Women have played a pivotal role in food from times immemorial. Be it as mothers and grandmothers who laid the foundations of Indian food; culinary icons like Tarla Dalal, Balbir Singh and Katy Dalal who took home-cooking to the next level or chefs, restaurateurs and food entrepreneurs who continue to play a massive—but sometimes overlooked—part in shaping the industry today. They are all the movers and shakers of F&B as we know it. But some have made contributions that deserve special recognition because the impact has been far-reaching and exceeded the world of food to positively benefit our society.
From women bringing Ladakhi cuisine to the fore and using it to champion the cause of sustainability; to female entrepreneurs creating opportunities for the specially abled and septuagenarians reinventing themselves through home-kitchen based businesses at an age when most look forward to retiring—here are 9 women who deserve your adulation.
Nilza Wangmo, Chef
For bringing Ladakhi cuisine to the fore
Nilza Wangmo, a Ladakhi chef and owner of Alchi Kitchen, was recognised for her work in safeguarding women's rights and pushing the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development Goals and won the Nari Shakti Puruskar, the highest honour given to women in India. Speaking about her experience, Wangmo recollects how the flash floods that hit Ladakh in 2010, inadvertently pushed her closer towards her goal. "This was a dream project since childhood and I have worked hard for it. I faced many challenges, but thankfully, managed to overcome them and moved on. After the flood, I had lost almost everything and was jobless for two years, which in turn gave me ample time to realign my career. There was an urgent need and demand for an outlet serving authentic Ladakhi cuisine, so it was just the right decision at the right time," she says. Wangmo feels that while it has been difficult for women to carve out a space for themselves in a male-dominated world, things are looking better. Commenting on whether she feels women are underrepresented in F&B she tells us, "Women today are bold, ambitious and walk the extra mile to compete with their male counterparts. It's just that it'll take some time for us to succeed, but gradually things are changing."
At a time when the collective morale of the human race was in a rut, this 77-year-old Dadi managed to find inspiration in the midst of the second wave of COVID-19. Asher, along with her grandson, turned their home-based business into a venture, Gujju Ben Na Nasta that now sells regional snacks and meals on food aggregator apps. "I have travelled to Portugal, Dubai and the UK, where I was specially invited for my culinary talent. But we never thought of it as a full fledged business. When the pandemic started and there was a complete lockdown, we made pickles and sold them in our vicinity. We tied up with a few societies and started selling our nasta to them. We got a great response and that's how Gujjuben Na Nasta was born," she tells us. She adds that while for many years, F&B has been dominated by MNCs led by men, this is a new era where many women-led businesses are entering the retail space. "There are so many women across India, young and old, who are probably making really good and innovative foods at home, but are not able to convert it into a business because of the regressive perception of 'hobby ke liye acha.' I hope that my story helps them to break the shackles and make their mark in this industry," she shares.
Ekta Jaju, founder and CEO of ONganic Foods started out as a business student and went on to pursue direction from FTII, Pune, before pivoting to agriculture. She is extremely passionate about organic farming, and its impact on smallholder farmers in India. She also opened India Millets Co, which works with 200-plus farmers on board and focuses on ancestral immune-rich foods. Her work has had an immense impact on small-scale farmers and grassroot agriculture. What sets ONganic Foods apart, according to Jaju, is the fact that instead of treating farmers like suppliers, the organisation, she inducts them into the process. "Sometimes, when creating wealth, one might tend to focus on their own salaries or organisational wealth, but we are persistent about including our farmers in decision-making teams and making them a part of the prosperity and progress," she adds. Written by Shreyasee Ghosh
Mansi Jasani, Fromager and Entrepreneur
For representing India at the World Cheese Awards
India is the largest producer and consumer of milk. Naturally, it was high time we got recognition in the world of cheese, and a platform like the World Cheese Awards is perfect for that. And we were there, all thanks to Mansi Jasani, the founder of Cheese Collective, an educational platform and business revolving around cheese. Last year, she had the honour of becoming the first Indian to be a part of the super jury at the World Cheese Awards held in Spain in 2021. Speaking about the pivotal role that women play in the Indian cheese industry, she says, "Women and representation is a whole other ballgame, but in our small but growing artisanal cheese world in India we have some stellar women in the forefront, like Eleftheria, Begum Victoria, Kumaoni Blessings and Kase Chennai.
Apart from this, Mansi Jasani was inducted into the Guilde des Fromagers on 27th February, 2022—the first Indian to be part of this historical French Guilde. One has to be nominated to be inducted and she was nominated by American cheese industry senior, Susan Sturman, who has also been her teacher in the past. Written by Natasha Kittur
Mausam Jotwani Narang, Cheesemaker and Entrepreneur
For putting Indian cheese on the global
But last year, Jasani wasn't the only one at the World Cheese Awards. Founder of Eleftheria Cheese, an artisanal cheese brand from India, Mausam Jotwani Narang has played an important role in bringing Indian cheeses to the fore. She also became the first Indian to walk away with a silver rating for her now-world-renowned Norwegian style Brunost, at the awards. Speaking about the win, she tells us, "It has always been an endeavour of mine to make cheeses which are on par if not better than its western counterparts. India is one of the largest milk producers in the world and we have access to amazing indegenous farm fresh dairy, cheesemakers here are doing some phenomenal work and I wanted to showcase this & try and put India on the world cheese map in our own little way. That's why we decided to enter the awards with our Brunost." Written by Natasha Kittur
Minu and Preeyam Budhia, Social Entrepreneurs and Restaurateur
For providing employment to the specially abled
"A child with special needs inspires one to become a special kind of person, especially if one is a special parent or sibling. My younger daughter, Prachi, is our strength and inspiration. She helped us rediscover ourselves and look at the world in a whole new light," says Minu Budhia, who co-owns ICanFlyy cafe along with her daughter Preeyam. The dynamic mother-daughter duo are paving their way in the F&B industry and are inspired by the fact that the number of cafes/restaurants owned and operated by women are on the rise. They started the cafe five years ago and have managed to grow the space into a safe, sheltered workplace to employ and empower the specially abled, even through the pandemic. Speaking about their future plans, Preeyam tells us, "To quote Albert Einstein, most people see what is, and never what can be. We believe in making the impossible possible. At the cafe each and every one of our rising stars is given the opportunity to show what they really can do," adding that they are hoping to open multiple happy places that employ individuals with special needs soon so they can take ICanFlyy Cafe beyond Kolkata. Written by Aayushi Vichare
Dr. Sonam Kapse, Restaurateur
For providing employment to the specially abled
Being a doctor in cancer genetics and simultaneously working in the healthcare system exposed Dr. Kapse to various issues. This in turn, led her to opening her company, India Millets Co with 200 plus farmers on board, which is based on immune rich foods. Her determination to support sustainable agriculture motivated her to take things a notch up with her socially conscious diner, Terrasinne Cafe in Pune. At Terrasinne, they use forgotten grains to make highly nutritious global dishes that are preservative-free and focus on clean and fresh eating. The cafe also employs specially abled individuals, which was inspired by Dr Kapse's experiences working on independent projects around specially abled individuals. "I believe good can be done through any act of kindness, and that every life and every step matters in making a change," she tells us.
For mobilising resources for Covid-affected families
Tanvi Gupta, a Delhi-based online blogger and accessory designer, goes by the name @onmyteatoday on Instagram. During the pandemic, she used her online presence to share resources and leads on food, injections and oxygen during the crippling second wave and managed to mobilise her followers to do the same. "As a lifestyle blogger, the lockdown announcement left me feeling helpless and dumbfounded. My grandparents were hospitalised and we were already in a lot of distress. The more time I spent on social media, the more I realised that people were fighting for mere resources. So, I decided to use my presence on these platforms and started circulating resources. We had a lot of leads, and we were happy to help people struggling, especially those who are not on social media or who couldn't be due to other exigencies. It was overwhelming, heart wrenching and absolutely sad to see people reaching out for oxygen leads, injections and food," she recalls.