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The Home Cooks Feeding India’s COVID Patients

With huge numbers of patients confined to their homes, home cooks have stepped up to prepare meals for their neighbors and strangers alike

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Indian bread sits inside a tiffin box on a kitchen counter
People across India are cooking for their neighbors.
Dhiraj Singh/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Last month Vijay Medikonda, a software professional from Hyderabad, India, tested positive for COVID-19. All the adults in the family — Medikonda, his wife, and his mother — were infected and in home isolation, and one of the couple’s three children developed a fever. “The virus sapped the energy [from] our bodies,” says Medikonda. “The fatigue was immense, so we could not do anything more than rest.” Cooking was the last thing on the family’s mind. Thankfully, Medikonda’s neighbor pitched in and left home-cooked meals at the family’s doorstep for two weeks.

The second COVID-19 wave hit India by early March this year. For months, the country’s infection and mortality rate climbed, reaching an official number of 349,186 deaths, not including the unreported ones. Social media was awash with urgent requests for oxygen, beds, and medicines. And as increasing numbers of people were confined to their homes with no energy to cook for themselves, home-cooked food was also part of this essentials list.

In early April, famed Indian chef Saransh Goila, founder of restaurant chain Goila Butter Chicken, started to receive messages on social media from his followers asking if he knew of home cooks who could prepare meals for COVID-impacted families. While restaurants continued to provide home delivery and takeout, people who were infected with COVID wanted comfort food that was not greasy and light on salt and spices. Goila soon realized the need for a centralized repository of home cooks in India. “You want home food when you are sick,” he says. “You wouldn’t want to have restaurant food every day.”

Leveraging his vast social media presence, Goila asked home cooks to reach out to him. “Generally, neighbors, family, and friends help you with food. But with the rising COVID-19 cases, if they too are infected, it is not possible to expect help,” he says. What started as a Google spreadsheet soon moved to a listing portal of verified home cooks across the country. Today it lists more than 4,000 home cooks, restaurateurs, and volunteers across 300 cities. While most provide free meals, others charge a nominal fee of less than $1.50 USD for a vegetarian meal and $2 for a non-vegetarian meal, packed in disposable containers or in traditional dabbas, also called tiffins — steel or brass stacked food containers secured by a frame. The database is just one aspect of the homegrown effort to feed COVID patients.

This model of catering to COVID-19 patients with home-cooked meals has precedent. In India, the concept of tiffin has existed since the 19th century. During the colonial period, the British preferred tiffin as a snack after a light lunch. For Indians, dabba was a meal they carried to work, since they couldn’t go home for lunch. Home cooks who regularly cooked for their family members would earn a living by making extra for clients, and since 1890, the famous dabbawalas of Mumbai have delivered dabbas to hundreds of thousands of Mumbaikars at their offices, returning the empty dabbas at the end of the day.

But with offices closed due to the pandemic, their jobs have taken a beating. Most dabbawalas have returned to their hometowns or taken up alternate work as daily wage laborers. These days there are fewer than 500 in Mumbai, down from 5,000 before the pandemic. But the need of the hour has seen the dabbawalas deliver meals to COVID patients admitted to hospitals and COVID centers set up in the city. And in the past two months, home cooks who have always provided dabbas have been joined by those who want to cater to COVID-19 patients and help their country in distress.

Usha (who doesn’t have a surname) shut down her textile printing business due to the pandemic last year. Soon after, the Chennai resident started making and selling traditional Indian condiments, pickles, and papadums in her kitchen to earn a living. At the start of the second wave of coronavirus infections, a friend, feeling weak from the virus, asked Usha to provide four meals a day for her and her family for a week. They loved her food, and as word spread, Usha started to receive requests from other COVID-infected families. Today, with help from her husband, she prepares about 95 free meals a day and delivers them through Dunzo, a delivery service.

Usha’s cooking has become a ritual. Her day starts at 4:30 a.m. As an orthodox Brahmin, she enters the kitchen only after taking a head bath, and she cooks while chanting shlokas, verses in Sanskrit. Usha refers to the free meals she provides as prasadam — food offered to God and consumed by devotees. For lunch, she prepares sambar, a lentil stew with vegetables, along with rasam and two dishes of stir-fried vegetables. Dinner consists of traditional South Indian dishes, like idli or dosa with sambar and chutney, rotis with a curry, or vermicelli with an assortment of vegetables. If a client mentions a special occasion, such as a birthday or anniversary, she’ll include an Indian sweet.

Although Usha occasionally receives small donations from well-wishers and is still selling condiments, she pawned her gold jewelry to pay for the ingredients to prepare these meals. But she’s not worried about the loan; she feels the sacrifice is worth it. “One of my clients and her husband were COVID-positive and admitted to the hospital,” she says. “Her two children, ages 11 and 5, were at home all by themselves. She told me my food is keeping her children alive for the last 10 days. Such messages push me to do more for the community.”

Sneha Vachhaney of Bengaluru has been contributing to her community since the start of the pandemic. Last year after the Indian government implemented a sudden lockdown, migrant laborers were stranded in the cities without jobs. Vachhaney and her mother prepared and delivered free meals to the laborers. “This year, the focus is entirely different,” Vachhaney says. “COVID-19 patients need help, so my focus shifted to them and their families.”

Vachhaney initially started by preparing meals for the families infected in her gated community. But when requests began pouring in from across the city, she decided to set up her own website, separate from Goila’s database, listing home cooks and volunteers across five Indian cities. The site has proven helpful not only to people in India but also those living abroad, who can order meals for their families from afar. Vachhaney says she’s gotten calls from 16 different countries so far.

Along with a network of home cooks in Bengaluru, Vachhaney also makes nourishing meals of dal, sabzi, roti, salad, rasam, and coconut water for overworked crematorium workers, ambulance drivers, cops patrolling on night duty, and hospital staff stretched beyond their limits. And elsewhere in India, operations focus on delivering meals directly to hospitals, rather than the homes of neighbors. “Friends, relatives of patients admitted in the hospital wait outside the building to get updates about their loved ones,” says Agravi Mishra, who’s based in Ahmedabad. With her sister-in-law, Garima Gupta, Mishra prepares 100 meals a day under the name Captain Cook and distributes them outside one of the largest COVID hospitals in the city. “Many ambulances carrying infected patients line up at the hospital waiting for a hospital bed. We offer food to everyone.”

As the movement to support people affected by COVID-19 with home-cooked meals has grown in India’s major cities, farmers and grocery brands have come forward to help those working for the cause. In Bengaluru, brands like The Organic World, Deep Rooted, and Ecofy are offering vegetables, fruits, and groceries at a subsidized rate or free of cost to the volunteers across various cities. Recently, food delivery platforms like Swiggy have agreed to deliver COVID meals for free if home cooks provide the meals for free, or transport paid-for COVID meals at a discounted rate. But while this model works in most places in India, there’s a growing need for community cooking efforts in remote areas with different infrastructures.

Until recently, the virus had not made its presence known in the more isolated regions of India. But in May, cases began to rise daily in the Tons Valley of Uttarakhand. Culinary researcher Shubhra Chatterjee and her husband, Anand Sankar, work with local shepherds and farmers on livelihood projects and education through their eight-year-old nonprofit initiative Kalap Trust. To curb the further spread of the virus, the couple shifted their attention to COVID relief. Chatterjee and Sankar crowdsourced funds to set up langar, or community kitchens, at 37 village schools in the region. At each kitchen, a bhojan mata, the woman who cooks midday meals for students, prepares meals for all the infected families of that village. Volunteers identified by the village headman then deliver the simple, nourishing dishes, which consist of rajma, khichadi, roti, sauteed vegetables, salad, and local greens foraged from the mountains.

The community kitchens will be essential for serving COVID patients in the months to come. Many of these isolated villages do not have roads and are accessible only by mountainous dirt paths. With no possibility of transporting cooking gas to these locations, firewood stoves called chulhas are permanent fixtures in home kitchens. But cooking on a chula can be dangerous: “Chulas are the worst thing that can happen when your lungs are damaged or under strain due to the virus,” says Chatterjee. “We do not want chulhas lit where there are infected patients in the house.”

But more than a matter of convenience, the aim of those providing meals across India is to aid in patients’ recovery. “Home-cooked meals are the best thing to happen to COVID-19 patients,” says Dr. Anju Sood, a nutritionist who has been working with her friends to provide meals for the infected families in their gated community in Bengaluru. “The virus affects the respiratory tract and while it is there, it replicates very fast and brings down your immunity,” explains Sood. “Indian meals with a healthy mix of complex carbs, fat, protein, and micronutrients in the right proportion are essential for building immunity.”

Mumbai-based teacher Vidya Patwardhan considers the meals a lifesaver. Both she and her father-in-law were infected by the virus last month. With Vidya under home isolation and her father-in-law admitted to the hospital, the responsibility of cooking fell on her aged mother-in-law’s shoulders. “We decided to get dabba so that my mother-in-law needn’t worry about preparing meals for all five of us,” says Patwardhan. “The food provided by the home cook for two weeks was appetizing with large portions, and everyone in the family liked it.”

While the second wave has brought India to its knees, its tiffin Samaritans, whether neighbors, relatives, or strangers, have ensured that at the very least, infected families don’t have to think about what they will eat. Thankfully, India’s infection numbers have started to decline in the past few weeks. “At the peak of the second wave we received 100,000 hits a week on the portal,” says Goila. “But now we receive about 40,000.”

The ultimate victory for these home cooks will be receiving no requests for meals at all. Says Vacchaney, “I am eagerly waiting for the day when orders dwindle and I can shut up shop.”

Rathina Sankari is a freelance writer from India.