
Although Usha occasionally receives small donations from well-wishers and is still selling spices, she pledges her gold ornaments to pay for the ingredients for preparing these meals. But he is not worried about the debt; He feels the sacrifice is worth it. “One of my clients and her husband were COVID positive and were hospitalized,” she says. “Her two children, aged 11 and 5, were alone at home. He told me that my food is keeping his kids alive for the last 10 days. Messages like these inspire me to do more for the community.”
Sneha Vachane from Bengaluru has been contributing to her community since the beginning of the pandemic. After the sudden lockdown was imposed by the Indian government last year, migrant laborers were stranded in cities without jobs. Vachane and his mother cooked and delivered food to the laborers for free. “This year, the focus is completely different,” Vachane says. “COVID-19 patients need help, so my focus is on them and their families.”
Vachhany initially started by preparing food for infected families in his gated community. But when requests started pouring in from across the city, he decided to set up his own WebsiteList of home cooks and volunteers in five Indian cities, isolated from Goa’s database. The site has proved to be helpful not only for people living in India but also abroad, who can order food for their families from afar. Vachane says that so far he has received calls from 16 different countries.
With a network of home cooks in Bengaluru, lentils, vegetables, roti, salad, rasam and coconut are available for overworked cremation workers, ambulance drivers, police patrolling night duty, and hospital staff beyond their limits. Water also makes nutritious food. . And elsewhere in India, operations focus on delivering food directly to hospitals rather than at neighbors’ homes. “Friends, relatives of hospitalized patients wait outside the building to get updates about their loved ones,” says Agravi Mishra, who lives in Ahmedabad. Along with her sister-in-law Garima Gupta, Mishra cooks 100 meals a day under the name of Captain Cook and distributes them outside one of the biggest COVID hospitals in the city. “Several ambulances carrying infected patients line up at the hospital waiting for a hospital bed. We give food to everyone.”
As the movement to support those affected by COVID-19 with home-cooked meals has grown in major cities in India, farmers and grocery brands have come forward to help those working for the cause. In Bangalore, brands prefer organic world, Deep Roots, and Ecofi are offering vegetables, fruits and groceries at a subsidized rate or for free to volunteers in various cities. Recently, food delivery platforms such as Swiggy Have agreed to provide COVID food for free if the home cook provides food for free, or transports paid COVID food at a subsidized rate. But while this model works in most places in India, there is a growing need for community cooking efforts in remote areas with varied infrastructure.
Until recently, the virus had not made its presence felt in the more isolated areas of India. But in May, daily cases started increasing in the Tons Valley of Uttarakhand. Culinary researcher Shubhra Chatterjee and her husband Anand Shankar work with local herders and farmers on livelihood projects and education through their eight-year-old non-profit initiative. fish trust. To prevent further spread of the virus, the couple shifted their focus to COVID relief. Chatterjee and Shankar raised funds to set up langars, or community kitchens, in 37 village schools in the region. In each kitchen, a Bhojan Mata, who cooks mid-day meals for the female students, prepares food for all the infected families in that village. Volunteers identified by the village head then distribute simple, nutritious dishes, which include rajma, khichdi, roti, fried vegetables, salads and local greens sourced from the mountains.
Community kitchens will be essential to serve COVID patients in the coming months. Many of these isolated villages do not have roads and are accessible only through mountainous dirt roads. With no possibility of transporting LPG to these locations, firewood stoves called chulhas are permanent fixtures in home kitchens. But cooking on the stove can be dangerous: “Cooling is the worst thing that can happen when your lungs are damaged or under stress due to a virus,” says Chatterjee. We do not want to burn the stove where there are infected patients in the house.
But more than a matter of convenience, food providers across India aim to aid patients’ recovery. “Home-cooked food is the best thing for COVID-19 patients,” says Dr. Anju Sood, a nutritionist with friends to provide food for infected families in her gated community in Bengaluru are working. “The virus affects the respiratory system and when it is there, it replicates very rapidly and lowers your immunity,” explains Sood. “Indian food with a healthy mix of complex carbs, fats, proteins and micronutrients in the right proportions is essential for building immunity.”
Mumbai-based teacher Vidya Patwardhan considers food to be a life saver. He and his father-in-law were both infected with the virus last month. Vidya was kept in home isolation and her father-in-law was admitted to the hospital, the responsibility of cooking fell on the shoulders of her old mother-in-law. “We decided to get the dabba so that my mother-in-law wouldn’t have to worry about cooking for all five of us,” says Patwardhan. I liked it all.”
While the second wave has brought India to its knees, its Tiffin Samaritans, whether neighbours, relatives or strangers, ensure that at least, infected families do not have to think about what they will eat. Thankfully, India’s infection numbers have started to decline in the last few weeks. “At the peak of the second wave we had 100,000 hits in a week door,” says Goila. “But now we get about 40,000.”
The ultimate victory of these home cooks will not receive requests for food at all. “I’m looking forward to the day when orders drop and I can close shop,” says Vachane.
rathina narrow is a freelance writer from India.