One celebrity chef’s movement to feed COVID-19 patients in India

A nutritous meal - Khichdi or rice and lentil cooked together
A nutritous meal – Khichdi or rice and lentil cooked together Image Credit: Shutterstock

Scrolling through his Instagram messages one day, Chef Saransh Goila, an Indian celebrity chef, read a heartbreaking message. A little girl in Eluru, a city in the state of Andhra Pradesh, had no food to eat, because she had lost her entire family to COVID-19. 

Fighting back tears, Chef Goila immediately posted a screenshot on Twitter, hoping to get some help from people in that state. Someone had to help the little child. “How would she manage 14 days in isolation, while still grieving the loss of her family, I thought?” the chef told the Gulf News Food team.

Chef Goila
Chef Saransh Goila working for the Covid Meals for India initiative Image Credit: Supplied

In a matter of minutes, he was flooded with direct messages from people across Mumbai, Bengaluru, Delhi and other Indian cities. That’s when it hit him – as India was reeling under the latest wave of COVID-19, there was another grave problem that the pandemic had caused. While millions struggled for oxygen cylinders and beds, there were many more who were struggling for one basic need – food. This was in April 2021.

The thought gave the chef sleepless nights. Something had to be done, it was food after all, his expertise. The Mumbai-based chef who is known for his Goila Butter Chicken, in India and London, decided it was time he took matters into his own hands. While he could not feed every hungry mouth himself, he understood through the response on social media that many people were ready to cook food at home for those in need.

COVID-19 patients are not able to get home cooked food or don’t know whom to get it from. I had people messaging me on social media, asking for suggestions where to get a home-cooked meals from. An answer to this problem was to have simple home cooked meals delivered to the patients or families who need food. There was a need to connect volunteers who were ready to cook meals for the sick and grieving families.

– Chef Saransh Goila

Chef Goila said: “COVID-19 patients are not able to get home cooked food or don’t know whom to get it from. I had people messaging me on social media, asking for suggestions where to get a home-cooked meals from. An answer to this problem was to have simple home cooked meals delivered to the patients or families who need food. There was a need to connect volunteers who were ready to cook meals for the sick and grieving families.”

This gave the 34-year-old chef an idea, and thus was born Covid meals for India, a social initiative that connects COVID-19 affected patients and families to home chefs or cooks, who make simple meals.

covid meal 1
Many families need help to organise regular meals for their parents or grandparents during the pandemic in India Image Credit: Pexels.com

How it works

Chef Goila knew he had a difficult task at hand and being organised would be key to be able to achieve his goal successfully. He started with something basic – a Google sheet, and went on to announce on his social media about a crowd-sourced list of home cooks who wanted to help COVID-19 patients across India. He said: “When I started, the list consisted of 200 home cooks and volunteers across 12 Indian cities. The list had to be updated every 30 to 60 minutes.”

A man creating a list of things to do. Picture for illustrative purpose only
A man creating a list of things to do. Picture for illustrative purpose only Image Credit: Startup Stock Photos, Pexels.com

Following the announcement on social media, people in huge numbers started reaching out to Chef Goila.

The initiative was noticed by Indian celebrities like Priyanka Chopra and Katrina Kaif, social media influencers, and other celebrity chefs, who started sharing it on their stories.

Soon it became difficult for the young chef to manage and collate all the data, by himself. Luckily, his sister, an outlet manager came forward to help him. “In four days, we had 1000 volunteers across 40 cities who wanted to cook meals for COVID-19 affected families,” the chef said.

While this was exciting, it was getting increasingly difficult to manage the back end of this initiative on one single Google document. It also became difficult for people to navigate the list.

From post to website

Social media again came as a blessing at the right time, when a tech company named Fastor, based in New Delhi, India, reached out to Chef Goila, suggesting to convert the document into a website for the initiative to be more impactful. Chef Goila explained: “Making a website would make the whole process tech enabled and seamless, which means it would be a simple website with a landing page, where one can search for their state, city or area to be able to find a home chef or a volunteer.”

Picture of HTML coding during website development for illustrative purpose only
Picture of HTML coding during website development for illustrative purpose only Image Credit: Digital Buggu, Pexels.com

Starting mid-April, it took them less than 15 days to collate the data and convert it into a fully operational website.

The chef made it clear that they do not fulfil orders or cook: “We were simply connecting the dots. There was a need to connect home cooks to COVID-19 patients, and this is exactly what the website would do.”

Fact checking a necessity

Chef's team had to fact check to ensure all meal providers were genuine and the data they were collecting was authentic. Image used for illustrative purpose only
Chef’s team had to fact check to ensure all meal providers were genuine and the data they were collecting was authentic. Image used for illustrative purpose only Image Credit: Wallace Chuck, Pexels.com

Chef Goila also realised that it was crucial to verify the names and contact numbers of these volunteers. Partnering with the tech company made this verification process possible. 

Volunteers can opt to disable their listing if they are over booked or even choose the days they wish to volunteer. Converting the Google sheet to the COVID meals for India website, made the execution smooth and navigation easier.

Are all cities and towns covered in the list?

“No,” said the chef. Indian cities are divided into different tiers, and internet penetration varies accordingly. At the moment, some cities might not be on the list but if someone wants to reach out from an unlisted city via message, the chef amplifies the message, requesting home cooks of that city to step up and register, and that’s how the lists starts populating, he explained.

How do you see Covid meals for India, shape into?

Chef Goila said: “I would be the first person to want it to shut, and have the website offline because it is not something that you build upon, not something you want to grow either… because the more it grows you realise COVID-19 is spreading even more.” It was heartbreaking for the chef to read direct messages from people desperate for help for their parents or grandparents, stuck alone.

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Volunteers on the food initiative can opt to disable their listing if they are over booked or even choose the days they wish to volunteer Image Credit: Pexels.com

From being a chef to leading a social movement

Being candid with the Food by Gulf News team, the chef spoke about the how the second wave of COVID-19, has personally affected him. “Honestly I have been very unhappy. I know I am trying to make a positive change and it is helping people but it does not take away from the mental fatigue or state that we are in, there is no rejoice.”

To put it simply, covid meals for India is not something to be proud of, because it is not charity. “It is a desperate call for help from people and all of us must answer it,” said Chef Goila.

Covid meals for pexels.com
Chef Goila’s biggest lesson learnt during the crisis: ‘I might be an artist and, of course, it is a passion for me but I realise that when it comes to bare essentials, food will always be a necessity.’ Image Credit: Pexels.com

Chef’s business amidst the pandemic

This initiative has helped Chef Goila deal with his personal distress and mental health too. “Like I have my own business to take care of, which is struggling right now and the fact that we do not have an aid from the Indian government for the hospitality sector is worrying,” said the chef.

His biggest lesson learnt during the crisis is that as a chef, “I might be an artist and, of course, it is a passion for me but I realise that when it comes to bare essentials, food will always be a necessity. Currently if someone can make a decent khichdi (lentil and rice cooked together) and send it to a COVID-19 affected person, the job is done,” said the chef. After all, what is important for COVID-19 patients right now is to have a nutritious meal.

The human chain…

Group of people helping holding arms. Image used for illustrative purpose only
Technology has enabled people in need to connect with those who have resources Image Credit: Pexels.com

Technology has enabled people in need to connect with those who have resources. The website is building a human chain, connecting people virtually during a crisis. Being an entrepreneur, chef now realises the power of social media. “I have so far used these platforms for my benefit and now it is not going to be the same for me again. It is no longer about how pretty my grid looks but it is about the value it can create. Whether we have hundred followers or thousand, we can all use it equally and do our part,” chef said.

Meal costs vs business

Every day comes a new challenge and their website recently launched a filter to address the concern over cost for these meals. For instance, if a person is looking for free meals, he/she can click the meal for charity tab.

The cost of meal varies, and is subject to the home cook’s affordability too. For instance, there is cost involved in preparing a meal, like the cost of vegetables, grains, water etc. A typical COVID-19 meal for India costs between Rs100 to Rs150 (Dh4 to Dh8).

However, home cooks/chefs need to steer away from thinking of this opportunity as a money making business and to tackle this, they have ensured that a volunteer who gets a certain number of orders, say 30, his/her name drops down in the list, to be able to give others a fair chance to serve.

Push notification for Covid Meals for India. Image used for illustrative purpose only
Push notification for Covid Meals for India. Image used for illustrative purpose only Image Credit: cottonbro, Pexels.com

“We also don’t want home cooks to be burdened with orders to a point that they stop answering calls, which I feel is the biggest problem of a crisis like this. All these lists that float on social media platform, don’t work mostly. It is either because the resources are exhausted or numbers are not valid,”, chef Goila said. To manage this problem, they have developed a push notification, which is sent every three to four days for volunteers to update their details such as their phone numbers.

Is there such a thing as a COVID-19 diet?

World Health Organisation Regional Office for Europe’s food and nutrition tips, lists home-cooked meal as part of their meal plan. Speaking to the Food by Gulf News Team Chef Goila said “There is no COVID-19 diet in particular… it would be wrong to say such a thing as because each body type is different.”

However, we wanted a scientific perspective and the Food by Gulf News team spoke with Dr Jacob Thomas, a highly experienced Mumbai-based physician and Type 2 diabetologist dealing with hundreds of COVID-19 patients, to understand the type of food patients battling the disease needed.

COVID-19 comes in a very wide spectrum. At one end you have patients who are asymptomatic and on the other side a patient might become very critical with sever pneumonia in the lungs and a very prolonged course of illness, with recovery taking many weeks. So the ones who are asymptomatic need to have a very balanced meal.

– Dr Jacob Thomas, Mumbai-based physician and Type 2 diabetologist

He said: “COVID-19 comes in a very wide spectrum. At one end you have patients who are asymptomatic and on the other side a patient might become very critical with sever pneumonia in the lungs and a very prolonged course of illness, with recovery taking many weeks. So the ones who are asymptomatic need to have a very balanced meal.” Not only this, their diet needs to be rich in vitamin C, D and antioxidants.

Dr Thomas suggests intake of Vitamic, C, D and antioxidants for COVID-19 recovery. Image used for illustrative purpose only
Dr Thomas suggests intake of Vitamic, C, D and antioxidants for COVID-19 recovery. Image used for illustrative purpose only Image Credit: Polina Tankilevitch, Pexels.com

For the ones with a prolonged course, Dr Thomas mentioned a few key points to keep in mind:

Anti-oxidant diet: COVID-19 is catabolic state, meaning it causes inflammation in the entire body (lungs, liver, muscles, brain), which in turn is an oxidation reaction.

There is a severe energy, protein loss in a prolonged COVID-19 infected patient, who has been on medication and on a ventilator. This causes wastage in muscle mass, weakened bones and hence requires a nutritious diet rich in multi-vitamins, calcium, vitamin D, vitamin C and antioxidants.

COVID-19 precaution and who are more prone

Dr Thomas explains those with high Body Mass Index (BMI) that is an over-weight person, high sugar/diabetes and hypertension issues fair worse. He said:

Keeping Body Mass Index under check for a healthy body to ensure faster COVID-19 recovery
Keeping Body Mass Index under check for a healthy body to ensure faster COVID-19 recovery Image Credit: Pexels

1) Bring your body mass index as close to normal as possible, lose fat mass, regularly exercise, have low calorie, low fat, low sugar well balanced diet with addition of food supplements like vitamin C, vitamin D and calcium.

2) For diabetics: Have food with low glycemic (GI) index , with proportionally high protein intake.

3) Eat plenty of clean and green leafy vegetables, which have natural antioxidants like coloured capsicum/bell peppers, red cabbage, beans, beetroot and berries like strawberries, blueberries etc.

COVID-19 meals for India guidelines

Chef has been advocating guidelines for home cooks and patients to ensure that meals are less oily, spicy and have the right mix of protein, carbohydrate, fat, fibre, vitamins and minerals. “Today one could eat palak paneer (spinach and cottage cheese cooked in Indian spices), lauki (bottle gourd) and chapatti (whole-wheat Indian bread) whereas tomorrow one could eat a dal (cooked lentils) and baingan (eggplant cooked in Indian spices),” explained the chef. 

It goes without saying to include protein in your diet. Which might seem like a challenge for many vegetarians but there are plenty of options to navigate through. For example the chef says go for sprouts, pulses, paneer (cottage cheese) and non-vegetarians can choose from seafood, eggs and chicken.

COVID-19 recovery meals need a balanced food plan
COVID-19 recovery meals need a balanced food plan Image Credit: Ella Olsson/Pexels.com

But here is another problem. COVID-19 infected patients are devoid of taste and smell; one of the side effects of the virus which eventually subsides, which could take days or even weeks for some. And this makes eating food a challenge in itself. Regardless, the aim is to get the right nutrition in.

For instance, “While one is eating their khichdi (rice and lentils cooked in basic Indian spices) pair it with a small side of subzi (vegetables cooked and tempered with spices) or protein. Khichdi in itself is a comfort food and very wholesome, so one can also make a one-pot meal like a khichdi with vegetables or with meat in it. It covers all the nutritional components to recover from, and also remember fat intake is important too, thus include ghee (clarified butter).”

The initiative has been requesting home chefs to cook meals which they would eat themselves and feed their family members. Empathise, and not sympathise with the patients.

Food by Gulf News spoke with Harnidh, who is a 26-year-old start-up operator in Mumbai, used Chef Goila’s website to organise meals for her grandparents in New Delhi, during the recent lockdown.

I live in Mumbai, India with my parents and my grandparents live in Delhi. They’re very old and alone and both got COVID-19. We were scrambling to make sure they got medicines and supplements, and it was honestly scary because it’s not like we could fly down at a moment’s notice. My parents were wondering about food, and I remembered Saransh’s (Chef Goila) post. I went to the website, spoke to a few folks, and narrowed down on one home cook who lived fairly close to them in West Delhi.

“Spoke with her, decided their meals for the first week and she was amazing. Made sure she was coordinating with me and them. And then they became friends. She’s been incredibly nice to my grandparents, sent them dessert on their anniversary, and when they recovered she visited them because she wanted to check on them. Maybe it was just a crisis bringing people together but they really did get to make a new friend, and I’m really happy it happened.

– Harnidh Kaur, start-up operator, Mumbai

A 25-year-old software engineer, Aayushi Bansal, based in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, said: “Because of Chef Goila’s COVID-19 meals, I was able to get food in the most toughest of times and that really helped. Got to take care about one thing less.”

The feedback from people

The only negative feedback was from a home cook who was volunteering for free – a family of four reached out to her and she prepared their meals, but they didn’t turn up nor bother informing. So, she was very disheartened.

But aside from that lone episode, a lot of people have found the list useful and have not been fussy about what they receive, unless it is really not in place. “We are in such a crisis that a volunteer home chef would not make the mistake of not sending a decent meal to a COVID-19 patient,” said Chef Goila.

A home cook based in Vadodra, Gujarat, Sneha Navneeth Sangani, knew her family and she had to do their bit to help people. Thats why they launched a non-profit initiative to provide home-cooked meals for COVID-19 patients and those without access to fresh food. The cost of the meals are nominal and free of cost for underprivileged COVID-19 patients. Soon, she read Chef Goila’s post on social media and got her name listed.

Over the last four weeks, we have cooked and delivered over 1500+ meals for patients in home isolation, at hospitals and even doctors on COVID-19 duty without a single day off. My family and I feel very happy and thankful that we’ve been able to do our bit for people during these extremely stressful times. Some days are overwhelming and tiring but it’s the wonderful texts from patients who say they’re healing because of our food, love and support that keeps us going!

– Sneha Navneet Sangani, a hotelier, freelance creative stylist and a digital content creator

Talking of mental health

Chef Goila receives messages from people stating that they are depressed and feel helpless, simply because they can’t do anything to make things better. But this initiative has given many such people an outlet to channel their thoughts towards a social cause, thus giving them a sense of worth.

I end up sleeping satisfied and happy that we could offer some comfort to COVID-19 patients in trying times. Nothing at all compared to what the health workers and NGOs are doing. But still something small, something helpful.

– Eesha Zaveri Shah, Jewellery designer, India

Another home cook and founder of OLIF, homebased kitchen in New Delhi, Simran Sekhri, said: “Chef Goila’s initiative inspired me to serve dinner meals to a few families in Delhi – Greater Kailash, Hauz Khas and more. It definitely got hectic, to manage everything including preparation, cooking, packaging and logistics while managing home and family. But in the end, it felt great to even help a few people. Some ordered for their parents and elderly, and the rest were either recovering or suffering from COVID-19.”

Chef Goila’s initiative inspired me to serve dinner meals to a few families in Delhi – Greater Kailash, Hauz Khas and more. It definitely got hectic, to manage everything including preparation, cooking, packaging and logistics while managing home and family. But in the end, it felt great to even help a few people. Some ordered for their parents and elderly, and the rest were either recovering or suffering from COVID-19.

– Simran Sekhri, homebased kitchen cook in New Delhi

Chef Goila has shared two nutritious recipes for Sindhi Kadhi and Green Moong Dal Paneer Khichi (lentils and rice cooked with cottage cheese).