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Papi’s Pickles helps migrant Tamil women find work and build friendships in their adopted city, while serving up exceptional Sri Lankan and south Indian dishes. Market Life meets this social enterprise’s inspirational founders

Words: Clare Finney
Images: Joseph Fox

I was 17 years old when I first heard, vaguely, of the civil war in Sri Lanka. We were heading there for the summer and, like many tourists, had been concerned by reports that the deep-rooted conflict between the Tamil Tigers—a militant organisation I had vaguely assumed had something to do with big cats—and the majority-Sinhalese government had once again reared its ugly head.

We were told not to worry: the violence was “sporadic” and mainly concentrated in the areas occupied by Tamils, an ethnic group spread across the north of Sri Lanka and parts of south India, far from our destination. It was unlikely, the tour company assured us, to mar our holiday. And when it didn’t, I barely thought of it again.

I’m ashamed now to think of it—to be so detached from a brutal war feels wrong. Yet detached I was, as was the vast majority of the western world, both at the time of the war and since it came to an uneasy close in 2009. “It was an invisible conflict. It’s a huge humanitarian issue but, with new and escalating crises taking place across the world, it didn’t get much press,” says Abi Ramanan, over a ‘hopper’, a soft pancake made from fermented rice and coconut batter, and a sambar of vegetables and chutney.

Even she, a Tamil herself—born in south India and raised in Britain—was unaware of just how many Sri Lankan Tamils fled while the conflict was raging, or that London was one of the main areas to which they came.

War crimes
“The turning point for me was in 2013 when I was out there making a documentary about the situation post-2009,” she explains. “I’d been doing a lot of campaigning at the time, because the UN and everyone else had been pretty useless in the investigation of war crimes there. It was then that I learnt how many Tamils ended up here in London and remained unemployed.”

Her own aunt, Radhi Mani, had struggled to find work since the financial crash in 2008, despite being a qualified management accountant. If she was struggling—if even Abi’s white, university-educated friends were struggling—what on earth must the situation be like among female immigrants traumatised by conflict and unable to speak English? Abi set out to find out, and discovered a group of women paralysed by isolation and loss.

“Female migrants and refugees are the most excluded group in society,” Abi says, because employment, “the main driving force for integration”, often eludes them. There’s the language barrier for a start, plus of course “the huge obstacles” that come with fleeing your home in a hurry with little hope of return. “We have trained women who have lived here for seven, eight years and never left their local area,” she continues. “They don’t have the confidence.”

Papi’s Pickles, the social enterprise Abi launched with her aunt and mother in 2014, was borne of her realisation that by uniting her culinary inheritance with her experience in the charity and fair trade sectors, she could generate employment among the exiled Tamil community, and “the immeasurable benefits that come with that: social networks, confidence and purpose—something we all strive for.”

Papi's Pickles' staff

Clouds of aromatic steam
Which is why we’re at Borough Market watching Rammiya and Ruby, two of the Tamil women who power Papi’s, scatter spices and send up clouds of aromatic steam as they stir the sambar. Though it’s barely noon, trade is picking up. Customers are divided between those who are dead set on what they want (sometimes having traversed London to get it) and those dazzled by the dishes, the likes of which they’ve never seen: edible chaat bowls filled with chickpeas, fresh yoghurt and tamarind; a kichadi of semolina cooked with onions, green beans and cashew nuts; Sri Lankan mutton rolls.

As we chat and eat chaat, an elderly Sri Lankan gentleman wheels himself over for a masal dosa, a signature Tamil dish. His smile as he eats tells you everything: this is a true taste of home.

“We make everything from scratch: every sauce, chutney—even spices. Our cuisine is famously labour intensive,” Abi continues. “These aren’t really dishes you could make at home.” At least, you and I couldn’t: Abi’s mother Shanthini tells of driving across London just to get a fresh coconut because she refused to use desiccated, of grinding and fermenting lentils for the dosas, and of never taking shortcuts because “whenever I tried to, by buying tamarind paste, say, it wasn’t the same”.

She smiles at my aghast expression. I just don’t understand how you manage it, I say: a demanding job in a pharmacy, plus looking after your children and cooking one of the world’s most time-consuming cuisines. “You just get on with it really. Growing up in Tamil Nadu, you don’t think ‘I shouldn’t work this hard’,” she shrugs. “You just think, this is life and no one told you it would be easy.”

Religion, rite and identity
Shanthini is not unusual in her convictions. For Tamils, food is far more than fuel. It is religion, rite and identity. “It’s how I define myself as a mother. Our cuisine is healthy and nutritionally balanced, which is how I want to feed my children. You miss it when you’ve had to move,” she explains. She missed the flavour, but Shanthini also missed the community that “revolved around cooking and eating”. And because in Sri Lanka and India most cooking is done outside, it is sociable and fast. “You have more help and it’s hot so everything rises quicker.” Every festival is defined by food (and every month has a festival), so cooking is often a communal, celebratory and exclusively female event.

I wonder if Papi’s Pickles’ kitchen serves as an urban version of that rural communal kitchen. Shanthini smiles. “I think it is. Everyone is tasting everything, asking questions, chatting and trying out different things.” For migrants not fluent in English, this means everything: “It is very comforting for them to be in a place where they can speak their language and cook the food they know.”

One thing Abi insists upon is that Papi’s is not just home cooking. “We’ve a real emphasis on excellence—of quality and presentation. There’s a huge amount of training that goes into ensuring certain standards.” If the women she employs come with culinary knowledge that’s great, but far more important is that they have a desire to work, participate in society and develop their skills.

“I want to show these women that it is possible to have a salary and be independent,” she continues. Already, an Afghan lady has asked for her support doing a similar thing for Syrian migrants; no doubt others will follow. “Part of the ethos of this business is that it’s about the work women do in so many homes, all over the world.”

Dish at Papi's Pickles

Social enterprise
Shanthini and Radhi are both excellent cooks. “They’ve been told their whole lives, ‘You should open a restaurant, your food is sensational’,” says Abi proudly. They’re the head chefs, responsible for training new recruits and developing recipes and menus. Abi—“not an amazing cook, but I’ve learnt a lot”—handles the partnerships and business development, and is passionate about social enterprise.

“Because I came from the charity sector, I was determined to build something that could be financially sustainable. I didn’t want to take any grants for the first year because I wanted to show we could be a business. We started with £3,000. None of us had any background in business or start-ups. We learnt just by doing—and determination.”

Since then they’ve had some invaluable injections from Businesses in the Community, Big Issue Invest and UnLtd—“who’ve been brilliant”—which have helped Papi’s Pickles grow.

Their emphasis on sourcing seasonal, local and ethical produce has led them to use either Borough Market traders or those with similar values, and it shows in the cooking. Papi’s doesn’t have much direct competition: London’s Indian food scene is largely dominated by north Indian fare, and “there isn’t much mainstream Tamil food at the higher end”. But that’s not a guarantee of success on London’s fast-paced food scene. In order to survive—indeed, thrive—Papi’s has to offer something more.

Moral standards
“We’ve managed to carve a space out for ourselves through not compromising on standards,” Abi muses: standards of food, but also moral standards regarding supply, conditions and employment. “To date, we’ve recruited and trained 14 long-term unemployed women who had fled during the conflict.” They pay the London living wage and strive to create an environment in which people can flourish.

“One lady had never taken the tube before. Her husband had an accident so couldn’t drive, and they had young children,” adds Shanthini. “She was pretty much forced to take this job and suddenly she thought, I can do this! Once propelled out of her comfort zone, she realised how much potential she had.” Now, Shanthini continues, “she runs all over London. Give her the postcode and off she goes.”

“It’s rare that you take a moment to step back and appreciate what has happened, because you are so busy scurrying around organising,” acknowledges Abi. When Ruby, one of their longest standing employees, took the post of head chef at a recent event and was profiled in the Evening Standard, it was a proud moment. “That was really special. I think that was a real highlight of last year.”

These aren’t women of leisure looking to fill their time. They have seen “horrible, horrible things” back home, and live in impoverished communities when they come over. Watching the conflict—the “systematic elimination of your people”—was heartbreaking.

Shanthini making dosa

The next flight home
“There was part of you that, when you saw it, just wanted to get on the next flight home to help them,” Shanthini continues, “so when Abi came up with this idea, it felt like we could finally do something. It feels like a handful”—she looks round the bustling stall kitchen—“but it also brings awareness of what happened. And that’s so important.”

I can’t undo my teenage inattention, but I can think of worse ways to salve my conscience than to make a habit of eating a Papi’s Pickles masal dosa with Bengal gram dhal chutney.