Muskaan Thakur

Every year, The Bombay Canteen (TBC) in Mumbai has been hosting an Independence Day Dawaat week, with a two-fold aim: one is to celebrate the culinary diversity of the country’s cuisine and the second is to use the money raised from the celebrations for a good cause.
This year, which is the sixth Independence Day Dawaat celebrations, TBC is going to recreate the dawaat experience at home and host virtual cooking workshops. Chef Thomas Zacharias hosted one on cooking Pan-Indian dishes on August 9 followed by Chef Heena Punwani’s Til Gud cake.
There are two more lined up for August 16 ‒ Chef Hussain Shahzad and his mother Nafisa will teach traditional Bohri meal and Chef Girish Nayak will teach how to make rasgulla from scratch!
The Bombay Canteen team. Courtesy: The Bombay Canteen
The Bombay Canteen. Courtesy: The Bombay Canteen
Chef Thomas Zacharias of The Bombay Canteen tells us what’s in store for the week, going digital for the first time and making a social difference through cooking.
Please tell us about The Bombay Canteen’s Independence Daawat Week?
To explain this, I’ll have to give you a little bit of a background about what TBC is all about. It’s a modern regional restaurant and the idea is to celebrate the diversity of India. We wanted to showcase the plethora of regional cuisines that we have and represent it through our restaurant. That’s what we’ve been doing for the last five and a half years. I think for a restaurant that is trying to celebrate India, August 15 is a very big day for us. What people think is that as its the Independence Day, there will be a flag hoisting ceremony and everyone will be carrying or wearing flags around. But it pretty much ends with that, it doesn’t amount to anything meaningful. What we wanted to do is use the day as a way to engage with the entire community and also give back to them.
Ever since our first year, we realised that this is a great way of giving back, not just to the community around us, but the community at large. So after every two years, we focus on a new charity, foundation or an NGO. Last year, we decided that if we want to make any significant impact, we need to look at a long term association with an NGO. One of the most pressing issues in the food system today is the current state of the farmers. All of us depend on farmers for our food, but ultimately they are the poorest section of our society. So, we tied up with Naandi Foundation, an organisation that works in the Araku Valley, Andhra Pradesh (which just won the Rockefeller Foundation’s Food Vision 2050 prize). They’ve been working to empower farmers with not just the funds needed, but also the technical know-how, resources, access to the right places and giving them direction to make them self-sufficient and prosperous.
Independence Daawat. Courtesy: The Bombay Canteen
Independence Day Daawat. Courtesy: The Bombay Canteen
The way we do this is that every year on August 15, we don’t have regular restaurant operations. We open the restaurant with a full banana thali lunch and anyone is welcome to come and pay what they want. All the proceeds go to charity. With each year, Independence Day Daawat has grown bigger. In the first year, we fed 180 people at the restaurant and raised  ₹3.5 lakh. Last year, we fed 871 people and raised over ₹20 lakh.
With the giant donation, we decided to adopt a village called Cheduputtu. It was a village where we set up the farmers from scratch, right from getting the soil ready to bringing their produce (such as kidney beans, ginger and turmeric) to our kitchen for this year’s meal. We are continuing with our focus on contributing to the Araku Valley.
Independence Daawat. Courtesy: The Bombay Canteen
Independence Day Daawat. Courtesy: The Bombay Canteen
Why did you choose to do a workshop this year to raise funds? Also, what are the pros and cons of conducting a workshop online?
We are trying to keep the community of our wellwishers engaged, keep the appreciation and love between our guests and us going. That’s the idea behind the workshops. Another thing is that people are stuck at home so they want new experiences. A lot of people are cooking these days. Not everyone wants to order delivery of the same thing over and over again. So, it gives them a chance to actually learn something in the process and also cook something delicious.
You can pretty much get recipes for almost anything on YouTube, but the difference is that with our workshop, you get a chance to interact with the recognised and respected chefs on a real-time basis, which you will never be able to do through a YouTube video. Also, the recipes that we are choosing like, for example, Chef Hussain has done multiple workshops on Gaon Poi bread, is something that you can’t learn properly online. So we are trying to figure out a way. We might show recipes that people have grown to love over the years.
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Araku Valley. Courtesy: The Bombay Canteen
Hunger Inc team with members of Naandi Foundation and the local farmers of Araku Valley. Courtesy: The Bombay Canteen
How has your collaboration with Naandi Foundation and Araku Coffee turned out so far?
It’s been great. We’ve gone on a trip to Araku Valley as well with one of our restaurant’s Co-Founder, Yash Bhanage. We’ve seen the villages, interacted with the farmers. There’s a lot of groundwork that has been happening in the last year. The beauty of Naandi is that they understand what the farmers need and are able to support them in the right way. The fact that Araku Coffee (Naandi Foundation’s CEO Manoj Kumar is also on the Board of Directors for Araku Coffee) came on board to support us this year for the cause has been a great additional help. Coffee comes from the same valley, it’s a by-product of what the farmers grow. So, it all ties up well together. It’s a very holistic way of giving back to society while keeping everyone engaged.
Seeing everything on the grassroots level and especially our seed of progress, the good that has come out of everyone’s donations has been inspiring and is motivating us to work even harder this year.
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Independence Daawat. Courtesy: The Bombay Canteen
Independence Day Daawat, 2019. Courtesy: The Bombay Canteen
You have reimagined the August 15 feast. Tell us about it.
This year because of the current situation, we obviously cannot welcome people to our restaurant for a thali. So, we decided to repackage it and have it delivered. We designed a beautiful box with all the messaging and the information about the donation. Also, we wanted to take it one step further by figuring another way how people can contribute. Especially for a lot of people who reside out of Mumbai and want to contribute. We have been doing a lot of cooking workshops over the last three months through Zoom. So we figured, why not get four of our main chefs to do cooking workshops and all the proceeds will go towards this cause.
You can be a part of this fundraiser by ordering the Independence Day Daawat (priced at ₹750/- per box, orders need to be placed by August 15) or by booking the online cooking workshops here. Each feast amounts to the plantation of 10 trees while each workshop ticket amounts to 30 trees.
Anyone who wants to donate apart from ordering a meal or signing up for a class can directly donate towards planting a tree as well. According to the calculations, it costs ₹75 to plant a tree in the Araku Valley.

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