File photo. Image Credit: Gulf news archives

The relief I felt after returning those tiffin boxes or “dabbas”, filled with some Alfredo pasta and ‘kebabs’, was immeasurable. The lady who sent some food for me, yesterday, anxiously texted me a dozen times, “Pl. return my dabbas ASAP.” After coming back to India, post-Covid, I realised that these boxes in which people pack food are more precious to them, than gold or platinum even. Off late, many have been trying out different cuisines and dishes, a therapy of sorts, sending food over to neighbours to enjoy ‘tiffin’ to break the monotony of ‘WFH’ or even to relatives who probably have been infected by the Coronavirus and are too weak to cook. I feel that it is basic decency to reciprocate the gastronomic affection, return the boxes with food, laced with thoughtfulness and love. Empty ‘dabbas’ reek of cold detachment.

The word “tiffin” is derived from the British word “tiffing” which means to take a sip of drink called ‘tiff’- a tot of diluted liquor. The Colonial rule introduced the word to depict a light lunch that British Sahibs preferred, in order to acclimatise themselves to the hot, languid days and nights in India. I wonder if this word too like “curry” will be cancelled someday, I hope not. For me ‘tiffin time’ used to be a short break in school when I would savour snacks like chicken sandwiches, idlis or cutlets, that Ma would pack in a tiffin-box. In Calcutta, India, the place where I come from, ‘tiffin’ is a much sought-after snack that can happen anytime between meals.

A few months back I learnt a new acronym-BYOD, no it isn’t ‘Bring your own devices’ as used in schools, but ‘Bring your own Dabbas’. The few ladies whom I have met around here in the gated community, congregate every weekend for dinner, with family in tow, to mitigate the void left behind by the ‘no-vacations norm’. However, they bring their own food, packed in dabbas, and eat together at the ascertained host’s house. There’d be an assorted platter, a foodie’s delight- ‘laal maas’ from Rajasthan, ‘maacher jhol’ from Bengal, ‘puttu-kadala curry’ from Kerala, ‘puran poli’ from Maharashtra and even Felafel, hummus and pita bread, from the Middle East. Some ladies bring along their ‘vegan’ or ‘Keto’ food with them. This would be safer than ordering from outside and you get to taste varied cuisines and enjoy the camaraderie (as long as you’re fully vaccinated). This is ‘vaccinated-potluck’, I’d say.

These ‘dabbas’ come in different shapes and sizes, made of plastic, glass or steel. The culture of “tiffin dabbas or boxes” can be seen across the geography and demographic structure of the country. Farmers in rural India carry ‘dabbas’ to their field comprising of a modest meal of chapatis, vegetables and raw onions. During our childhood, train journeys were incomplete without the quintessential, steel many-tiered tiffin carrier, that would contain ‘parathas’, dry curries, kathi rolls, pickle, plum cakes and many other goodies to be enjoyed during the train ride. Waiting impatiently to see what would emerge from the magical food boxes was a memory that we fondly cherish.

These tiered tiffin-carriers are a common sight in Mumbai, India. The famous “Dabbawalas of Bombay” who work under the Mumbai Tiffin Box Suppliers’ Association, make sure that they provide piping hot home-cooked food to lakhs of busy office goers who commute huge distances on local trains, to reach office and have no time to pack food. The precision with which these tiffin providers work is the stuff that case studies are made of, in renowned universities like Harvard. Recently this humble, steel, tiered ‘dabba’ was in the limelight when a famous Indian businessman-Anand Mahindra, tweeted a picture of a lady carrying one in Central Park, New York.

I still have many more food boxes to fill and return. I try and think out of the box wondering what to put into them, a new recreation of mine. Food is synonymous with happiness and thus I’m glad that at least in this way we continue to spread good cheer via ‘dabbas’- the vehicles of positive vibes!

Navanita Varadpande is an author based in Gurgaon, India. Twitter: @VpNavanita