Vinaya Pai from Kerala’s Thrissur district is not like any other senior citizen. This 60-year-old has pledged the rest of her life to looking after the well-being of other elderly and convalescing patients in her village.
A woman with a huge heart, oodles of determination and capacity for hard work, Vinaya is a proficient multi-tasker.
For the last couple of years, her schedule has been constant. She wakes up every day at 2 AM and heads straight to the kitchen to prepare breakfast for 50 people. She consults with the doctors in case of recovering patients and depending on the dietary needs, prepares low-salt, low-cholesterol, oil-free food with healthy ingredients like ragi, oats, millets.
Dishes like roasted gooseberry rice, green mango rice, mint rice, eggplant rice bay leaf tea, green tea, oats Idli and wheat dosa among others, form a part of her menu.
“My mind and body is working fine and all I have to do is put my culinary knowledge to use. Two helpers assist me in preparing food. Waking up early in the morning is a very small price for this noble deed,” she tells The Better India.
Vinaya puts in an equal amount of love and effort while cooking the food for she believes that food shouldn’t be just another mass production activity.
“I serve people who have asthma, joint pains, digestion problems. A couple of them are in their 80s with no teeth. I have been doing this for a while and I remember my customer’s needs, I have to be very careful while preparing food. I maintain a diary where I write my notes and every morning I go through them,” she shares.
She has the breakfast ready anywhere between 7.30 AM to 8 AM. Most of the families pick up the food from her doorstep. For those who cannot, she doesn’t mind home-delivering the food. She charges minimal rates for the breakfast as she believes anything that comes for free will not be valued.
The Indigenous Ingredient
During the conversation, Vinaya also reveals her secret ingredient indigenous to Kerala and a very healthy supplement. It is Bilimbi (Averrhoa bilimbi), a healthy yellow-green sour fruit.
It is native to the Moluccas area in Indonesia and Kerala is probably the only state in the country where it grows. It goes by the name ‘Irumban Puli’.
The fleshy and juicy fruit has many medicinal properties and is often used to treat cough, ulcers, prevent diabetes and eliminate acne.
“Bilimbi helps in reducing high blood pressure and cough. It can also be used to treat wounds and inflammation. Its leaves can be used to ease the inflammation during skin infections.”
Vinaya uses the fruit as an alternative to tamarind. She adds it to tangy curries, juice and soup.
Living Her ‘Entrepreneur’ Dream
Vinaya’s gastronomic journey began when she was young. As a child, she would often be found in the kitchens of one of the hotels—‘Bharat Hotel Sringeri’—her family owned in Kodungallur in the 1970s.
She grew up observing the chefs and dreaming of owning her own food chain.
Though she graduated in Economics and went on to work in a bank, she also completed her BSc in Home Science. While she worked as an instructor in the plant processing division of Canara Bank, she entered the food processing industry at the age of 25.
She started the sale of chips made with bitter gourd, banana, jackfruit, passion fruit, carrots, beetroots, bilimbi and kumbalanga (winter melon) that became an instant hit in her village. She also got a chance to work with a government programme called ‘Jan Shikshan Sansthan’ for which she quit her bank job. The programme aims to provide vocational training to people from underprivileged backgrounds and school dropouts.
There, she trained approximately 10,000 people to make value-added products like chips, jams, pickles.
“Most of the people I taught were housewives who wanted to use their culinary skills to earn an extra source of income. The programme was a life-changing experience for me too. Back in those days, preparing delicious food was the only purpose of a housewife and it was incredible to see how those rural women were willing to use it to their advantage and form an identity of their own,” she recalls.
Even today, Vinaya makes healthy value-added products using local fruits and vegetables and sells them across the village and some neighbouring villages as well. She claims to earn anything between Rs 2,000-10,000 per day depending on the orders.
Most of the money she earns is directed towards buying food ingredients for the breakfast she prepares for others.
“As a little girl, I wanted to be a businesswoman with my own food company. I am fortunate enough to be living that dream and at the same time helping those in need. I just got lucky,” smiles Vinaya.
(Edited by Saiqua Sultan)