Hasumati Paanwala had just lost her husband and barely had enough money to feed her children back in Baroda, Gujarat. "I could cook a variety of things, but where was the money to buy rice or daal (lentil)?" she recalls. But in Toronto, where she now lives as an immigrant, Paanwala has put those culinary skills to use, and provides a 'dabba' (tiffin) service for anyone who wants home-cooked food.
The 68-year-old came to Toronto at the behest of her son, who works as a carpenter. "My daughter-in-law had just given birth, and they needed help. I was happy to come here but I can't speak English, nor can I drive," says Paanwala, adding, "But I can't complain. At least here we have a roof on our heads and enough to eat."
But 10 years in a foreign country taught Paanwala one thing - she had to have some amount of independence. "Sometimes I just wanted to go to the temple and offer some money but my son wouldn't have any to spare. A neighbour suggested I offer homemade meals to make some extra cash that I could spend as I wanted. So that's how it all started," says Paanwala.
Across Western countries, especially in towns and cities that have a significant Indian population, women are taking up the, well, spatula. They're usually from small towns in India, and are experts in cooking and feeding their families. Just that now, they're feeding a few dozen more, and making some pocket money on the side. Some, like Hetal Bateriwala, become locally famous and end up supporting their spouses through the early years. "When we came in 2002 with two children, I wanted to do something to earn an extra income. I had already taken up a night job at a factory," says the 39-year-old, "I wasn't trained for anything else, but my mother had given me a solid training in household work, especially cooking. Now I thank her for teaching me those skills."
The tasks that most homemakers in India perform as part of their daily routine are a source of income for women abroad. There's always a steady influx of customers, mainly bachelors or men whose wives are travelling. When Paanwala started her tiffin service, word spread immediately and she would end up cooking for about 40 people every week. "I used to make $50-60 a day. But two years back, I had to undergo a bypass and so I have had to cut down some customers," says Paanwala.
Paanwala's son now refuses to let her exert herself. "He tells me to take it easy but I actually enjoy doing it. Besides, I'm a mother. I want to help him as much as I can. The extra cash also helps if I want to go for a senior citizens get-together or picnic with other Gujarati women," admits this super chef, who asks most customers to pick up their tiffin in the afternoon when her son is at work. Paanwala is famous for 'dhokla' and 'handva', two traditional Gujarati dishes that have people flocking to her home. "I don't mind taking even small orders. I get a great deal of satisfaction from it," she says.
With Bateriwala too, it all started with one customer. "My neighbour was a bachelor living by himself. As a good neighbour, I would sometimes give him food that I had cooked. He liked it so much that he asked if I would provide meals for his friends and him and offered to pay me for it," she recalls.
There was no looking back for Bateriwala, who quickly had a line-up outside her home. With a night job and two children, she has to manage her time well. "After I come back from work in the morning, I sleep for a few hours. I have to devote five hours every day to cooking in the afternoons," says Bateriwala, who makes up to 250 'theplas' and 100 'rotis' every week. "I have 44 customers right now. Some take a week's tiffin together if they live far away. I make different kinds of 'theplas', which people love. Of late, I've even started to make the 'puris' for 'pani puri' and they are a big hit. I charge $10 for 100 'puris'," she says.
Bateriwala has mainly Gujarati, Punjabi and South Indian clients, primarily single men who are vegetarian and want a taste of home food. "They face difficulties because most of them don't know how to cook. Most people praise my 'mutter paneer', 'pav bhaji' and 'shahi paneer'. I'm also glad I could bring up my kids without putting them in a day-care," she says. Sometimes life has its difficult moments. In summer when it is hot, for instance, it is tough to be near the stove, but there's no choice because the orders keep coming.
Apurva T., a 26-year-old banker, depends on women like Paanwala and Bateriwala for his daily meals. "I eat Jain food, which means no onions, garlic or potatoes. It would be impossible to find that kind of food in Toronto, so I'm really grateful to these women for providing such a service," he says. Apurva himself can barely make a cup of tea, "I've been here for a few years, and I would have starved without them. I pick up my meals on my way back from work and all I have to do is go home, heat and eat."