April 23, 2019

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    Serving hearty meals and fostering sisterhood

    January 13, 2019

    The top layer couldn’t have been crispier or the core softer. Shining in its golden-brown, crumbly skin, the keera vadai — an everyday snack in Sri Lanka — acquired new respect at the Ammachi café in Mannar, in Sri Lanka’s Northern Province.

    “I don’t add any ajinomoto salt or colouring agent. It’s just ulundu [black gram], and simply ground like we do in our homes,” said P. Jayakumari, a member of the women’s crew running the eatery. “Homely” is precisely how meals served here taste. At a time when fried rice and noodles have become the most commonly available dishes in small eateries across the island, these cafes — set up in other northern districts too — have come as a boon for those looking for a tasty and healthy option.

    Attired in a green apron and cap, Ms. Jayakumari, like her other colleagues at the café, serves with her hands covered in disposable, transparent gloves. A tasty, hearty meal here — be it breakfast, lunch, dinner or a snack — can be had for a couple of hundreds (LKR), a bill amount that is not common in Sri Lanka, where food is among the first essentials to reflect the ever-spiralling living costs. “Can I serve some more sambar? Do you like it?” she asks each customer, ensuring swift refills as their plates get empty.

    Nearly 10 women from the island’s war-affected communities work full time at the cafe to support their families — in Ms. Jayakumari’s case, her husband who has a disability and their three school-going children. Each of them has a story of war-time displacement and a subsequent battle to find work in order to survive.

    Ms. Jayakumari was displaced to Mannar from Jaffna, while S. Jeevapushpam, who leads the group, moved to the north from the hill country, after the July 1983 anti-Tamil riots. Among the younger members, P. Ajantha, 34, has memories of life as a refugee in Mandapam, Rameswaram, and briefly in Kerala, as a little girl, before she returned home.

    Each of the women working at Mannar’s Ammachi (grandmother) café has a story to tell, of war-time displacement and of waging a subsequent battle to find work in order to survive

    Fresh, delectable meals
    Their open kitchen, traditional recipes and strikingly fresh meals are steadily drawing more locals and tourists. “What we cook and sell in the mornings, we do not sell in the afternoons,” Ms. Jeevapushpam explained.

    On a given day, depending on the time, customers get to choose from a delightful Sri Lankan menu, including hot idiyappam, appam, dosa, idli, a wholesome rice and curry meal with pappadam and fried chillies, sweets such as modakam and tropical fruit juices. The Ammachi (grandmother) cafés, set up across the Northern Province in recent years, are modelled on the Hela Bojun (local food) stalls in the south, conceived by the Department of Agriculture to employ women.

    “We started at a very small scale initially, setting up stalls and road-side eateries. Seeing the response, we scaled up the project in 2012. Today, it costs LKR 6 million to set up one café (roughly ₹24 lakh),” according to Disna Rathnasinghe, an Additional Director with the Department, and in-charge of agri-businesses. This includes infrastructure and training — currently, at least 1,000 women are employed in the cafés, including some set up by the provincial agriculture departments.

    At the Mannar outlet, the women work from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. and pay LKR 200 as rent per day to the department (about ₹78). After retrieving the costs of the ingredients, they make about LKR 300-400 a day.

    “If you ask me whether the profits could be higher, I’d say yes. But this is not just about the money. We come here leaving behind our worries at home. There is a sense of sisterhood and solidarity here,” Ms. Jayakumari said. “It’s very much like family, secure.”
    (The Hindu)

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