Refugee women cook coconut rice, sambol and fish curry at Yalpanam, a Sri Lankan pop up kitchen in Chennai

Yalpanam’s upcoming pop up kitchen features traditional Sri Lankan food made by women to nourish customers, as well as the cooks’ families in refugee camps

October 06, 2021 03:41 pm | Updated 03:41 pm IST - Chennai

Darshini Thangarasa boards the bus with practised ease, balancing a box heavy with dhodol in one hand and a large stainless steel container packed with freshly steamed, squiggly idiappams in the other.

The young college graduate with an unfailingly bright smile is familiar with this journey from the Sri Lankan Tamil refugee camp in Gummidipoondi, to supply friends and well-wishers with her mother’s signature kalu dhodol , made by patiently stirring roasted, powdered red rice, jaggery and coconut milk for hours over a wood fire till it thickens into a luxuriously, sticky confection.

Today, she is en route to the home of Poongkothai Chandrahasan, Sri Lankan filmmaker and founder of Serendip Boutique Social Enterprises, to help the team prepare for Yalpanam’s first official pop up kitchen.

Explaining why they have spent the last month working on this project, Poongkothai says the focus is to empower women with a livelihood. “When you empower a woman, she uses that money to educate her child,” she says, adding “It is also a dignified way for them to earn their own living, which is especially important now, with the pandemic, as many of their husbands have lost their jobs.”

With the help of OfERR (Organization for Eelam Refugees’ Rehabilitation), she says, “we identified women with cooking skills, who are also double vaccinated, from the Puzhal and Gummidipondi camps. Over the past couple of weeks we have been working with them, selecting what they make best.”

Darshini’s mother’s dhodol for instance. “It needs at least three hours of constant stirring,” says Poongkothai. “In the camp, the ladies all stand in nighties and take turns standing over the wood fire,” she adds with a smile, as Darshini follows her into the kitchen, which is fragrant with the scent of a spicy, simmering fish curry.

There are no nighties today — the women are resplendent in neatly pleated saris in shades of blue — but the cheery spirit of camaraderie has all the comforting familiarity of a family gathering. Reigning over the kitchen is 70-year-old Basilica Dias, stirring rice creamy with coconut milk, before sprinkling it with generous handfuls of cashew nuts crisp with ghee.

“I came to India with two of my children, when I was 40 in 1990,” she says, adding that she lost her husband in the civil war. In the sudden move, her third child was left behind with an aunt in Jaffna, and they were only reunited many years later. “I used to be a nursery school teacher. When I came to the Puzhal camp, I began to take on small cooking jobs for birthdays and weddings. Whatever money I made, I used for my children’s education,” she adds.

Siva Shantini, who cooks with Basilica, nods in agreement. She explains how they specialise in making spicy coconut sambol and rich coconut curries. “For the chicken curry today, we roasted and ground the spices ourselves, then brought the powder here,” she says, reeling off the ingredients, “chilli powder, fennel, pepper, lots of dry roasted curry leaves…”

The menu this weekend includes two set meals (₹999 each), one centred around red rice idiappams — served with stew, sambol and brinjal — while the other stars kaha bhat , or coconut rice. The women are also making fish and chicken curry.

“Depending on the response, we hope to eventually run this as a cloud kitchen,” says Poongkothai, confessing that the project is still at an experimental stage with the small all-women team cooking, taking orders and packing the food together.

She adds, “The dream is to hire women from more camps: if this is successful, we can set up small cloud kitchens serving Sri Lankan food all over Tamil Nadu.”

The pop up will function for lunch and dinner on Saturday and Sunday. Follow Yalpanam By Serendip on Instagram or WhatsApp 9840056530 for more details.

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