Noorjahan was 23 when she joined Zaika-e-Nizamuddin (ZeN), a women’s collective preserving and popularising old Delhi’s salivary cuisine started in 2015.
Then a mother of a 3-year-old, she would have to gather immense courage every time she stepped outside the house.
Her in-laws and husband slapped her with a question that millions of Indian women get asked, ‘What is the need to work?’ The question soon turned into taunts such as how will she take care of the child if she stays out so late, there is no point in cooking food, Delhi has numerous options, etc.
But a Class 6 pass Noorjahan never gave up. She found her strength and confidence in 10 other women who were ready and excited to take ZeN to newer heights.
These ladies living in Nizamuddin basti worked hard day after day to serve delicious food, prepared from 700-year-old recipes, to people across Delhi and in return found their identity and financial independence.
The collective was conceptualised and initiated under the Nizamuddin Urban Renewal Initiative of the Aga Khan Trust for Culture (AKTC). The trust handheld the 11 women and helped them with strategizing, quality control, capacity enhancement, and direct financial support including the kitchen setup and assets.
“ZeN was initiated in 2012 in response to a study conducted under the initiative’s ECCD (Early Childhood Care and Development) component, which revealed that more than 50 per cent of the children under the age of six in the basti were malnourished. Further exploration highlighted junk food to be one of the major causes of malnourishment in children. ZeN came into existence when a group of mothers was brought together to make and supply healthy homemade alternatives to the junk snacking in the basti. The group started its catering wing in 2015 selling the authentic micro cuisine of Nizamuddin eventually growing into an independent women’s enterprise and there was no looking back after that,” Swati Batra, women’s livelihood coordinator at AKTC tells The Better India.
To address malnourishment, the Trust conducted awareness sessions and gave them healthy recipes for their children. They made ladoos and healthy snacks under the initiative which helped them discover their culinary skills.
The members began with monthly earnings of Rs 200 and their present earnings range anywhere between Rs 8,000 and Rs 10,000. They have catered for weddings, social gatherings, kitty parties and even at the Australian High Commission. The total turnover in 2015-16 was Rs 1,50,000 which grew to Rs 29,50,000 in the year 2019-20 despite the coronavirus crisis.
The Better India catches up with three of the 11 members on how their lives have changed, the difficulties they overcame and, of course, what makes their food special and authentic.
‘We Motivate Each Other’
When the AKTC was doing the ‘quality of life’ survey, they also found that the workforce participation rate for women is only 9 per cent in the basti. Supporting women, most of whom have no education degrees, through a variety of programs became one of the priorities for AKTC. ZeN took the responsibility of not only empowering them financially but also enhancing their skills.
But the road was not easy.
The patriarchal mindset became a major hurdle as families did not ‘give permission’ to the women to run a venture. Each member had their own battle to fight.
“Everyone was okay till we were making healthy snacks for our children but the moment we expressed our desire to earn money through food, all hell broke loose. With AKTC’s help, we managed to convince our families to allow us to make food for the local gatherings. Within hours, our utensils were empty and we made a sale of Rs 10,000. My first earning was Rs 900. So we put a thella (cart) and hired a man to sell dry snacks like chevda, mathri and namkeen,” recalls Noorjahan.
The small-time catering gigs and carts gave them the confidence and thus ZeN came into being. However, it was only after three years of hard work that they were able to make profits.
“We had to establish our credibility, fight conservative notions while juggling between work, home and kids. But all that seemed okay as we were learning new skills including leadership, marketing, quality control and more,” says 30-year-old Saiba, a member.
Meanwhile, the AKTC spread the word about their food.
“We helped them put up stalls in exhibitions and events to enhance visibility, created a social media presence, organised cuisine experiences like Pop Up restaurants, Chef Special Sundays, picnic baskets, etc. to attract customers. The project gave several catering opportunities to the group which played a huge role in enhancing their confidence in the initial phase. They got first-hand customer experience through weekly stalls in Sunder Nursery,” adds Swati.
The initial months were more demanding and less rewarding, says Noorjahan, adding that their monthly earnings barely touched Rs 700. She would carry her toddler to work and prepare food for hours. This did not go down well with her in-laws who taunted her saying, “An illiterate woman will never make money”.
“Usually, it is the men you see around old Delhi selling and representing our culture. But we also want to give the customer an experience. Since we supply Mughlai food it takes time to prepare the food to maintain its authenticity. We use traditional techniques to make kheer, phirni, kebabs, haleem, soup, biryani, pickles and korma. We do not add colours. But explaining all this to our families made no difference. The taunts still have not ceased,” she says.
However, one of the most fruitful outcomes of this initiative has been the personal growth each member has gone through. For the first time in their lives, they are doing something for themselves and getting recognised for it too.
“At one point, I was so scared to visit the bank or talk to strangers. But now I can go anywhere, and talk to anyone without any fear. I even got a chance to travel by plane. However, the best part is I have been able to change my family’s perspective. They are proud of me now,” says Saiba, who pays for her children’s education.
Another member, Sakina, 34, has also been through a similar experience. She says, “When customers praise us on call or in-person and say they loved our food, it makes my day. During challenging times, we motivate each other. I have friends here who I know will be there with me through thick and thin,” she adds.
All the members also get a chance to perform leadership roles by being the deputy leader on a rotational basis for six months. Both Saiba and Noorjahan have got this opportunity. As leaders, they have to keep account of the expenses, decide on food menus, ensure timely delivery, supervise the members and ensure that the food is tasty and healthy.
ZeN has gained popularity over the years and they are often invited to put up their stalls during food festivals. More recently, they have catered for five-star hotels like Park Hyatt and JW Marriott.
Edited by Yoshita Rao