How The Pandemic Struck Businesses Of Women Home Chefs In India
Most food businesses took a huge hit once the COVID-19 pandemic started tearing through India. Several popular home chefs, with no institutional or financial backing, found their resilience tested in unprecedented ways. By April, most of them knew that with social gatherings out of question for a long time, they may not be able to host pop-ups nor will they receive catering orders like before. Survival thus, became a challenge.
While the first two months were spent in anxiety, anticipating the return to normalcy, most of these food entrepreneurs were ready with an alternate plan by the time the first relaxation of norms was announced. Many had utilised the time at hand to reconsider their strategies and reinvent their image. Those who have been able to pivot quickly and creatively have, in fact, found themselves doing better than before. Several others have used this period as one of self-reflection and realigning of priorities, choosing to take a break.
Here, we speak to some of the most popular home chefs across cities to find out how they have adapted to the “new normal”.
In March, with the spring festival of Bihu a few weeks away, Gitika Saikia had several pop-ups planned across Delhi, Mumbai and Kolkata. For the authentic Tribal Assamese meal experience, she had procured a variety of local ingredients, such as red ant eggs, silkworm pupae, elephant apple, jackfruit seeds, among other items. So when the lockdown was announced mid-March and the home delivery meal orders and pop-ups were called off, Gitika found herself sitting on a stockpile of perishable ingredients in Mumbai and those collected by her folks in Assam.
“Both my parents and in-laws have farms back in Assam, which are the primary sources for the ingredients I use in my meals. The rest of it is procured from the local market, which they then send to me via air,” says the Mumbai-based home chef as she recollects the ingredients that eventually had to be disposed of.
Fried silkworm pupae
The following two months, with all businesses closed, Gitika saw the interim as a period to reach out to a wider audience and educate them about her cuisine. She had, after all, gained popularity in the first place for introducing Mumbai to authentic Assamese cuisine, which serves up delectable dishes using a wide array of ingredients, such as silkworm pupae, water beetles, crickets, fiddlehead ferns, teasel gourd and broad mustard greens.
But by the time deliveries restarted, she had had to let her cooks and helps return to their villages. “I had to reduce the scope of my work because it was impossible to manage home, my son, the washing and cleaning, along with elaborate cooking. And with the supply chain drastically affected, I also had to curtail the menu offerings, limiting it to vegetables that I could source in Mumbai. Fresh pork, an important ingredient of our cuisine, was also unavailable so I had to make do with chicken and some smoked pork, which I had sourced earlier,” Gitika recounts.
Currently back in Assam, the 43-year-old is unsure when she will be able to resume full-scale operations. “My mother-in-law is unwell and that is my current priority as is my son’s education,” she explains, adding that these tasks are proving to be a challenge in the absence of domestic workers. “Then, there is also the issue of supply chain, which will likely take some time to restore. Even while in Assam, I am unable to find many ingredients and the ones available are exorbitantly priced. I had to pay Rs 15 for a single jackfruit seed the other day,” she rues.
While uncertainty surrounds the future of her business, Gitika isn’t too concerned about the financial aspect of the five-year-old business. “It is the cooking I miss. In my limited free time here, I have drawn up four new menus,” she laughs, “I hope to be back in a month and at least get back to my cooking on a smaller scale that I can handle with limited resources.”
Christmas in Kolkata is synonymous with queuing up outside Nahoums and Saldanha for their wide array of festive goodies. With Saldanha though, the queue is an almost year-long affair. Located in a quaint bylane of Nawab Abdur Rahman Street in central Kolkata, this 90-year-old bakery, run from the Saldanha family’s home and garage space, is considered iconic. So it isn’t surprising to see patrons waiting to collect their packages of walnut cake, muffins, chicken sandwiches and a variety of breads. The loyalty of these customers lies as much with the food as it does with the friendly owners.
Mona Saldanha, daughter Debra Alexander and Alisha Alexander
However, when the pandemic struck, the bakery, currently run by women from three generations of the Saldanha family ― Mona Saldanha (79), her daughter Debra Alexander (53) and Debra’s daughter Alisha Alexander (26) ― had to shutter for the lockdown. With a staff of around 10 people working and living on their premises, the Saldanhas were unsure if they would survive the blow.
“After closely watching the situation for the first two months, we decided it was time for a paradigm shift,” says Debra, recounting the story of their turnaround. With her young daughter Alisha, trained as a chef from Le Cordon Bleu in London, reinventing became easier. “We had been old-fashioned and never bothered about a social media presence or self-promotion. We had survived all this while through word-of-mouth. But with restrictions on movement, this time we decided to reach out to our customers. The long legacy of quality products helped.”
The bakery was started by Ubelina Saldanha, a Goan in the predominantly Anglo-Indian Christian community of Kolkata, in 1930. The business by the gifted entrepreneur and baker soon flourished. Within a few years, Ubelina was sending out 20-30 men with boxes full of goodies across the city. These black boxes, with Saldanha, written on them, came to be associated with the bakery. After Ubelina, her daughter-in-law Mona took over the bakery. With help from her husband Denzil, they expanded the business. While their distribution strategies have evolved over the decades, the Saldanhas have retained a relationship with the patrons and their families. And they banked on this long association to revive the business.
“With the coronavirus spread, the situation had completely changed. So we had to shift the model from takeaways and catering to delivery,” says Debra, who joined her mother Mona in her business six years ago. Instead of relying on third-party apps, Saldanhas put in place their own delivery system so that they could monitor the sanitisation and hygiene aspects en route. “For many of our patrons, this once again evoked the memory of the black Saldanha boxes,” Debra laughs. The takeaways have restarted but the Saldanhas have staggered the timings so that a crowd can be avoided.
Assortment of breads
The owners have also had to alter the menu to include snacks that are more filling and can double as meals, such as flavoured breads, quiches and rolls. Longer lasting items such as tea cakes replaced several easily perishable pastries. Debra adds, “Many of our clients are aged people who live alone. For them, smaller meals delivered hygienically make their lives easier. Such individual orders may not always make sense financially for us but in the longer run, they help us retain our patronage.”
Sumitra Kalapatapu and Manali Potnis
Sumitra Kalapatapu had been preparing for her annual pilgrimage when the lockdown was announced. Every April, the Bengaluru-based home chef returned to her hometown Vishakhapatnam for the pickling season. There, she purchases the local varieties of mangoes, lemons, mustard seeds, chillies and other ingredients crucial to her variety of pickles in the Andhra cuisine, and spends the next two months making pickles that she uses through the year for her pop-up Andhra meals in Bengaluru.
However, with a travel ban in place, Sumitra had to suspend her plans and sit tight. Unable to host any pop-ups either, the 58-year-old wondered what lay in store for her business, which she had passionately started five years prior. “Cooking for these pop-ups had become her refuge after she lost her daughter in 2015. She had been shattered and these meals became a way for my mother-in-law to meet new people and divert her mind from the loss. But this sudden pandemic had brought her back to where she had started,” recounts 33-year-old Manali Potnis, who joined Sumitra in her business last year.
A trained chef herself, Manali scanned social media and weighed their options to figure out how to resurrect the business in such a trying time. While she knew that deliveries were out of the question due to lack of help at home, she realised there was a scope for Sumi’s Kitchen to utilise Sumitra’s talent with pickles. “The Andhra cuisine has a legacy of a variety of pickles and chutneys both dry and wet. During a typical Andhra meal, each of these is individually relished with rice as opposed to using it as a mere condiment. And so, a large part of the pickles stock every year was sold to those from the Andhra community who lived abroad. So I thought we could expand on this line of the business until things get better,” Manali explains.
During the pickling season, the duo created a line of lemon, amla, chilli and other pickles, using locally sourced ingredients. They also made the rasam and sambar powder, and the ginger and malagai podis. Manali then created a social media presence for themselves and reached out to their customers as well as a new audience. “We started to take orders and by the time we had finished making the pickles, we had about 50 kilos. We are now making these items in smaller batches. The mango pickling season may be gone until next April but other varieties such as amla and lemon, can be made all year through.”
As someone who had given up her career as an art gallerist to take up her passion for cooking Malayali food, Prima Kurein stuck to her own set of rules for 17 years. She would take limited orders and only from those who she sensed were adventurous with their palate or were genuinely curious about the cuisine. And she never catered to an order if it came at too short a notice. “My curries need to sit for a bit for them to soak up the flavours of the kokum, or for the heat of the spices to settle,” she explains.
However, some of these rules had to go when the 57-year-old decided to resume business after the lockdown restrictions were eased. Prima now takes smaller orders that can serve a family of two or four and is more understanding about people’s need to try out different cuisines even if they aren’t essentially of an adventurous palate. “But I still won’t let anyone rush me with my food,” she asserts.
These rules stem from her sheer love for cooking. As someone who is admittedly “awful at number crunching and excellent in the kitchen”, Prima believes that she needs to ensure her experiences remain unsullied. “After all, I could have continued running my own gallery, Art Inc, if I wanted,” points out the Delhi-based home chef.
Steamed Kerala rice, fish vevichathu and jackfruit mezhukupuratiathu
In fact, it is her career as a gallerist that eventually led her to the kitchen. Bored of samosa-chai snacks at her own launch events, she decided she wanted to offer something more interesting to her visitors. “Personally, I wanted to down wine and munch on something wholesome. But Malayali cuisine doesn’t have the concept of snacks, so you drink like a fish and then eat dinner. I opted for appams and stew that I would personally make,” she recounts. Soon, these evenings became so popular that she had to turn them into elaborate brunch events with a Malayali spread on offer. From here on, Prima knew what direction to give her cooking, and the business flourished. Along with the popular avials and ghee roast, she also serves the lesser known Malayali dishes, such as the Syrian Christian mutton stew, karela rice, jackfruit seed mezhukupurathiath.
Syrian Christian mutton stew
But the pandemic came as an unexpected blow. She lost out on two good catering months and with salaries to pay, Prima remodelled her meals to include thalis. She still awaits the supply chain to resume normally but in the interim, has been falling back on dishes that can be made with locally procurable ingredients. “I have my own delivery service now. We deliver anywhere as long as the minimum order is around Rs 2,000. It is a loss but we have to keep the show going. I know I have to be realistic and adjust accordingly,” she adds.
Tasneem Ayub jokes that she has no doubt that she was born with a ladle in her hand. The only regret that the 58-year-old home chef harbours is the fact that she turned a professional cook at the age of 50. “I was all of six when when I would confidently walk into the kitchen, pick an old kadai and rustle up potato chops for myself. Those 11am snacks, which I would have with rice, remain my most memorable meals,” she laughs.
But in the eight years she has been in the business, the Chennai-based home chef has established quite a reputation for her Mughalai cuisine. “I have inherited both my talent and the discipline from my mother. A working woman who woke up every morning at 5am to ensure her children had wholesome meals through the day, my mother remains my hero,” says Ayub.
It is also perhaps why she stuck to the role of a homemaker for the longest time until technology enabled her to connect with fellow foodies. “In my younger years, I was an avid collector of recipe books. I would join libraries only so I could borrow recipe books. At home, I would copy down the preparations I liked in a diary. But the thought of starting a business never occurred until I joined the Chennai Food Guide group,” Tasneem recounts. Conversations led to sample cooking which in turn led to initial orders. Kebabs, potato chops, kadai machli, prawn and mutton biryani, khubani ka meetha and warki parathi soon became her specialties. “The same food in restaurants is always more oily, spicier and made using some homogenous gravies and masalas. I could change that perception about Mughalai cuisine.” Within the next couple of years, Tasneem also added baking to her skillset. Now, along with the Mughalai meals, she serves up cupcakes, tarts, brownies, among other pastries.
Referred to as ‘ammee’ by her loved ones, Tasneem says she hasn’t faced much of a slump since the pandemic. Since she was always taking small orders for a regular cleintele, she resumed the functioning once the lockdown eased. In fact, in a couple of weeks she intends to expand her business to start a kiosk. “Located near by house on the East Coast Road to Mahabalipuram, it will cater to travellers and picnickers as well as serve as a takeaway point for my local patrons,” Tasneem says.
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