As I struggle to find my identity in the food world, like a teenager, I go through phases where I become totally absorbed with one particular thing. There was the ramen phase. Then came the picnic phase, and from that bloomed the lunch box phase.
I was mostly interested in bento boxes, but then one day, in Patel Brothers, I became transfixed by a shelf of shiny metal tins, in stacks of three, each stack fastened with a locking handle. I wheeled my cart over, picked one up, and took it apart.
It seemed like the perfect way to transport a sumptuous feast for one – with ample, separate compartments for an entree, side dish, salad, bread, or even soup – but it was too bulky to carry around every single day.
When I got home, I did some research. I found out that they were called tiffins, and, like bentos, they came in many shapes, sizes and colors, but, unlike any other lunch box, tiffins had their own, extraordinary system of transport.
After that, my friend (and fellow food enthusiast) Kristen and I both became interested in the subject of tiffin wallahs. Also known as dabbawallas, these urban lunch box deliverymen have their own caste in the city of Mumbai, and are responsible for the most intricate and reliable delivery stem in the world- with a 1 in 16 million chance of error.
TWs pick up tiffin boxes from homes around the city suburbs and, after a complex system of hand-offs, deliver them piping hot to workers and students who are therefore able to enjoy their favorite, lovingly prepared, homemade specialties without turning away from their work, and without the burden of carrying a large metal object (the TWs return after lunch to pick up the empty boxes and return them home). Most importantly, people are able to leave for work at dawn, long before lunch is prepared.
THUS the rise of India. (At least in my mind…where everything revolves around food!)
It is a fascinating subject, and we both became a bit obsessed. Kristen even wrote a paper about TWs for her food writing class.
And so, while walking in Curry Hill one afternoon, I was thrilled to see the words “Tiffin Wallah” on a restaurant awning, and called Kristen on the spot.
Fast forward to last week. I was reading the Cheap Eats edition of New York Magazine, and they mentioned the $6 lunch buffet at Tiffin Wallah. This quick memory jog was all the encouragement I needed, and we finally made a date.
The buffet style lunch at Tiffin Wallah was all vegetarian, and good. It included salad, rice, naan, some kind of vegetable pancakes, yellow lentils, curried vegetables, a delicious beet and potato concoction, and something yellow and pureed that was my favorite. There were also sauces, pickles, and even little coconut coated donuts for dessert. It was worth the $7.50 (25% sales tax??) plus tip.
But the highlight of the afternoon came after lunch. Kristen and I wandered over to Kalustyan’s, the famous curry hill spice shop, to browse through their endless maze of exotic imported hot sauces, pickles, sweets, jellies, snacks, kitchen equipment and of course, spices. We ooohed, aahed, gasped, laughed, and chattered like two little food-obsessed Alices in Wonderland.
Kalustyan’s is a wonderland… or, more so, a treasure trove of inspiration for adventurous cooks.
Every shelf I passed contained something that set the culinary gears of my brain in motion. On previous visits, Laxmi wafers inspired me to make pappadum nachos. Rose petal jam: Lebanese linzer cookies. Jasmine flower essence: jasmine custard and grape tarts.
This time, I made it out of there with nothing but a bottle of rose water, justifying my stinginess with my impending rent, the ridiculous diet I just started, and by thinking “I could get that $1 cheaper at Patel Brothers” every time I saw something I needed.
The problem with that is: the best things at Kalustyan’s are the things you absolutely don’t need. And with a buddy at your side, the chances of uncovering hidden treasure (a.k.a. things-you-didn’t-know-you-had-to-have) are doubled.
Here are the top ten from my mental wish list:
10. handmade, rainbow-dyed, wooden cereal bowl: $40
9. leaf and flower engraved kitchen tongs: $10
8. cast iron roti/crepe pan: $10
7. wormwood (as in absinthe!) soda: $2
6. slivered pistachios: $75/lb.
5. portable, stainless steel condiment caddy: $30
4. frozen passionfruit pulp: $20
3. Tahitian vanilla pods: $75
2. toilet → bidet converter kit: $40
1. pomegranate cotton candy: $5
See you at my birthday party 😉
127 East 28th Street, between 7th and 8th
123 Lexington Avenue, between 28th and 29th