Inside the 'Museum of Food', a Pop-Up Kitchen of Refugee Cooks

Using Google Translate and the universal language of the stove, women from different countries find a common tongue.
Somali xalxo, or halwa; sweet coconut balls; Afghani baklava. All images: Akshita Nagpal

On a muggy Saturday evening, I enter a south Delhi museum and am confronted with a relic from my inherited memory: Karachi halwa. It tastes like the confection my ailing grandmother used to yearn for—soft, not chewy, and with a sweetness that doesn’t stick to the teeth. Her father, a railway-accountant, would fetch it on work trips from “Karanchi” to their home in Lahore.

In 1947, she left that land with a million others, becoming a refugee in this country—which is now also a refuge for the cook of the halwa I am eating. This cook* is from Somalia, and her version of halwa is also loaded with cornflour and calories. She’s among a group of women who fled war and instability at home—Iraq, Afghanistan, Congo, Nepal—who are setting up food-stalls in a pop-up kitchen at the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art.


Somali xalxo at the pop-up kitchen.

The pop-up is an amazing curation of food-scents from five countries—the farthest of which are 8,000 kilometres apart—but the cooks live right across the road in the multi-ethnic neighbourhood of Khirkee Village. An artist couple, 40-year-old Sreejata Roy and Mrityunjay Chatterjee of arts collective Revue, are responsible for this “Museum of Food: A Living Heritage”. The next pop-up is on July 13, and it’s part of a year-long project funded by Prince Claus Fund and the British Council.

Among the temptations today are are Kabuli pulao, Iraqi fish biryani, Nepali masu (a stew) with a crunchy radish pickle, Congo’s staple starch of fufu, and Somalia’s flavourful “Bari isku karis”—a goat-meat stew with rice cooked in the meat-stock (done here with chicken). The Congolese chefs have prepared a popular Senegalese dish: tchep djen, rice made with dried fish, garlic, onion, tomato puree, carrot, aubergine and okra. By the time I get around to eating, the Afghani bolani-katchaloo is over. Its maker smiles widely: footfalls were low, but perhaps the bolani’s popularity was due to its similarity to a paratha.

Somali "bari isku karis", a kind of stew.

Roy has been involved with Khirkee for about a decade, running community-art projects that resulted in food-maps, blogs and magazines, particularly by women residents. This time, Roy tells me, “The idea is to create an online museum of food through archiving recipes, traditions around eating, and other things like songs about food.” She hopes it also helps migrant women “adjust in this different land and to earn a livelihood.”


The chefs get to keep the earnings from food-sales, but the women wear their entrepreneurial skins lightly. At the Somali stall, I skip the meat stew and am not allowed to pay for the rest of the plate. With language barriers between us, conversation is largely limited to the transaction of food. Chatterjee tells me that in the community kitchen, “We have devised ways, like the Congolese women type on the phone in French and Sreejata translates it to English using Google Translate to relay it to the other women.”

Iraqi fish biryani.

The monthly pop-ups are a result of afternoon culinary jam sessions, where the women gather for a few hours in the “Living Lab”, a one-room apartment in Khirkee. “We have a theme or ingredient for each week, and each day cuisine from one of the cultures is cooked at the Living Lab where everyone eats together,” says Chatterjee. This brings out cultural similarities and helps bond over food, he says. Participants discuss how to navigate the absence of certain ingredients, maintaining nutrition in a new country, shopping in public space alongside men, and the isolation of being immigrants.

“At home, our minds fall into worries about the present and the future. Being here is a happy distraction,” says one of the Afghan participants. On Fridays, participants talk about food memories. Roy recounts, “One of the Somali women shared how her mother would have her sing Quranic verses while she cooked.” Revue documents these interactions, which will eventually be showcased on a website for the project.


Afghan-style baklava.

A week later, I head to the Living Lab, where recipes on A4 sheets decorate the walls. Teenagers drop in from time to time on their way to or from coaching classes. A 13-year-old Iraqi boy interprets English for his Arabic-speaking mother. A 17-year-old Afghan has picked up some Arabic from her sister, who worked at an Arabian restaurant in Gurgaon. She roughly translates Hindustani and English to Dari for her mother and the other Afghan women in the room.

In the kitchen, Roy speaks in her own syntax—of food. She’s treating everyone to her doi maach (fish curry) today. There’s also the Congolese dish on the week’s theme of beans: madesu na soso (beans and rice), prepared with sweet potato and fried chicken. As we all eat in the rug-lined room, Roy makes worried enquiries about the Afghan teen’s sister, who is apparently depressed. The mood turns sombre.

Sweet coconut balls from Somalia.

But food lightens the weight here. At the end of the meal, one of the Afghan women reaches for her purse to hand out toffees to everyone. The wrapper says the candy’s name in Roman and Persian script: “Doosti”, friendship.

*Names are withheld to protect sources.

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