“And now let’s thank Danielle Aunty for joining us today! Give her a shooting star everybody!” shouted Adam Aronovitz. Twenty smiling girls raised their arms in my direction, wiggling their fingers as they cheered. I was spending the afternoon at the Odanadi women’s residential facility in Mysore, South India, a non-profit that rescues women and children from human trafficking, with Adam, his partner, Alissa Bilfield, and volunteer Nisha Parikh.
Adam and Alissa are co-founders of The Cookbook Project, an international non-profit focused on educating youth about nutrition and cooking using interactive and experience-based methods. “Our mission is to use food culture as a platform for talking about bigger issues such as nutrition, health and food choices with young people,” Alissa said.
With Odanadi (which means “Hand in Hand”), the Project is running a two-year vocational training program to prepare about 18 residents for the business of running their own bakery, Sattvic Sweets. Derived from the Sanskrit word Sattva, the word sattvic, when applied to food, connotes qualities of purity, nutrition and cleanliness.
This business idea was born out of a month-long Cookbook Project workshop on food and nutrition in 2010. The participants wanted to apply what they had learned by running their own food enterprise and turned to Adam and Alissa for help. In response, the couple developed this training program to prepare the residents to run a café of their own.
Said Alissa,“We hope that this project will provide the residents with an outlet for income-generation, allowing them to save money and gain financial independence. At a broader level, we’re looking to support the burgeoning organic agricultural movement in South India by using as many organic ingredients in our products as possible.”
“We’re trying to do something different with this project by offering healthy Indian sweets and raw vegan cakes, with the hope that this will raise awareness about healthy eating and support a decline in chronic lifestyle-related diseases in the local community, like diabetes and heart disease,” she explained.“It’s not an easy task, as traditional Indian desserts usually feature large amounts of sugar and ghee (clarified butter), which play a big role in creating the flavors that Indians have come to love.”
The afternoon I was there, the girls tested a recipe for coconut burfi, a fudge-like sweet with grated coconut, sugar, cardamom and nuts, but with a healthy twist, using jaggery instead of white sugar. Two variations were made, one in a pan lined with ghee, and another lined with coconut oil, so that the girls could taste and discuss the differences in flavors. Adam, Alissa and Nisha led a discussion on organic products, their importance and a blind-tasting exercise featuring alternatives to traditional ingredients like date syrup (instead of white sugar) and sesame and coconut oil (in place of ghee).
From recipe development to Ayurvedic nutrition (the Hindu system of traditional medicine) to sessions about business planning, the vocational curriculum spans 16 sessions, featuring a mix of external speakers and recipe testing. The team and their volunteers are currently building out the commercial kitchen at Odanadi, where the bakery will begin life supplying sweets to local restaurants and cafés. The current goal is to get the business off the ground and transition to a retail space in two to three years.
The couple are in India for another month or so before they take The Cookbook Project on the road again, to Chiang Mai in Thailand, and thereafter to Bali, and perhaps the Philippines, sowing seeds of change among underserved communities around the world. Their lifestyle turns my inner explorer and social activist green with envy, but it has also opened my eyes to the fact that opportunities for change lie everywhere if you just pay attention.
All photos by Danielle Tsi
About the author: Danielle Tsi grew up in Singapore, a tiny, food-obsessed island on the tip of the Malaysian Peninsula, where every waking minute was spent thinking about what her next meal was going to be. Landing in the United States with her well-traveled Nikon, she turned her lifelong love affair with food into images and words on her blog, Beyond the Plate. When not behind the lens or at the stove, Danielle can be found on her yoga mat perfecting the headstand.