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Feed the kids’ bodies and minds – Dishoom hits 20m charity meal milestone

A boon in life to have always been well fed. The same goes for my extended family. Far too many are not so lucky. It has been on my mind a lot of late as, at my stove, I enjoy the privilege of cooking for pleasure, not for hard-pressed subsistence. I’ve just prepared a herb-fragrant keema pau of minced mutton with a kachumber salad. It’s a favourite recipe from the ravishing Dishoom: From Bombay With Love cookbook, celebrating the Irani cafes of Old Mumbai and promoting the nine-strong Dishoom UK restaurant brand.

This huge success story is the creation of cousins Shamil and Kavi Thakrar, whom I first met on a press trip to their London bases in advance of their branching out to Manchester in late 2018. It proved to be more than just the usual junket.

What struck me in their establishments was their mastery of authentic style alongside an accessible menu that still felt a refreshing antidote to curry house cliché. Also, thanks to a kind invitation to a family gathering in the presence of Shamil’s mother Rekha, I began to understand the ethical undertow to all they do. It was most evident in their determination to run their restaurants without barriers of prejudice. 

Their website offers a mission statement: ”We get Muslims and non-Muslims to celebrate Eid, and Hindus and non-Hindus to celebrate Diwali. We tie Knots of Protection on each other. We bring people from all cultures and all walks of life together in our restaurants, and we feed millions of children.”

That last commitment sounds staggering, but it is true. So far, they have donated the cost of 20 MILLION meals for charities – supporting in the UK Magic Breakfast, dedicated to providing meals so children don’t go hungry before school starts, and in their Indian homeland the The Akshaya Patra Foundation. This is a behemoth of an operation that has so far served up a staggering 3.5 BILLION free school meals. That’s healthy hot nourishment to 2.2 million children in 20,000 schools daily, dished in tiffin boxes out from 68 mega kitchens across the sub-continent. This remarkable video shows how they do it, mass producing sambar and rice for southern states, dal and roti for northern. 

Since 2020, separate from the Dishoom tie-in, Akshaya’s remit has also covered meals to children and vulnerable groups in North London The reason? 800,000 children in the capital alone are at risk from food poverty, while across the UK 1.7 million children of low income families are not eligible for free school meals. The figures I’m quoting are from Akshaya Patra’s own annual report, but I have no reason to doubt they are true. This is Marcus Rashford territory.

Their London hub is based, with unconscious irony, on Imperial Way, Watford, but a new pilot venture also takes in Nottingham, providing a hot meal for after school clubs. These are aimed at youngsters who have no surface at home where they can do homework and, possibly, parents with no educational confidence.

The importance of food charities for education

‘Akshaya’ means limitless and ‘Patra’ means a bowl of food. The guiding principle in India is to encourage kids to continue in education rather than forced to go to work too young or even beg. Across the sub-continent at least 35 million children aged 6-14 years do not attend school. And for those who do lack of nutrition seriously hinders their attention in class.

Let Ashkata UK Ceo Daniel Adams explain: “When hunger is a barrier to education it also becomes a barrier to social mobility. A child that is not fed can become a teenager that did not learn and an adult that stays in poverty. We care deeply about breaking down these barriers. It’s a social justice issue with long term benefits. To quote Nelson Mandela: ‘Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world’.

“Dishoom are an extremely generous corporate patron who help power our programme. We make natural bedfellows through a love of for and nutrition with shared Indian roots. We are so grateful to them.”

Stalwart campaigner Jamie Oliver is on the case, too: “I truly believe that if every child had access to good, nutritious food, they would concentrate better in school, giving them a far greater chance at a better education, which in turn helps create a much stronger future generation. Akshaya Patra  is an incredible organisation, and their dedication, passion to make this happen is inspiring.” 

Dishoom’s pact with them came into being at Ramadan 2015. The Muslims have a name for it: Zakat. It’s a form of obligatory charity that has the potential to ease the suffering of millions. The literal meaning of the word is ‘to cleanse’; the belief is that paying Zakat purifies, increases and blesses the remainder of their wealth. The Thakrar family fortune originally sprung from their Tilda rice empire. For their Zakat Dishoom chose Akshaya and Magic Breakfast. At the Hindu Diwali the same year they made this joint partnership permanent.

For every meal (or home meal kit) Dishoom serves, they donate a meal to a child who would otherwise go hungry. More recently in Manchester they have also contributed handsomely to Eat Well, the restaurant and chef collective that delivers up to 1,000 meals a week to support people sidelined by poverty. 

Dishoom, Manchester Hall, 32 Bridge St, Manchester M3 3BT. 0161 537 3737. To donate to Akshaya Patra visit this link.

All the images are courtesy of Akshaya Patra, except for the two for Dishoom.