Ten restaurant owners of Indian background recently caused a stir in Canada with a unique fundraising effort for the COVID-afflicted. Their proposition: A special take-out menu at a price, the proceeds of which would go towards supporting states in India that were running short of oxygen.
The restaurant owners hitched their dinner wagons to the 1 Billion Breaths global campaign for pandemic-beleaguered India “to raise money and awareness to support a country that got us here in the first place,” according to the campaign’s website. It was a culinary journey involving some of the best Indian restaurants in the world to help a country of over 1 billion people catch its breath.
The first of its kind in North America, the initiative saw master chefs and restaurateurs get together for a common cause. Ladling out Kofta curries, invoking the inviting aroma of Biryani, plates of crisp Dosa with coconut chutney, the enthusiasm rustled up 28 participating restaurateurs, three more than the targeted number.
The idea came from Basu Dev Ratnam, a New York restaurateur who owns Inday, a group of three India-inspired, fast-casual restaurants. “We have family and friends who are buying vaccines, oxygenators on the black market for 10 times the going price,” Ratnam observed in the Eater Chicago newsletter.
The restaurateurs were from Toronto, Ottawa, New York, Los Angeles, and London. The 1 Billion Breaths campaign ran from May 24 to May 30, 2021 on dates of their choosing.
Slicing and Dicing for a Cause
In Canada, Ratnam first reached out to three Indian restaurateurs: Joe Thottungal of Thali/Coconut Lagoon in Ottawa, Vikram Vij of My Shanti and Vij’s restaurant from Surrey, B.C., and Miheer Shete of Curryish from Toronto. There was also demand from other leading restaurants to partake, and thus began the initiative.
Joe Thottungal, an award winning chef and author of Cookbooks, explained that when the 1 Billion Breaths organizers did their math, it was calculated that 10 kilos of Medical Oxygen would cost 5,600 INR or $86 USD and 105$CDN. Every meal box sumptuously fed two persons.
“We were free to choose our menu and the dates of service, and so at Thali, we offered special meals both vegetarian and non-vegetarian… all of which was put together with local produce,” he told NCM.
Thottungal quoted Ratnam to say that “after carefully vetting different charities and agencies in India, we decided on Oxygen for India and Give India Oxygen,” both of which would receive 100 per cent of the proceeds raised.
The goal was to raise $250,000 USD over the course of the week ending May 30, though Thottungal estimates they raised closer to $300,000.
In a radio interview with the CBC, Thottungal explained the passion behind the community effort, acknowledging that his business, like others, thrives by showcasing Indian cuisine and culture. Making good food is what they can do to make someone’s life better at this time.
Vikram Vij, a key player in the campaign, is an Indian-born chef, cookbook author, and television personality who owns My Shanti in South Surrey, B.C. He said after being approached by Ratnam, he found the proposal fascinating.
“I enjoy fresh air and an invigorating environment in Canada,” he told NCM. “I wanted to give back the fresh air boon I had to my homeland suffering to take even one breath.”
My Shanti, unlike the others, ran an in-house campaign on the premises, though they took orders online. “During the campaign week, our customers were served not just food but details of the oxygen shortage and what was the need of the hour in India,” Vij said.
“We served around 10 to 12 tables, if not more, per day. My waiters, staff, and I went from table to table discussing the pandemic.”
The name My Shanti means ‘Peace.’ “With an awful lot of chaos in India,” Vij said, “I want to share peace and remove stress.”
A Philanthropic Menu
Canadians and immigrants of Indian origin relished the five different styles of fare Vij offered: Chickpeas (North Indian style), Jack fruit special from Kerala, Panch Mishali Torkari from West Bengal, Sat Dal (Gujarati) and Fried vegetable (ladies finger) from Middle India.
The 56-year-old Punjabi who grew up in Delhi thought it was a very fulfilling experience.
“We made around $1,000 CAD on the vegetarian fare” and received praise from visitors, he said. Vikram owns VIj’s and is also co-owner of Rangoli Restaurant in Vancouver.
Hailing from Ottawa, Thottungal contributed a South Indian menu that could be ordered online and delivered on May 26. At Thali, his food boxes brought in $15,000 and everything prepared for this event was sold out in a single day, well ahead of the May 30 deadline.
His non-veg take-out included Kashmiri Lamb, Tilapia Mappas and Malabar Duck Biryani. He chose to support local farmers buying their products.
“The biryani was cooked with local ducks from a local farm,” he said.
The vegetarian meals had Kadai Paneer Mushroom and Peas Kurma, along with Malabar Vegetable Biryani replacing the non-veg items. Of course, there was a choice of drinks too.
Thottungal’s Thali fare had the High Commissioner for India in Canada, Ajay Bisaria, the Mayor of Ottawa, Jim Watson, and Business Council of India President and CEO, Goldy Hyder, order his take-outs. His ethnic fare was eagerly scooped up by those who had gone with him on the annual tours of his home state for ‘The Kerala Spice Trail’.
Thottungal has been consistent with his philanthropy. He still supports ‘Food For Thought’ from his downtown restaurant, Thali, making 300 to 400 meals per day, though recently he increased that number to 1,000.
The third initial participant was Miheer Shete, owner of Curryish in Toronto, offering Contemporary Fare. He used delivery vans to supply customers.
The Curryish offer included Ontario Ramps Marinated Tandoori Chicken and Lemon Artichoke Curry. These came with Garlic Naan and Star Anise Basmati Rice.
“It was (a) full house for me,” he said. “ My aim was to attract all kinds of food lovers with a kind heart.”
He estimates that maybe around 30 to 40 couples who were not all necessarily of Indian origin, supported the campaign.
The 1 Billion Breaths website lists the 28 participants and includes the other seven Indian immigrant-owned Canadian restaurants, which went full steam for the campaign: Bhai’s Indian Canteen, Haldi, Mantra, The Host, all from Toronto, apart from East India Co, Taj Indian Cuisine, from Ottawa, Vikram’s Vij’s from Vancouver, B.C.
Giving India a Breather
The High Commissioner Ajay Bisaria told NCM that Canada was one of the first countries to rush aid to India. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau pledged $10 million to the Canadian Red Cross to support the Indian Red Cross Society’s response in India. British Columbia, Ontario, Quebec and Saskatchewan also chipped in.
For its part, Air Canada had cargo-only flights to ship ventilators, oxygen cylinders, oxygen generators and PPE to Delhi, CISION News Wire reported.
In partnership with Disaster Aid USA (DAUSA), Air Canada is also raising funds for small oxygen generators at a cost of $550 USD each. They are meant for rural areas in India. The airline company is working in association with Rotary Clubs in Canada, the US and India.
Gita Abraham is a journalist of 45-year standing and has worked in national dallies and magazines in New Delhi including Hindustan Times and India Today. For 15 years she was the Feature Editor of The City TAB in Bangalore. She was also a Professor of Journalism, at the Asian College of Journalism in Chennai. Treading the thin line between fact and fiction, Gita has launched her debut novel “Daughter of the Blue Hills” early this year. She and her husband are snowbirds shuffling between Chennai and Ottawa. She has two daughters and two frisky grandsons who inhabit her world.