The dabba — typically a tiered, steel lunchbox that’s a ubiquitous presence in India; the backbone of an over 100-year-old industry, and a staple for office workers in the country — can become more mainstream in New York City if one popular East Village Indian restaurant has its way.
Khiladi, at 175 Avenue B, at East 11th Street, launched a dabba lunch service toward the end of January, and orders are slowly beginning to pick up, says owner and chef Sruthi Chowdary. The lunchbox, available as a vegetarian or meat option, costs $25 and comes with an appetizer, a curry, flavored rice, and one chapati, the Indian flatbread. Recent lunches have included a vegetable drumstick and tomato curry, chicken with fresh fenugreek leaves, and an idli upma, a sort of stir-fry dish made with the South Indian savory rice cakes called idli.
The lunchboxes are only available for pick-up right now, Chowdary says, adding that she prefers if diners call in the day before to place their orders or message the restaurant on Instagram, though she does accept orders the day of if they’re placed early enough and she has enough time to prepare the food.
Much like how dabba service works in India, there’s no set menu per se with dishes changing up daily based on what Chowdary feels like cooking and what’s available at the markets. However, Chowdary says she’s open to suggestions and requests.
It’s all been more than a commercial endeavor for Chowdary, who sees the lunchboxes as a passion project. Growing up in the southern Indian state of Andhra Pradesh, Chowdary recalled her mother packing a dabba for her when she went to school, and she says she wanted to recreate some of that nostalgia in New York.
The idea for the lunchbox came about through her partnership with restaurant reusable container company DeliverZero. Khiladi partnered with the company last fall to replace its takeout containers with the reusable ones that DeliverZero provides, which prompted Chowdary to think about the steel lunchboxes in her own childhood in India.
“I know we need to pay bills but I believe only food has that kind of power to bring people together, bring back memories and make you feel home when you are away,” says Chowdary. Much of the food served in the lunchbox are dishes Chowdary prepares at her own home, she says.
Tiffin delivery is by no means a unique concept in the New York City metropolitan area, which has a large Indian immigrant and Indian American population, and multiple companies in New Jersey offer tiffin services. The website shef.com also allows for a form of tiffin service with home cooks across the city preparing a variety of meals for delivery. A restaurant offering tiffins is less common, however. Gramercy Indian restaurant Gupshup briefly launched a tiffin lunch last year before discontinuing it, but Chowdary is hoping her tiffin is here to stick around. (source: ny.eater.com)