I started this day by heading to tour a hospital kitchen, and see the Didi Ki Rasoi initiative in action. This program is cooking and kitchen based, so you can imagine how excited I was to meet everyone and learn more about the work they do! The Didis are women who are able to earn a salary in a self-help, group-owned catering business. Didi Ki Rasoi fill the kitchens of medical facilities throughout Bihar, and through program training, develop healthy, home-cooked menus, maintain strict hygiene protocols, and provide delicious, nourishing meals to some of India’s most vulnerable populations and their families. Didis are women who were already excellent home cooks for their families, so taking this existing skill set and turning it into something that gives them autonomy and financial stability shows how strategic and accessible the program is.
We started by touring the pantry and the level of organization and efficiency was genuinely inspiring. I met A Didi, who showed me their dry storage, which included everything from lentils, rice, and chickpeas, to spices, honey, and more! I also walked through their equipment storage and my own kitchen was put to absolute shame. Everything was sorted, stacked, and stored to perfection. Next, some of the Didis were kind enough to let me join them in the kitchen, and I’ve never enjoyed being corrected so much in my life! I got to make samosas, rice, and tamarind chutney, and sat down with my teacher at the end to enjoy all of the delicious food we made. We then headed to the Canteen where patients and their families eat, and I got to check another item off of my personal bucket list: making roti in India! The Didis were very complimentary of my skills, but my roti were elementary in comparison to the ones they made. After my roti lesson, we got to sit down and eat the meal that was served for the day, including the roti, aloo gobi, a paneer dish, and so many others. Every bite of food was delicious, and the Canteen was also filled with so many others who were clearly enjoying their food, too.
While chatting with the women during our meal, I learned even more about Didi Ki Rasoi. Once the money to build the canteen is recouped by Jeevika the Didis in the self help group who work there become the owners of the Canteen on top of their annual salary.
The first pilot program was launched in 2018, during which the Didis completed a 10-day training program primarily focused on the business-side of running their kitchens (Canteens!), including everything from accounting, to crisis management, to supply and inventory management. The pilot was a huge success, and the many Canteens that have opened since have followed their example. Didi means “Elder Sister” in Hindi, and this familiar term of respect and endearment has also helped to brand the program to other potential members. The Didi Ki Rasoi initiative is another incredible example of how a women’s empowerment program can
solve for larger, common community problems, too. It was clear to me that the women were proud of and empowered by their ability to turn their culinary skills into extra income for their families, and it was a lifelong dream come true to spend time with so many talented Indian cooks in a giant kitchen!
Eitan Bernath is an award-winning chef, author, TV personality, entertainer, and social justice activist. He is the chief executive officer of Eitan Productions, the Principal Culinary Contributor for the Daytime Emmy® award-winning Drew Barrymore Show on CBS, and is a contributor to The Washington Post, Food & Wine, Saveur, and Delish.