Indian Roller Exclusive by:
Shanti Bhuj, a 12-year-old ragpicker from the Tangra locality of Kolkata, won the presitigious Rashoi Ruchi (Kitchen Taste) Award in a culinary competition held at Kolkata's landmark Park Street Luxury Hotel. The award competition, hosted every year by the Culinary Chefs Consortium of the Parganas (CCCP), was attended by a record 248 competitors from the India sub-continent including entrants from Bangladesh, Burma, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka. Bhuj's winning entry was a dish of chicken biryani and it garnered top honors from all but one of the nine judges and beat its nearest competitor by 28 points. "As far as we are concerned,"said Abhijit Roy, a local celebrity chef and one of the judges."Shanti's entry blew the competition away. In fact, there was no competing with her biryani."
Local and national media rushed to cover the details when Bhuj's family revealed that the chicken and the rice used in the biryani were actually from leftovers rummaged from a trash bin following a wedding reception in Kolkata. A biryani is a spiced rice pilaf made with meats or vegetables.
Bhuj and her family manage to survive on an income of less than $1 a day by recycling the plastics, glass, and paper that they rummage out of local dumpsters and trash sites in and around Tangra. "There is a wedding hall on Lower Circus Road,"said Amiya Bhuj, Shanti's father, "and we often get to eat the leftovers after the wedding reception. We get by because there are a lot of receptions every week at this hall and the owners don't mind us eating out of their trash."
The news that the judges at the Rashoi Ruchi awards, an event telecast live throughout India, ate a winning meal made of leftovers has sent shockwaves through the media. This year the competition, as part of its outreach program, opened the entries to inner-city, economically-disadvantaged communities. A Tangra-area social worker had urged Shanti to enter her name in the contest. The Selection Committee, anticipating a profusion of entries from the public, set up a lottery scheme to pick a single entry. Shanti, who entered the competition with the help of Yasmeen Rahman, a social worker, had the winning entry in the lottery.
"Shanti has a knack for cooking,"said Rahman, who works with teens in the disadvantaged neighborhoods of Tangra."She was always asking me to try out some of her culinary creations that she created on her mother's coal stove. She lives close to the squalor and the foul stench of the local garbage dumps but her cooking is inspired by flavours that remind you of the legendary Mughlai cuisines. I believed it in my heart that Shanti could win."
Shanti would like to use the Award money to "rent a flat with a real kitchen" for her mother. Several TV sponsors, including JeeMedia, a cooking channel, have approached her with offers. Rahman noted that Shanti and her family deserved "a break" from their indigent conditions and that Shanti should entertain some of the offers coming her way but that she should "stay in school" to get an education. "She might be the first person in her immediate family to have a chance to get a high-school education, and perhaps, a higher degree in a field of her choice,"said Rahman,"And she should make full use of this opportunity."
"Shanti's runaway success could make Kolkata residents think twice about what to do with their leftovers," added Rahman.