Answers to this question got me a taste of the most real everyday food.
“What have you got for lunch?”, I asked my colleague who had recently shifted to Mumbai. She had joined the organisation 6 years back in Bangalore, as a part of mass campus recruitment from engineering colleges of smaller cities. Or in her case, should we say, a town. She belonged to Darbhanga, which I learnt about, much later. At the beginning, she unconsciously restricted herself to only mentioning Bihar as the place she came from. She was an educated, ambitious young girl, desperate to move out of home and be independent. In the 6 years I had known her then, I had seen the transition in her. Initially, she enjoyed her newly acquired freedom in Bangalore which was heaven to the young floating population. Over the years, she got married, was doing well in her job and had also started managing the home and kitchen. I would say with pride that she balanced her domesticity and freedom to make the encamped city her home. Am I talking about myself or her, I don’t know.
“I have got a Bihari special paratha.” She tried sounding as relatable as possible. “Sattu ka paratha?”, I confirmed. She was elated to know that I knew. This was 15 years back when the definition of regional cuisine was vague and limited to south and north Indian. Oh yes, we also knew the Indianized forms of Chinese, Italian and Thai even then, but Bihari food did not have a restaurant version and hence was inaccessible to me. I had never eaten sattu ka paratha, but I had seen a plate full of paratha, chokha, pickle and curd in the weekend edition of one of the newspapers, when we had just started expanding our definition of Indian cuisine.
When we sat for lunch, I almost assumed that there was chokha, and she opened a dabba full of dahi arbi. I was intrigued and she guessed as much. “Next time I will get chokha for you”, she said. Infact, I didn’t want anything customised. That was the time when my gastronomical curiosity had just begun to rise, and every customised meal was a lost opportunity to evolve my palate. She found such deep thoughts about food interesting. She rather had a simple explanation for the combo. Aubergines and potatoes, the two most important ingredients for chokha, are more restaurant friendly vegetables than the ones like colocasia or arui as they called it. Chokha already has a market because of litti-chokha. Infact, litti-chokha and sattu ka paratha-chokha have similar ingredients. In real life though, unlike litti, sattu paratha is an everyday food. It’s just like roti that you can pair with different sides. The idea behind stuffing the roti with sattu is to make it a filling and nutritious meal. She told me that her family favourite was a dry, raw jackfruit preparation, to go with the sattu paratha. I could see her delight in meeting someone who was interested to know about her food and I was certainly happy to find someone who spoke so realistically about this lesser-known cuisine.
My clan had a lot of such members. There was a girl from Shillong, who would give Mumbai girls a tough competition when it came to fashion. She was outspoken and way ahead in her thoughts, which didn’t really fit my image of a small town girl at that time. I was intimidated by her, but just being her senior helped me fake confidence. Over time, she told me a lot about the eastern part of India, which was an uncharted territory for me. As I met many women later from the same region, I could relate to her narrations of women and her matriarchal society. She had broken a myth I carried since childhood, “outspoken and fashionable girls don’t cook’. She explained that cooking made her independent and hence wasn’t ‘girly’.
She would carry both her lunch and breakfast to the office, her sister and she taking turns to cook. It was rare for me to have an opportunity to eat the simplest everyday breakfast with somebody from a different community. She introduced me to her childhood favourite Bengali breakfast, and it was not kachuri. Most of the days, for breakfast, she would carry sheddo bhaat with a boiled potato or bitter gourd, spiked to perfection with a drizzle of mustard oil. She was all of 24, cooked breakfast and lunch in the morning and made it to the office by 8:30 AM. “This is simple, you get up and put rice and vegetable in one pot and by the time you get ready, it is done. The vegetable has to be boiled with rice, for the rice to get flavour” she said. She joked about how this recipe has been passed to her in the womb. Every morning, her mother fed this to all the kids before they went to school. Her lunch was either fish curry, rice or dal rice with labra and chorchori which I then called ‘mix veg’. While I always wondered how she managed so much in the morning, she seemed to be pretty comfortable making a dabba everyday with a handful of star ingredients- kalo jeero, paanch phoran, ginger, tomato, potatoes, green chillies and mustard oil.
Some of my lunch partners were friends of my clan. It was natural for me to be more comfortable with people who were encamping in Mumbai like me, than the hardcore Mumbaikars. The constant need of Mumbaikars to speak with me in Marathi made it worse. I came from Indore and spoke Marathi only with my family, and hence found it to be invasive of my personal space. I relied on a larger group at the lunch table to make limited conversation with Mumbaikars. It is only through the constant lunch interactions that I realised how hardworking the women of Mumbai were.
There was this Mumbai girl in the group, who cooked for the entire family in the morning, made 40 rotis, and travelled in the local train for an hour to reach the office by 8:30 AM. All of this with the brightest of smiles. She once got sookha jawla (tiniest dried shrimps to be eaten in the rainy season) made with spring onions. Over the years, she saw my journey from sitting at another table when she got dry seafood, to me gathering the courage to try a dry fish preparation. This was a dish I would generally not expect in a restaurant. Most of the Konkani or Malwani seafood restaurants would serve the standard thali of fish fry, fresh coconut based red curry, solkadhi and rice or roti. She mentioned that these meals aren’t found everyday, at least in Mumbai. They sometimes eat fried fish with dal rice or there is a fish curry with tandalachi bhakari (rice flour roti).
In the rainy season, when fishing is not allowed, they religiously switch to dried fish. There is only a limited supply of dried fish, so they combine it with a vegetable to make it satiating. The kandyachya paatitla jawla (tiny shrimps with spring onion) is a perfect example of that. A preparation of dried fish stuffed in aubergines was also very common in her house.
In her family, Wednesday and Sunday were the only days when everyone ate non-vegetarian. Yes, there were religious reasons, but it was also a way of showing respect for nature’s food chain and limiting the amount of non-vegetarian food. On other days she would hesitantly ask me to get an extra serving of peeth perun bhaaji, her new found style to make any vegetable palatable, which for me was a regular.
I could bond with anybody over good food. I was extremely interested in connecting with folks from other communities and over the years bonding with people became gender neutral. In my girls gang, I was missing something. I had this constant urge to raid the mens’ lunch boxes. Sadly, unlike the girls, they were a pampered lot. There was a higher chance that their dabba was made by seasoned hands, the ones which knew food as a way of showing love to their grown-up sons. I will refrain from further opinions on this group of women, as I have enjoyed the food made by them the most.
One such colleague was an IT sales professional, a Mumbaikar. Our work, gender and community never really required us to bond, but food did. Many times, we would share tables in a crowded cafeteria. Once, he discarded a large piece of bottle gourd (which I later ate) from his mutton curry. He mentioned that his ammi makes the best daalcha, but she adds bottle gourd (Lauki) which he finds useless. On the days he would get daalcha, he would look for me in the canteen and drop the bottle gourd with generous amounts of mutton in my plate. The daalcha he got seemed very different and light from the one I had seen in Hyderabad. Large chunks of bottle gourd and mutton were boiled with whole spices and then slightly thickened by dry coconut and some cooked chana dal. I have tried to recreate it, but mine is not as effortlessly perfect as his ammi’s.
Some of my best regional meals have happened when I wasn’t even planning or anticipating. When friends plan a regional meal over the weekend, it is an orchestrated event. There is anticipation, delight, satisfaction, many emotions at the same time. You will anticipate good food, you will feel delighted after being presented with a large spread, many of which are not everyday dishes, and the host has spent so much time and effort bringing an exotic meal to the table. It will also give the host the satisfaction of pulling it off well and of course, the compliments. All of it is very prominent and spectacular.
This dabba thing is however a long process. Every dabba you eat with somebody is very routine. You aren’t anticipating, the other person is not trying either. When it is a bite from somebody else’s dabba, it’s a glimpse of their everyday food, which is planned and executed every day without fail, with the most easily available ingredients, and with all practical considerations. When you take a bite from somebody else’s dabba, you know that the food is made to ensure loved ones are fed, not under any pressure to please or to display expertise. The colleagues who talk about food at the lunch table with a twinkle in their eye are not food writers, they are just sharing with you this important part of their life, without any deliberation. They are just taking a break from work, and unknowingly giving you a sneak peek into their kitchens, without any pretence.
It is only over time that you will realise that the best, non-plated version of a particular dish happened in someone’s dabba. And it’s all in hindsight.
Richa Chitgopekar is a food enthusiast with keen taste for cuisines of different regions and communities. For her “it all started at the office lunch table”. Through the years conversations with colleagues over many dabbas have been the happy constant in her corporate life. She is now studying Gastronomy at the University of Boston. This article is for all her colleagues who have fed her awesome food.
Translations and detailed descriptions are provided to give a better understanding of the story to people from different cultural backgrounds across the globe.