Outsourcing the Homemade 

Dabba

One-pot cookery, 5-step recipes, 10-minute sous-vide, star chef preparations…At a recent food tech meet here in Berlin, up and coming start-ups went head to head, presenting their best in convenience for the everyday meal. So many means to bring food to the table, with some quick reheating, tossing and expert-inspired plating lending a sense of participation for those seeking it. Subscription plans abound to have meals laid out for you this very week, this month, the next, and the next one after that…

While there was likely no stone left unturned in the aesthetic beauty and taste of the food presented, most of the services as such seemed to leave me out in the cold. There were one or two interesting offerings in there, but the over-designed packaging, elite-ish offerings and the idea of opening my refrigerator to a schedule-bound stack of cardboard boxes and plastic pouches tempted the cynic in me to dub them as glorified TV dinners. All I was looking for was some simple home-cooked food- I just couldn’t promise I’d cook it myself.

Perhaps I was just hangry. My tastebuds were harking back to a specific moment from college times. One evening, against the noise of our cheap hostel TV, my Punjabi classmate said aloud with a sigh, “Thank God for this ghar ka khana (homemade food). Bless their souls I can still eat this here at the end of the day”. As she took her first bite of the aloo paratha that the Bhaiyya (a generic salutation for the delivery man, meaning brother) had delivered, the expression on her face gleaned true relief. Studying and living in Bangalore, the South-Indian melting pot of sub-cultures, we, foreigners here, were on a mission to feel at home. A “tiffin service” had been arranged.

Long before the age of the internets, there were “Aunty’s” we’d find through a friend, or a friend of a friend, or through a quirky pamphlet that’d say the golden words. We’d call Aunty and negotiate a lunch or dinner deal. Her delivery helper, let’s call him Bhaiyya, would bring us any combination of meals they had on offer: North Indian, South Indian, state-wise specifics: Tamil, Telugu, Punjabi, etc., a certain diet: vegetarian, non-vegetarian, diabetic, no rotis and what have you. On a mutually agreed start date, we’d get a dabba: the traditional steel container of stacked boxes, filled with home-cooked meals from Aunty. We’d enjoy the meal and keep the dabba after, merely rinsing it off. And then the next day, Bhaiyya would come over with a new dabba of dinner and take with him yesterday’s to give it a wash and use again the following day. We’d give him feedback to convey to Aunty- I don’t like brinjals, can you give me something else instead? Iterate through user feedback, as we now call it. And so went this continuum without skipping a beat- dabba on the table every afternoon or evening, blending in perfectly with our dining scene, our steel tumblers and spoons, our new family of friends. Not a thing amiss. An everyday home-cooked meal, business as usual. 

Tiffin PamphletAd found on Pracharwala

When I left home, I struggled to hold up the Indian pride in cooking a good family meal, let alone taming what seemed to be a rigmarole of balancing schedule and shopping, along with magic in the fingers that my mother effortlessly mastered. A few weeks of the restaurant scene- everything high, low, pricey, hole in the wall, North Indian, South Indian, South American, Chinese, etc. etc. and I yearned for a calming retreat for the senses, home food. As did my colleagues and friends. The idea of the homemade felt like elusive Ambrosia: pure yet humble in its creation, every spice, vegetable and grain extracted, ground, squeezed from scratch, rich natural colours and flavours off the crutches of frivolous ingredients, crafted with care and intent into quintessentially home-grown dishes. The dabba or tiffin service was that half-way haven of sorts between the idea of mom’s home-cooked food, the convenience of having it at our doorstep and a tinge of saving-of-face of our amateur (read:bad) cooking skills. It was not from our home, but a home nonetheless. Even if in most cases, one never really met Aunty and the Ambrosia wasn’t Grade A. Everyone wins! 

GHAR_KI_RASOI_PamphletAd found on zirakpur.me

Ghar jaisa swad” (taste like home) and “homely food” printed almost a little too eagerly onto ad pamphlets- they’re the magic marketing hooks tugging at the heartstrings. Tiffins not just made at home, but so much more than that- comforting, honest and healthy family recipes going beyond the lure of the typical tikka masalas and koftas from the rather distanced restaurant cook, unaware of your delicate heartstrings and tastebuds, dousing your curries in oil likely twice-used. Which may be tasty, but in the new light of this tiffin ad, a tad suspect, you’d say. The sentiment is a lot more than a personal preference, though. Cooking in the domestic sphere has been a stronghold for centuries in India- in fact the history of food consumption outside the domestic place is itself sparse. Non-domestic food affairs were set aside to the religious and the royal and even as close as 20 years ago, eating out for the middle class was only reserved for special occasions or an exception to the schedule. With the average Indian living in a joint family of  up to 25 relatives, sometimes more, cooking and eating was a highly familial affair engrossing the entire household in different roles- in contrast, eating out was simply impractical. Even as times changed and families turned nuclear, the concern for restaurant cooking hygiene, ingredients used and the money spent continue to fare poorly against the rich prowess of the home cook and a strong culture of frugal living.

 QuikrAd from Quikr, Gurgaon

The conveyor of the meal in this wondrous arrangement with Aunty, the humble dabba, complete with the proud engraving “Stainless steel” is iconic in its own right. As often referenced and celebrated in Subodh Gupta’s dramatic sculptures, it has been a steadfast companion to the middle-class Indian for 100’s of years. It may be safe to say nearly every Indian child from the 90’s and earlier carried one to elementary school. Undoing the latch holding the set of stacked steel boxes carefully packed by the mother, the contents of each would be gleefully revealed as the boxes were lowered one after the other. First level- some kind of stir fry, second and third- a dal or a curry, next- some rice and perhaps a sweet as a surprise treat in the lowermost box.

 PicbyGlenBlowmanSubodh Gupta’s stainless steel world by Glen Bowman

Chances are, you’ve heard about the dabbawallahs, the Nehru hat-donning delivery men balancing wooden frames full of dabbas in packed Mumbai metros. Conveying food made by housewives to their husbands on the dot at lunchtime, these dabbawallahs are estimated to serve over 200,000 customers in Mumbai everyday. Not even accounting the various spin-offs they have sparked in other cities, the numbers say enough about the Indian affinity to their everyday home-cooked meal. The dabba may well be in a sense, a product of the Indian pride in home-cooking, and a step further, a nonchalance of carrying so simply on the person a multi-course meal, ready any time to have a sit-down, every day. The sweet familiarity of this packaged comfort returns with Aunty’s unassuming tiffin service.

It’s been more than 10 years since my daily dates with my tiffin dabba in Bangalore. While the Bhaiyyas continue to ring away bells every day, the Indian online space has exploded with a rich diversity in food convenience. A slew of sites aggregating tiffin services and Aunties’ kitchens into neat Etsy-like shops have emerged. I hear a sizable amount of the non-resident Indian diaspora from around the world even hook up their children studying in India with these services for concern of healthy food. And it comes as no surprise that Silicon Valley too has its share of tiffin services on demand.

TiffinDhundo“Aunty” figures in Tiffin Dhundo, a site aggregating tiffin centres in Rajasthan

I snap out of my daydreaming at the meet, trying to level with myself about cooking dinner at home for the evening. I ask myself again if there was a kind Aunty’s tiffin service I had overlooked. But wait. I check my Kitchen Heroes test account to see if there was any home out there offering dinner for the evening. A sweet little app allowing casual visitors seeking dinner to hop by and share a cozy, home-cooked meal for a price of your choosing. There were none at the moment. Someone had told me about Mealsharing, a kind of Airbnb for sharing meals. I scrolled through some delicious Berlin options, but nothing for tonight. I’d have to book a dinner date- maybe for next week. Well, it feels like a formal appointment with a calendar entry at this point. I just need something simple. Oh, wait. There’s a delectable pesto, some multi-grain crackers, bread and Bailey-chocolate cream I’d just scored at the Food Xchange meet last week. Home-made goods exchanged between friends old and new- I could cook some pasta and piece together a dinner. Walking home, laziness gets the better of me and I say, not today. There’s a Thai restaurant not even a 100 meters away from my home.

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