Pro tips: The saga of the travelling dabbas…

“R, can you return the two dabbas (food containers) that I brought last time with some sweets in them?” asks a friend who is known for her housekeeping skills (I am slightly nervous every time she comes to my less-than-well-kept house and  there is a flurry of clearing up, hustling grumbling family members to clear up and so on… before her visit. Fond as I am of her, unannounced visits cause me a little (hmm… !) stress!

Her daughter, used to her mom’s standards of housekeeping, once asks me innocently, “What is this brown spot on the tablecloth, auntie?” I examine it and scratch at it tentatively with a fingernail. It comes off – a powdery brown substance. A drop of dal (okay, more like a few drops... okaaaay... a spoonful, but not more, I swear). Oh, that’s just some food that someone must have dropped and I didn’t notice, I shrug it off… I think… till I notice the look of horror on the seven-year-old’s face! Poor kid is torn between her fondness for me and her disapproval of my slapdash housekeeping methods! Thankfully, she is young… the fondness wins and we are all much more chilled out now! (I have to admit, though, that it gave me a few bad moments in my far-off youth!)

“Sure, sweetie. But which are your dabbas?” R queries innocently as she throws open her store cupboard, filled with dabbas of various sizes and shapes. My first friend examines the cupboard carefully… “No, I don’t see mine anywhere”, she says.

“Never mind, why don’t you just take any two that you fancy?” comes the nonchalent response!

“But… but… whose are these? What if I take away someone else’s dabbas?” asks my very “correct” friend, eyes widening in shock!

“Oh, never mind that. I’ll give them someone else’s dabbas! After all, these things are in circulation all the time anyway – how does it matter with whom they end up?” she asks blithely!

My other friend thinks it over and like the good sport that she is, laughs it off – even though she loves her dabbas!

And so, over the past two decades, we have gone through life with great faith – that some dabbas would appear when you need them, that they will go to the person who needs them most at that point in time. At some point, when we are all out of dabbas, someone will go out and buy some more and the merry-go-round starts again! God is in his heaven and all is right with the world – as long as dabbas are kept in circulation!

This story is just to warn you, that when you visit me, please don’t look for co-ordinated stuff on my kitchen shelves – I have every shape, size and colour under the sun – in ones and twos! The co-ordinates are out there travelling the world! Maybe, someday they will come home to roost… or maybe they will choose to settle in other lands far away from home… I just hope they will always be filled with good food 🙂

Like this pro tip from R about the proper way to treat dabbas, my post today is about other pro tips in the kitchen – which I have made up, learnt… in a forty-year culinary journey…



  • When you make either hung curd (yogurt) or cottage cheese at home, don’t discard the whey/water that oozes out. Save it, freeze it in idli moulds (you will be amazed at the versatility of these little containers – see pic). Demould and freeze in ziplock for using instead of water to knead chapathi or bread dough – the softest imaginable! Yeast positively loves this whey!

  • After you’ve taken your baking out of the oven, make use of the residual heat to crisp up a tray of whatever seeds you need to roast for powders – coriander (dhaniya), cumin (jeera), red chili, pepper – whatevs!

  • When you start your cooking for the day, wash and crisp up a handful of curry leaves in the microwave – takes 2 minutes on high. As you finish each dish, just crumble 1 -2 tbsp of the curry leaves on top of the curry/rasam/sambar with your fingers. Adds a fantastic fragrance and people don’t push them to the side of the plate when they’re eating!

  • Every 3-4 days, grind together 6-7 or more green chilies, 2-3 inches of ginger with a pinch of turmeric, a pinch of salt and a tsp of oil. Store this in a small container in the frig. Add it to gravies or masala curries right at the beginning – when you start frying onions – add tremendous flavour and saves you lots of time in peeling, chopping etc. Grind garlic also along with this if you like.

  • To get really, really thick curd (now I’m giving away a secret I have refused to tell kings and statesmen  😉 – the temperature of the milk should be hand hot. Add 1 tsp of skimmed milk powder (NOT whole milk powder) and a tsp of culture. Pour from a height from one vessel to another (like how you would cool a glass of coffee) 2-3 times. The culture breaks down into smaller colonies, multiplies faster and sets in 2-3 hours in Madras weather – slightly longer in colder weather.

  • Making tzatziki? The Greek cucumber yogurt dip like raita? Save the water and use it to make buttermilk with a little yogurt, salt and powdered cumin later – delicious, cooling and zero-cal!

  • I read a lot of recipes  where people ask you to discard the water in which spinach has been boiled or blanched. You lose most of the nutrients that way. Just microwave the spinach with 1 tbsp water and cool before you puree or process – there is no water to discard! The same goes for cooking it on the burner.

  • Want a rich, deep colour to your gravies? As soon as you put the oil/ghee on the burner in a pan, add a tsp of sugar and let it caramelise on low heat before add the rest of the ingredients. Colour and flavour!

  • No time to make a raita? No veggies for said raita? Or a chutney to go with dosa or idli? Add a piece of pickle or pickle gravy to a cup of whisked yogurt with a quarter tsp of sugar and mix. Add chopped onions if you have the time. Not if you dont!

  • Freeze limes. Want a lemon sponge? Or lemon rasam? Or a zingy salad? Take out one, grate the whole caboodle – zest, lime and all. Oops, discard seeds as you grate!

Okay, I think that’s enough giveaways for today!

Enjoy and set the dabbas free!