New cookbook celebrates the food of migrant women in Mumbai

'Food Memories of Migrant Women' includes 15 rare and nutritious recipes by women working on construction sites in India

MUMBAI, INDIA - MAY 25, 2007: Malabar Hill  Housing  Real Estate  Highrise Buildings  Skyscrapers  A view from Simla House in Malabar Hill. (Photo by Natasha Hemrajani/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)
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As she scrubs clean the newly tiled floors of a building at a construction site in a Mumbai suburb, Seema Rajput, 23, has little to worry about. A few yards away, her husband is fixing plaster on a wall. She has two toddlers – one is 4 years old, the other is 2. Her two year old is at a creche set up within the premises of the same construction site. Rajput, who moved from her village in Chhattisgarh to find employment as a construction worker in Mumbai three years ago, feels that she could not have asked for a better deal as a rural migrant to India's most densely populated city.

Ambadi Bhaji with her stew made with sorrel leaves. Courtesy Ambadi Bhaji
Ambadi Bhaji with her stew made with sorrel leaves. Courtesy Ambadi Bhaji

Memories of family feasts

Yet, sometimes, she yearns for the open fields, the greenery, and her family and friends back home. “I miss my family a lot, particularly during festivals when everyone comes together to cook a feast,” she says.

A large number of her memories are associated with food. "My mother makes excellent khurmi during Teej," she says, referring to the traditional wheat and jaggery sweet commonly prepared during the monsoon festival in her village. "Ma' knows how much the kids love it so she always makes a few extra for them."

To pay tribute to the food and associated memories of migrant women who live on construction sites, a Mumbai-based NGO has put together a cookbook called Food Memories of Migrant Women. The non-profit, Mumbai Mobile Creches (MMC), collaborates with builders to provide a creche for construction workers' children, where Rajput's child spends her day while she is at work.

An exercise in health and nutrition

The cookbook, which is available as a free download on MMC's website came about as an extension of MMC's constant engagement with the families on health and nutrition.

"We wanted to know more about their dietary habits in the village and, if possible, adapt, or bring those recipes back into their routine, since the ingredients used are always quite nutritious," says Dr Shiny Varghese, health co-ordinator at MMC, who put the e-book together.

The recipe for Rajput's khurmi appears in the e-book alongside 14 other rare and nutritious recipes by
15 women from 10 states, picked from MMC's 18 centres across Mumbai.

The ingredients for Ambadi Bhaji's stew with sorrel leaves, as seen in the new e-book 'Food Memories of Migrant Women'. Courtesy Ambadi Bhaji
The ingredients for Ambadi Bhaji's stew with sorrel leaves, as seen in the new e-book 'Food Memories of Migrant Women'. Courtesy Ambadi Bhaji

Microcosms in Mumbai

A typical construction site in Mumbai is a microcosm of the country as a whole, with hundreds of workers representing the cultural diversity of every state. Many of the labourers bring along their families so that their spouses can also work at the construction sites and contribute to the family income.

Rajput's husband, who started as an unskilled labourer, has hopped from site to site for years in Mumbai, in search of better prospects. He moved his family to the city when he found a builder who provided a makeshift home with electricity, access to purified water and a creche.

Rajput joined her husband as a head load worker on the site. She hauled basins full of cement and sand but, with much of the construction work on her site now complete, Rajput has more recently been working on the site as a cleaner. The money she earns helps her provide for her children - the elder one is in the village with her relatives.

Rajput says she could not have worked without the facility of the creche. Her kids are still too young to be left alone at home or join a formal school, which functions until late afternoon. MMC's creche, which also runs a pre-school, is just the right solution for Rajput. "MMC looks after my child, keeps her well-fed with fruits and nutritious snacks, and takes care of her immunisations," she says.

The inspiration behind the book

The idea for Food Memories of Migrant Women was first conceived in November 2015 and it took two years to produce. "We had put out a word in our monthly meetings at the 18 MMC centres about the book and asked the women for their nutritious recipes," Dr Varghese says. The most unique and diverse entries were chosen to appear in the cookbook.

The contributors were then invited to the MMC centres to prepare the recipes. For Rajput, the process was fun. "Everyone at the centre loved the khurmi that I had prepared," she says.

Other recipes include ambadi bhaji (a stew made with sorrel leaves), jowar bhakri (sorghum flatbread), huggi (a whole-wheat porridge) and champurachi vadi (multigrain fritters made from colocasia, fenugreek and coriander leaves.)

"The women are used to eating organic food in their villages, so they did not find some of the ingredients we got them from the city satisfactory," Dr Varghese says.


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For the love of nutritious food

Radha Devi, who made litti, a stuffed fritter made with chickpea flour, had merely to smell the flour to know it wasn't pure. Organic food is priced highly in urban India, but it is cheaply available in the villages where it is grown. In a lot of cases, farmers exchange products they grow. "Given their low income, it is not easy for women who have migrated from villages to incorporate millets and whole grains into their diet, which they regularly ate in their villages," Dr Varghese says.

And yet, they love to cook and share food. Anita Triloky Saha contributed her recipe for kheer puri, a sweet rice porridge served with deep-fried flatbread, and makes the delicacy quite often. "When I share it with my neighbours, they always ask me to make it again soon and not to forget to send them a portion," she says, laughing.