The awe-inspiring neighbourhood of Nizamuddin is located in the heart of Delhi. One of the oldest parts of the capital city, this bustling area comprises the World Heritage Site of Humayun’s Tomb, the vibrant seven centuries-old settlement of Hazrat Nizamuddin Basti and the 70-acre Sunder Nursery, among other landmarks. It also has a delectable cuisine, that is distinct in its rootedness and flavour, which is integral to Delhi’s food scene.
A women’s collective—Zaika-e-Nizamuddin (ZeN)—is carrying forward this 700-year-old legacy of culture and cuisine. As the name suggests, it is the flavours (zaika) of Nizamuddin that the group curates. Swati Batra, Women’s Livelihood coordinator of the initiative, says, “Zaika-e-Nizamuddin was initiated in 2012 under the Nizamuddin Urban Renewal Initiative of the Aga Khan Trust for Culture (AKTC) in response to a study conducted under the initiative’s ECCD (Early Childhood Care and Development) component. The study revealed more than 50 percent of the children under the age of six in Nizamuddin Basti are malnourished. Further exploration highlighted junk food to be one of the major causes of malnourishment in children. ZeN came into existence when a group of mothers was brought together to make and supply healthy homemade alternatives to the junk snacking.”
What makes the dishes made by this group of chefs different from what one eats at Jama Masjid? “That food is more commercial, and laden with oil and spices . We, on the other hand, are simple home cooks. We don’t have a degree in culinary skills,” says Fatima Shahjahan, a member of the collective. “Our food is loved because we make every dish from scratch with age-old recipes. The taste upholds the living heritage and also gives a peek into the culture of Nizamuddin,” says another member, Kulsum. “It looks simple, but it has struck a chord with many,” says ZeN member, Noorjahan.
The group started its catering wing in 2015, and since then it has grown into an independent women’s enterprise and provides food beyond Nizamuddin. They were invited to Park Hyatt, Hyderabad, and JW Marriott Mumbai for special food festivals in 2019 and 2020. The group recently got registered as an LLP company with 11 women members as partners.
The product repertoire of ZeN includes home delivery, picnic baskets, catering, pop-up restaurants and live counters with dishes like khichda, salans, koftes, laddoos, namkeens and more. They also participate in several food exhibitions and have a weekend stall in Delhi’s nature hub, Sunder Nursery. “The main value proposition is that every order is made exclusively (from scratch), using fresh ingredients (no refrigeration) and age-old recipes (no internet),” says Batra.
It is empowering to see the ‘bajis’ (elder sister in Urdu) of Nizamuddin sport aprons and headgears to make nihari and haleem using their grandmother’s recipes in a commercial bawarchi khana (kitchen). It has been a transformative journey for 11 illiterate women, who have never done any work outside their homes, apart from being domestic helps. To work on something of their own has been empowering. “It wasn’t as difficult to form a group as it was to keep the group together, especially during phases of low income. All the women come from a difficult reality and investing time into something without any immediate income has been very trying. They faced a lot of resistance from their families initially. But fortunately, the members held on to the hope and stuck around. Now they are partners of their firm,” says Batra.
The AKTC team responsible for incubating and anchoring the group tried to keep the women active during lean periods and the initial phase (when the quantum of business was lesser) by involving them in different kinds of training, regular meetings and organising exposure visits. When they started out, the women made around ₹200 a month. They are now earning up to ₹6,000 a month per person. There is also a communal kitty that they circulate among themselves. Over the years, ZeN has been able to create a place for its brand in the multi-faceted food space of Delhi. It has a small but loyal customer base who appreciate the quality of the food along with the journey of the enterprise.
“ZeN works with the objective of creating sustained, dignified, and enhanced incomes for its women members through promoting the indigenous cuisine of Basti Hazrat Nizamuddin,” emphasises Batra. As the group coordinator receives an order from a customer she puts in the duty of the chef(s) according to an internal roster. The chef(s) in charge procures fresh meat and vegetables and prepares the order which is finally delivered by a local delivery boy working with the group. Bigger or difficult orders are made under the supervision of group leaders.
The collective works on a flexible model where the members can choose the number of hours they want to devote. If a member decides to not take up the order, the one next in line in the roster gets it, and so on. Every member has a work passbook that records their daily duties. At the end of every month, the chefs’ income, according to the work they have done, is transferred directly to their bank account.
The pandemic was challenging and the collective is still coming to terms with it. “It was a huge and disappointing speed breaker, and the kitchen remained closed for months. Concealment of Nizamuddin, after it was marked a ‘red zone’, made everything worse. The annual turnover reduced by more than 20 percent in FY 2020-21 compared to FY 2019-20. The enterprise also lost many hard-earned customers,” rues Batra.
The catering service re-started after a break in July 2020 after collecting customers’ responses through a survey on their willingness to place orders. During the second wave, ZeN launched a new product idea of simple home-cooked food. The food received encouraging response and was mostly ordered by Covid-positive patients across the city. “The biggest learning has been to take feedback constructively and continue to work in a systematic manner with constant efforts towards improvement. For community enterprises like these, teamwork is very important,” says Batra, revealing that Zaika-e-Nizamuddin is planning to scale up in the future by considering collaboration with cloud kitchens and delivery partners while maintaining their authentic value proposition. “I can’t say any more on this topic. Just keep a watch out for us going big,” she smiles.
ZeN can be contacted through their Instagram page: @zaika_e_nizamuddin. They deliver across Delhi-NCR and orders can be placed via WhatsApp on 9891543356.