Afghan refugees cooking their way to a better future: 'It’s their resilience and patience that has helped them grow'

The women fled to India to avoid the atrocities of the Taliban regime

The Afghani women behind team Ilham all escaped the Taliban. Photo by Erico Sugimoto and Aditi Sabbarwal
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A winter morning can be unforgiving in New Delhi. But Noor, 65, a refugee from Afghanistan, often wakes up before daybreak to prepare for the food festivals, cultural fairs and embassy dinners she cooks for across the city. Before the pandemic hit, the cool season was particularly exciting and busy for Noor, for the number of opportunities it offered to exhibit her cooking talent and earn a livelihood.

Noor is part of the core team of Ilham, a catering initiative that serves traditional Afghani cuisine in India’s capital city. The programme was launched in December 2015 by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in partnership with the non-profit Access, to provide a commercially viable solution for Afghan refugee women living in India. The core team currently comprises three women, all living in south Delhi.

Food for thought

The idea was conceived by Aditi Sabbarwal, livelihoods associate at UNHCR. When she first approached a group of women, she found they had an interest in cooking, but were reluctant to set up an enterprise.

“We decided to do an experimental Afghani food stall at an exhibition,” Sabbarwal says. Every last ashak (dumpling) sold out.

Motivated by the feedback, four women came forward to launch the entrepreneurship programme under Sabbarwal’s guidance and with initial funding provided by UNHCR. Menus and costings were worked out, and the team chose the Dari word Ilham, meaning positive, as they thought the project would bring hope and positivity in their lives, says Sabbarwal.

Men from the Taliban were forcing me for marriage. I couldn't live there any more

However, the first official catering assignment from the US embassy was an eye-opener. “While the food was appreciated, a lack of professionalism was found,” Sabbarwal says. A lunch order for 10 people was enough for 30, and the Ilham team arrived an hour late.

In the coming weeks, measuring jars were procured and the team was trained in entrepreneurship, marketing, finance management, teamwork and trust building, which helped them evolve from amateur cooks to professional caterers.

Over the years, Ilham has received repeat orders from the UK and German embassies in India, as well as from five-star hotels such as Vivanta by Taj. The group also puts up food stalls in various exhibitions and festivals, and can be reached for food delivery via platforms such as Zomato and FoodCloud. "It's the women's resilience and patience that has helped them grow," Sabbarwal says.

A life of respect

Ilham has given the three women a chance of leading a life of respect in their adoptive country after each of them had to forcefully flee their conflict-torn homeland. Due to the atrocities of the Taliban, Noor and her husband were planning to move to India, when he suddenly died of heart failure. She fled Kabul in 2011 with her eight children. "Kidnapping by the Taliban was a big issue and I had to move my kids out for their safety," she says.

Earnings from Ilham have been able to considerably reduce my financial struggles

Fatima, 40, whose husband was an officer in the Afghan army who was killed by the Taliban, came to India from Ghazni in 2012 with her toddler son. “Men from the Taliban were forcing me for marriage,” says Fatima. “I couldn’t live there any more.”

Salma, 29, fled Mazar Sharif with her seven-month-old daughter and has been living in New Delhi since 2013. “Earnings from Ilham have been able to considerably reduce my financial struggles” she says.

Noor says, “Standing for hours at food stalls gives me body ache, but meeting new people through these assignments wipes away all my pain.”

Ilham has given these women the dignity that housekeeping and other jobs could not. In a good month, each woman is able to earn up to 15,000 rupees ($201).

Afghani dishes by Ilham 

Given that the women come from different parts of Afghanistan, the menu is deliciously varied. Popular items include ashak, pasta dumplings filled with scallion and tomato sauce, topped with yoghurt and dried mint; chapali kebab, made with minced chicken; steamed manthu mutton dumplings; Kabuli pulao rice with a secret blend of spices; borani banjan (see recipe below), eggplant in yoghurt sauce; and khajur, a doughnut-like dessert.

Ashak Afghani dumplings, being prepared by team Ilham for a food festival. Photo: Erico Sugimoto and Aditi Sabbarwal
Ashak Afghani dumplings, being prepared by team Ilham for a food festival. Photo: Erico Sugimoto and Aditi Sabbarwal

The menu also offers all kinds of samosas, naans, kebabs and kormas, all with an Afghan twist. "Afghani food is relatively free of spices and relies more on the flavour of the ingredients," Noor says. "But over the years, we have learnt to add more masalas to cater to Indian tastes." Her own palate has adapted, too, she says – she now craves Indian tandoori chicken like she grew up on it.

An eye to the future

Of the 40,000 refugees and asylum seekers registered by UNHCR by the end of last year in India, 27 per cent are Afghans. While India hasn't ratified the 1951 Refugee Convention, and lacks a law and policy for newcomers, the country has so far been liberal with these refugees.

The Ilham team members and some others who are registered with UNHCR get long-term stay visas, permission to work, free health care in public hospitals and free education for children in government-run schools.

However, without fluency in English or Hindi, job opportunities can be restricted. Initiatives such as Ilham bypass this issue, with food speaking a universal language. Salma says Ilham presented a welcome opportunity since she has always loved to cook and it was something she could do with her minimal education and language skills.

Limited events due to the pandemic have led to a loss of opportunities for team Ilham this year, but – in a situation that harks back to their struggles in Afghanistan – hope for a better future keeps them going. “I have beautiful memories associated with Ilham. I often think of them sitting at home these days,” says Noor. “I’ll be associated with Ilham as long as I can.”

*The names of the women from team Ilham have been changed to protect their identities

Recipe: Borani banjan

Borani banjan, as prepared by team Ilham. Photo: Erico Sugimoto and Aditi Sabbarwal

The mint and garlic-flavoured Afghani aubergine dish is layered with tomato, bell peppers and yoghurt sauce

Serves 4

Cooking time: 40 minutes


4 tbsp mint leaves

2 medium aubergines, sliced

10 cloves garlic, crushed

2 green chillies, chopped finely

2 large tomatoes, sliced

1 tsp cumin powder, optional

½ tsp turmeric powder, optional

1 tsp black pepper powder, optional

½ piece each of green, red and yellow bell pepper

Salt to taste

1 cup yoghurt

2 tbsp coriander leaves, chopped


Blend the mint leaves with a little water to make a paste. Keep aside.

Dip the sliced aubergine in salted water for 15 to 20 minutes. Drain and pat dry on a kitchen towel.

Heat oil in a pan and shallow-fry the aubergine. Drain and dry on a kitchen towel.

Saute 8 cloves of garlic and green chillies in the leftover oil for a minute.

Add the chopped tomatoes and salt. Cover and cook until slightly soft.

Add cumin powder and turmeric powder. Mix well.

Add half the black pepper powder and keep aside.

Saute the bell peppers in oil with a little salt.

Prepare the yoghurt sauce by blending the yoghurt well with the remaining two cloves of crushed garlic and the mint paste, salt and remaining black pepper. Mix well.

Assemble the aubergine in a plate and layer with the tomatoes and bell peppers. Top with the yoghurt sauce. Garnish with chopped coriander leaves, and serve with any leftover yoghurt sauce.