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 — could 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 (a type of thin, long bean used in South Indian cooking) 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, particularly if diners want adjust the spiciness levels of a dish. The lunchbox also has a $20 deposit fee that diners can claim when they drop it back at the restaurant or they can buy it and continue using it by bringing it to the restaurant for future meals.
It’s all been more than a commercial endeavor for Chowdary, who sees the lunchboxes as a passion project. The restaurant’s lunch business was slow even before the pandemic hit, but the dip in orders since dining restrictions were enforced afforded Chowdary more time to experiment with her menu. 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.
“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 of her dabba service. Much of the food served in the lunchbox are dishes Chowdary prepares at her own home, she says. Unlike the rigors of a restaurant menu that requires some degree of continuity and conformity, the lunchbox allows Chowdary to plan menus on the fly.
Sometimes she might be inspired by what she finds on morning trips to the market, she says, other times it might be that a customer has written in with a request, but for the most part, it’s just whatever she feels like cooking the night before or the day of. “The beauty of this lunchbox is I can always make single portions,” says Chowdary, contrasting it with the larger portion the restaurant’s menu requires. “Having that flexibility is really important.”
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. The added slowdown during the pandemic, particularly this past winter, has given her a little more time to experiment with developing the lunchbox concept.
Recently, Chowdary shared an Instagram message she received from a mother in Solihull, England, who informed her that her son, who lives across the street from Khiladi, had picked up a lunchbox and let his mother know how much it reminded him of the meals she made. While the pandemic has separated the mother and son, the lunchbox allowed them to be just a little closer, Chowdary said.
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.
“As much as this is about me making something for a customer, it allows me to be in my space, unwind, and do something I really love,” says Chowdary.
The lunchboxes are available at Khiladi Monday to Friday with a maximum of 10 boxes available each day. Call or message the restaurant on Instagram for the day’s menu.