Shivani Vora stumbles upon an underground network of Indian women in the US who deliver home-cooked food to homesick desis.
It was the summer of 2002, I was getting married, and my in-laws were coming to New York from Mumbai for our wedding.
They are vegetarian and cannot go a day without a Gujarati meal of daal, bhat (rice), shaak (vegetable) and roti. Cooking wasn’t an option, because they were staying in a hotel with a small kitchenette. It was my job to figure out how they would get fed.
I was panicking.
I e-mailed every Indian friend and acquaintance I had with my urgent request — and uncovered something I’d never even known existed before: an underground network of Indian women who deliver home-cooked food to homesick “desis” — people from the Indian subcontinent — in New York City.
Ramillah Ben (ben means aunt in Gujarati), a Gujarati living in Queens, was the first recommendation I received, and provided a perfect solution for my in-laws. She isn’t a trained cook, but grew up helping her mother make meals. Looking to earn extra money, she started selling her specialties to neighbors in Queens. Her reputation spread by word of mouth, and soon she was getting requests in Manhattan.
For $80 a week, my in-laws received a large bag filled with enough dishes to last them at least five meals, including a soupy yellow daal, cabbage, bhindi (okra) and a foil wrapped packet of paper thin Gujarati rotis. As they relished the cuisine during their month-long trip, names of more home cooks reached me.
There are several women, mostly in Queens, making meals for time-pressed Indians who feel that tug for ghar ka khanna (home cooked food).
These cooks are often housewives who turn out dishes that may remind you of your mother’s or grandmother’s. Each is different: some are South Indian and skilled at sambars, rasams and rice dishes. Others, like Ramillah Ben, only cook vegetarian food. Some will be insulted if you don’t ask them to make sharp goat curries, lamb kebabs and chicken tikka.
Throughout the years, I’ve enlisted several of these ladies to turn out dishes in my kitchen, or deliver them to my apartment in spill-proof plastic containers. On Diwali, for example, I hosted a family dinner for 12 with the help of Harpreet Sohal, 36, a Punjabi living in Richmond Hills, Queens. She delivered a spread which included sarso ka saag (mustard greens), scrambled paneer, mixed vegetable curry and raita (spiced yogurt).
Her repertoire also includes butter chicken, kati rolls, chole bature (curried chickpeas with puffy deep fried bread) and parathas (flatbreads) stuffed with ground lamb, cauliflower or potatoes. She started the service five years ago when her daughter’s teachers told her they liked Indian food. “I made them a few dishes, and they asked me if they could buy the food on an ongoing basis,” she recalls.
For some working professionals, using these cooks has replaced dialing for take-out.
Karan Ahooja, 31, lives in Manhattan and works in the finance industry. After a long day at work, he relishes the meals that Nanda Bhatia delivers from her home in Hicksville, Long Island. “As much as I wanted pizza, pasta and McDonald’s growing up, the chance to have home-cooked Indian food is something I really look forward to now,” he said.
Bhatia charges $80 a week for 10 chappatis and five dishes like rajma (kidney bean curry) and masala stuffed baby eggplant. She delivers the food to 10 regular clients in a tall steel tiffin container with compartments for each dish. The portions are enough to feed three people for four days, she says.
Bhatia works full-time at a bank, and uses the money she makes selling her meals to help with her daughter’s medical school expenses.
Some time-pressed hosts rely on these cooks to give their guests a home-cooked Indian meal, when they can’t cook it themselves.
Archana, who lives on the Upper West Side with two young children, has hired Sohal to cook entrées when she has friends over for dinner. “Our guests are coming to an Indian home, and they look forward to an Indian meal,” she said. “It takes a lot of time to make one, and an Indian restaurant just doesn’t have the same taste.”
There is one drawback to these ladies: they sometimes stop cooking just as quickly as they started. Ramillah Ben, for example, had taken a job at a Taco Bell when I last called her.
If anyone knows a good Gujarati cook, please get in touch before my in-laws visit next!
The New York Times