Khanapados: A kitchen run by immigrants in Delhi's troublesome neighbourhood Khirki Extension

Humidity from recent rain lingers. There is no air-conditioning in the two-room flat with whitewashed walls. A steep flight of stairs in dim light ends on the third floor. It takes a moment for the eyes to adjust to the sudden relative darkness of the building. A single fan works hard to keep everyone cool in the front room of the rented flat. There is laughter coming from the second room in the back. Here, the wall is light blue but old, and they have pasted some drawings - sunrise, sunset, animals - for children.

If not for the table laden with thermocol plates and bowls over a floral cloth that looks like from a wedding, the flat could be mistaken for someone’s home. Handwritten in blue ink on white sheets of A4 paper taped to the utensils are the unfamiliar names of dishes from Africa and the Middle East.

The food comes from a kitchen run by refugee women from Afghanistan, Iraq, Congo and Somalia. They serve a buffet every other Sunday morning for Rs 500 per person. The menu also changes. Somali liver fry, Afghani halwa, Somali chocolate vanilla cake, Somali pancakes, to name a few. This place could be a winner when pitted against the neighbourhood pizza wala that sells overpriced maida, sprinkled with some atomic particles of vegetables and sometimes, stale meat.
And on another level, the patrons would be helping the refugees in a way by simply enjoying the food that is likely more authentic than similar dishes created by trained chefs at upscale restaurants.
This place has a name, Khanapados, and it’s run by artists Sreejata Roy and Mrityunjay Chatterjee, who founded the collective, Revue, in 2011. Under what they call “Khirki Living Lab”, the two help the refugees with the logistics needed to make food and a place to serve them.

People stand in a line along the table as the refugee women, who speak different languages even among themselves, point at the dishes and by way of gestures and using broken Hindi try to explain what they are, how they taste - spicy, sweet, fiery - and where they are from. The women in their lovely traditional attire have covered their heads. (To respect their privacy, journey basket didn’t take photos that could identify them).

Some guests help themselves, while others seek help to be served, unsure of how their tasting experience would proceed from there. After a while everyone looks happy, a sign that the unfamiliar foods they are eating are not assaulting their taste buds but introducing them to new delights. The humidity is forgotten. No one looks at the only fan anymore. These are minor inconveniences when you have an explosive, authentic platter of the world in front of you that needs to be eaten on a slow Sunday.

Khirki Extension is one of the most troublesome neighbourhoods in Delhi. It has a reputation of less brains and more brawns and has had its share of bad press over the years. Fights often break out between people from Africa and the local boys. The locals see them as drug traffickers or just bad, very black people. There is always a wild story or two about how an African man killed an autorickshaw driver, kept his nicely butchered flesh in the refrigerator and enjoyed the meat for days until he was caught.

The neighbourhood is fertile with rented flats built by urban village landlords of Jat ancestry. Immigrants from Africa and refugees find it pocket-friendly to live here, among the Indians who have not experienced contact with or at least read about foreign cultures.
The emphasis on reading is important because it speaks of education, and real education is tolerance to cultural differences through a humane thinking.
“Housing is of course cheap. That is a big advantage. However, robberies are frequent in the area and it is frequented by drunk people mainly because of the many prostitutes in the area. The men are a menace, creating trouble every now and then, but I've personally not had too bad an experience apart from the horrible roads and dirty areas and dingy corners,” says Stella Dey, an editor with news channel NDTV who lives at Khirki Extension.

Khanapados, a project under Khirki Living Lab, is the brainchild of artists Sreejata Roy (left) and Mrityunjay Chatterjee, who founded the collective, Revue, in 2011.

Khanapados is kid and family friendly.

The stairs leading to the two-room flat where the refugee women cook their traditional foods.

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