By Jeninne Lee-St. John
Mar 30, 2020
HAOMA RESTAURANT IN BANGKOK is a staunchly locavore, seasonal, anti-pesticide, zero-waste fine-diner that usually specializes in prettily plated “Neo Indian” cuisine.
Now, though, the kitchen’s buzzwords are nutritional, traditional, economical and efficient.
Shuttered in the attempt to contain COVID-19 (the fare by chef Deepanker Khosla, a.k.a. DK, doesn’t translate easily to take-away, and most of his staff have said they’d rather stay home anyway), Haoma is now the nerve center of #noonehungry. The initiative prepares well-rounded meals for and distributes them to Burmese migrant workers who are unable to leave Bangkok and ineligible for unemployment support from Thailand, as well as to anyone else in need. They started off getting three meals a day to 500 to 700 people daily, are ramping up production to 1,000 people a day this week, and are looking for more donations and volunteer chefs to do even more.
DK’s taking a page from, he says, chef Jose Andres, whose World Central Kitchen, a quick-response charitable organization that provides hunger relief after natural disasters around the world, has chefs cooking tens of thousands of individually packaged meals for low-income folks across the U.S., including children who are missing out on the one or two meals a day they usually get at school.
As COVID-19 makes it clear just how vulnerable the neediest of our neighbors are, private individuals are stepping in to supplement government efforts. Established by the SATI Foundation, Scholars of Sustenance and Urban Studies Lab, another group called Covid Relief Bangkok has analyzed demographic data to micro-target the communities most in need based on age and pre-existing conditions of the residents. They begin deliveries of care packages that include rice, canned fish, face masks and hand sanitizer on April 2.
#noonehungry was born when four Haoma chefs who are nationals of Myanmar told DK of their compatriot friends and extended family members facing dire straits. Around 2 million Burmese migrant workers live in Thailand—a large chunk of them working in Bangkok’s F&B industry—and though many went home, many others were turned away after the land borders between the two countries were shut, and they returned to the capital with little safety net.
“We are asking these people to stay home during quarantine, but they don’t have a home. Maybe they can stay at a friend’s place,” DK says. “But they can’t eat a friend’s food.”
The #noonehungry team is making use of Ayurvedic nutritional knowledge to make every calorie count. The meals are chicken, potato and spinach curry, seasoned with vitamin-packed immunity-boosting traditional wellness ingredients like turmeric, ginseng and ginger—all wrapped sweetly in a banana leaf.
“We chefs know how to feed people well. If we can provide people with the right nutrition, we can help them build their immune systems. That’s how we can help the doctors,” DK says, emphasizing humanity as much as practicality. “If the virus breaks out in one of these epicenters of people displaced from jobs, where there are six to eight people in a room, what are we going to do then?”
Spending an average of only Bt14.2 per meal, #noonehungry sets up distribution centers nightly at three locations in Bangkok with high concentrations of Myanmar workers: Phra Khanong, Phetchaburi Soi 35, and opposite Ekkamai in Rama IV. Anyone in need is welcome.
DK has been working with a Hindu temple, whose priest has opened his kitchen, larder and rations to the cause. And his four chefs from Myanmar? “They will isolate at Haoma, sleep there, cook there,” he says. “I’m turning my restaurant into a temple.”
“If you need meals, if you’re a chef or restaurant owner and your staff need meals, I will feed you three meals a day. Find me or I’ll find you,” DK says.
Inconvenient to those of us who eat and drink out all the time, and certainly financially devastating to restaurant owners, the closure of Bangkok’s F&B industry could be catastrophic for many workers in the field. “As a chef, I must cook,” DK says. “Even in normal times, every single dish has meaning, has a story. Now, all we’re making is potato curry and rice, but it has real purpose.”
HOW TO HELP
Covid Relief Bangkok
To volunteer, donate food or learn more, visit fb.com/groups/covidreliefbkk
Chefs: For restaurateurs whose kitchens are going unused, Haoma is compiling and distributing the ingredients for their meal plan; chefs can return them as prepared meals to DK’s team, who get the banana leaf-wrapped packets out into the hands of the needy daily. Contact email@example.com
In-kind: If you’re in Bangkok and you’d like to donate any of the ingredients for these meals, just drop them off at Haoma Restaurant on Sukhumvit 31 haoma.dk/contact
Monetary support: Donations of any amount are welcome. Please see gogetfunding.com/noonehungry-haoma-bangkok for details.
Donors will receive a restaurant credit for Haoma, to be redeemed when the world is right again.