by LAUREN CODLING

ASIAN restaurants and food brands have spoken out about the importance of philanthropy, as a leading London restaurant announced it had donated five million meals to charity last month.

Shamil Thakrar is the co-founder of Dishoom, a popular chain of restaurants known for their design that is reminiscent of vintage Irani cafes in early 19th century Bombay.

Shamil Thakrar is the co-founder of Dishoom

In September, the brand’s Meal for a Meal initiative revealed it had donated five million meals to charity. For every meal served at Dishoom, a meal is given to a child who would otherwise go hungry.

It has helped to feed school children in the UK and abroad. Thakrar, a father-of-three, described the impact of the meal as “life-changing”.

“When hunger is a barrier to education, it also becomes a barrier to social mobility,” Thakrar explained to Eastern Eye. “A child who is not fed can become a teenager who did not learn and an adult who stays in poverty.”

As well as providing meals to children abroad, Dishoom has offered support to UK charities which help vulnerable children.

Magic Breakfast is an initiative which offers healthy breakfasts to disadvantaged children in the UK. Last year, Dishoom Carnaby invited a class of Magic Breakfast school children for breakfast at the restaurant. For some, it was the first time they had ever been inside a restaurant.

Dishoom invited children from Magic Breakfast to their Carnaby branch last year

“One kid had never seen a strawberry before,” Thakrar recalled.

The event made such an impact that in September, the Dishoom team closed all their branches for a morning and around 500 Magic Breakfast school children were invited for breakfast.

Thakrar, who believes that food is a way of breaking down barriers, said the business was driven by a need to bring people together.

“Over the past few years there’s definitely been an increased appetite (excuse the pun) for more than just food to come out of the London food scene,” he joked. “I think it is brilliant that so many restaurants today are aligning themselves with good causes.”

Dishoom isn’t the only restaurant lending a helping hand to the community. Many other top figures in the food industry have set up projects which aim to support those less fortunate.

Natco Foods, a leading food supplier which produces a variety of south Asian foods such as poppadoms, lentils, chutneys and spices, is renowned for its extensive charity work.

In 2018, after a large fundraiser in London which raised £42,000, the brand donated all sales of Natco red lentils to charity.

In 2014, the group’s charitable donations totalled more than £1.5 million. This year they established a partnership with Curry for Change, which helps provide food for rural families in Asia.

Natco support a number of initiatives, including a girls’ literacy project in Delhi that is run by an organisation called Nirantar

Natasha Pagarani, business improvement manager at Natco Foods, told Eastern Eye that the group funds schemes across India, from Rajasthan state in the west to Assam in the east and Karnataka in the south.

Charities supported included The Human Capability Foundation – a project co-created by
Pagarani and her brother Luke – and Action Village India.

Both focus on equality and women’s rights in the subcontinent.

Pagarani believes food brings people together to share diverse cultures, so is the perfect space to have discussions around charity and social issues.

“The UK has an amazing reputation for showcasing cuisines from all over the world. I think people are aware that many of these cuisines come from countries which are less developed than the UK, so there is a desire to give something back to those places,” Pagarani said.

Asma Khan is the founder of Darjeeling Express.

Originating as a small supper club in her home in 2012, her eatery is now a popular restaurant in central London.

However, Khan’s charity work started before her restaurant was a success. She began her supper clubs by hosting events for Action Against Hunger, which works in war and natural disaster zones to save children.

Asma Khan is the founder of London restaurant Darjeeling Express

Her first event aided a village, who were able to get the nutritious food they needed for malnourished children. “For someone whose life was cooking for people, supporting a charity like this made complete sense to me,” she told Eastern Eye.

A cause close to her heart is Second Daughters.

In India, families with daughters are expected to pay dowries to the groom’s family when their children get married, something which can often be a financial burden. Therefore, the second daughter can be treated differently to others in the family.

A second daughter herself, Khan said she wanted to change the way a girl child is greeted in some Indian families. The initiative rejoices in the birth by sending celebration packages for the family, and continue to support the girl through her education.

“The perception of being “unwanted” is something many second daughters talk about,” she said.

The project is still in the process for applying to get charity status from the Charity Commission.

However, Khan’s team has been informally running pilots in Kurseong, in West Bengal state in India.

She added she hopes to support an existing charity in rural West Bengal which teaches skills to teenage girls in a bid to delay an early marriage.

“Often, poor parents get their daughters married off very young to significantly older men as they struggle to feed and support their daughters. And, as they cannot afford to pay the dowry for suitable grooms for their daughters, the girls are given away to men who are more likely to abuse them and use them to look after their family,” she explained.

In her own restaurant in Soho, the culinary staff are all female and most have never worked professionally in a restaurant before. Khan hopes the mentoring skills she has already learned can aid her in empowering more women.

“The ripple effect cannot be underestimated – empowering one woman can change the attitudes of the entire family,” she said. “Financial security is an important part of this process and my future plans is to work on projects where women can achieve financial
independence and also emancipation from the chains of patriarchy.”