When Twinkle Khanna got trounced by tendli
And found the cure for all dabba dilemmas
‘What’s in your dabba?’ This question reverberates around playgrounds and office cafeterias across India – as pigtailed girls grab jalebis from airtight containers in exchange for pakoras from their own and my colleagues all eye the fried arbi in the accountant’s clearly initialled steel box.
One would think that movie stars would be above dabba envy but my partner once returned from a shoot with a grievous complaint. I was sending him chauli and tendli, while his co-star, a long-standing bachelor, was unpacking lunch boxes filled with prawns and lobster.
“That’s because it’s not a wife but his mummy who sends across his lunch! Considering the poor woman has been sending him a dabba for the last forty-eight years, she has had a lot more practice than me,” I said flippantly, though I was feeling distinctly inadequate. It didn’t help that this comment was made over dinner at my in-laws’.
Packing dabbas every morning is a quintessentially Indian phenomenon. If we were a nation of people who would just nip out to grab a sandwich for lunch, we would not be haunted by existential questions like how do we break the monotony of aloo parathas on alternate days? How many chutney sandwiches are acceptable before we are classified as indifferent mothers? Am I going to be judged forever by a tendli in a tiffin box?
Early this year, bogged down by planning weekly menus for the family, I began asking people what they were putting in their dabbas. Friends, colleagues and Tweak readers sent in recipes and I began trying them out. A sweet potato twist to the regular sabudana khichdi. A new spin that turned theplas into tacos.
The meals I was putting together became scrumptious. It wasn’t just my younger one, even my weighing scale was grateful. Her purple unicorn container was now empty, so I had no leftovers to polish off on the way back from the school pick-up, in an absent-minded stupor.
Then the pandemic hit. And people brought out their pots and pans with a vengeance. Cooking, a necessity, now became an expression of joy, a way of reaching out for solace, a gentle escape.
Mothers and aunts were frantically called with questions of how long moong dal had to be soaked to make chillas or what to use if there was no asafoetida in the cupboard. Even my mother, who can barely boil an egg, entered the kitchen, armed with an apron and a borrowed recipe.
I teased her, rather publicly, saying, ‘It only took forty-six years, a pandemic and an extended lockdown for my mother to make me my first meal, fried rice.’ But she had no time for me as she was engrossed in her next project, learning how to make my sister-in-law’s infamous rum cake. Meanwhile, I had friends asking me to give them the recipe for my mother’s simple fried rice!
We could not share meals, so we shared recipes. Slices of our past and fresh explorations. Both topped with layers of improvisations, because we had to make do with what we had till the next grocery run.
There was hope in the form of a beetroot burger, which we knew we would once again pack into dabbas when schools and offices reopened. We found support in more experienced cooks when we shared stories of our small burns and not-quite-round chapattis. Failures in the form of a curdled tiramisu were swallowed along with our pride. Triumphs were gleefully gulped down, before we could take a picture for posterity.
The idea for this book, like the moong beans that I had soaked to sprinkle over my clumsily chopped salad, germinated slowly. It had begun its journey in the best of times and, in the spirit of Dickens’s famous first line, it continued taking shape through the worst. Food as a way of connecting people remained unchanged, though the world itself was unrecognisable.
This is a cookbook for today when we eat alone and for tomorrow, when we will eat together. The way we used to, unmasked and undaunted. All our senses engaged. Our eyes darting from plates to faces. Our ears catching snippets of conversations and clanging cutlery. Our noses following criss-crossing aromas as we sit around with our opened dabbas, a mandala of dishes, across long tables.
The humble lunch box, holding centre stage in our little book, has inspired movies, started romances, cemented friendships. But above all it is representative of a singularly Indian notion – that takeaways and restaurants are occasional indulgences, but nothing beats our own ghar ka khana. Well, unless you are sent a dabba full of tendli, while someone else is sitting across the table chomping on butter garlic prawns.