When Jacob Sztokman was in Mumbai for his work as a marketing executive, he was taken to the Kalwa slum. There he heard that children, as young as five, were working instead of attending school. They needed the 60 rupees (15 pence) to pay for their food that day.
Most people would have felt terrible, and then done nothing. But not Sztokman. Years later, now retired, he is still working to help the children of Kalwa. A new cookbook, Masala Mamas, is just the latest step in his work.
His wife, Elana Sztokman, once a leading advocate for Orthodox jewish feminism in the US, now training as a Reform rabbi, was in London recently to promote the book. She told me how Jacob spent months after his trip to Malwa researching and thinking.
“It took him six months to even share with me what he’d seen!” His guide had explained that the slum children had a choice — to learn or to eat. His research led him to a simple solution: if the children could eat a hot meal at school, they would come and learn.
In 2012, he founded Gabriel Project Mumbai (GPM) a non-profit organisation set up to provide daily hot meals for school children of the Kalwa slums. He moved to Mumbai to run the charity — the only Jewish one operating in the Kalwa slum — which is served by Jewish volunteers from around the world, including the UK.
He needed someone to cook, and approached an organisation called the Delicio women’s co-operative. “These were women who had moved to Kalwa from their homes in villages around India in search of a better life for their children — to give them an education and a chance for a strong economic future” says Elana.
Although many of their children had benefited from their educations — some working as bankers, pharmacists or computer engineers — the womenthemselves were uneducated. Their own families had not felt they needed an education, leaving them with no maths skills — many could not even work out the age difference between their children.
In moving to Kalwa they had sacrificed fresh air, their extended families and lost the traditions of the country villages they came from. Now 16 of them cook vegetarian meals which keep hundreds of children in school.
The project is as much about these women as it is about the children, and Masala Mamas features their stories about how they came to be living in the slum.
“The women are using their deep love of cooking as an instrument for social change,” says Elana. Each day before they start work they performing rituals , giving each other blessings. They then squat on the floor of their tiny kitchen area — just 12 square metres — which doesn’t always have running water or electricity, and cook meals for more than 100 children. There is no oven, the Kalwa women cook on stoves and even cakes and breads are prepared in a pan.
“We also wanted to capture their knowledge of food and spices before it disappeared, ” explains Elana. The colourful foods they have shared in the book include samosas, chutneys, flatbreads and a range of vegetable curries and pakoras.
There are also explanations of techniques and guides to ingredients they use, as well as recipes for basic rice, spice mixes; drinks like Lassis; dips; breakfast foods; snacks and finger foods; main dishes and sweets. Every recipe is vegetarian, so the book is perfect for kosher cooks.
Some recipes have been donated by members of the Indian Jewish community. “Gloria Spielman, whose mother was born in Bombay, is a wonderful Indian cook who lives in Israel and helped us with the book. She is known in the community for her samosas and her aloo (pea and potato) samosas feature in the book.”
Spielman’s mother passed her expertise in samosa making (and recipe) to her daughter. Although there are more, Elana decided not to include too many traditional Jewish Indian recipes as she wanted to focus on the women of Kalwa and their stories.
After only a year of the project starting, teachers reported a 50% increase in school attendance. Through food, the women have created a new community for themselves, to replace the networks they lost when they left their villages.