Batada vada Credit: Jasmine Sheth

Each school day the dabbawala delivered a fresh, hot, home-cooked lunch to Jasmine Sheth (and many others), each dish packed into a stack of three circular aluminum tins, or tiffins, with roti on the side, a salted lassi, and something sweet. The food itself was cooked every morning by her mother, and sent off via Mumbai’s sprawling lunchbox delivery system by bicycle and rail. The tins returned the same way each evening.

There were thousands of dabbawalas, or “lunchbox persons,” working each day in the city, but in spite of the system’s dizzying scope—the connection was personal. “I adored my dabbawala,” she recalls. “He always was such a jolly old man. He’d bring me raw mango and tamarind pods sprinkled with salt and chili, because he knew I loved snacking on it. Dabbawalas tend to develop close friendships with their clients because they sometimes work the same route for years.”

Sheth, who’s 39, grew up in Bombay (before it was Mumbai), but from an early age she began to accumulate knowledge of India’s vastly different regional cuisines. Summers were spent at farmhouses on agricultural land her father, a civil engineer, helped develop, or taking long family road trips. “I had a ton of cousins all over India,” she says. “Visiting them over vacation really exposed me to different cuisines. Cooking and feeding people was a way to connect with folks, and no matter where we went, food was the central experience for us.” 

She learned that from her mother. “I remember standing by her side, asking a million questions. She is very much an eyeball type of cook. You smell it, and you see the texture and the color, and you determine if it needs anything else.” 

Sheth left home in 2003 for New Jersey, where she earned her MBA in human resource management and a master’s in organizational psychology, then moved to New York City for a series of corporate jobs. In 2012, she was laid off from an ad agency and contemplating her next move. “I was trying to keep busy and I just started cooking at home and inviting friends for dinner.” This led to a new career throwing pop-ups and underground dinners, and working as a private chef for various online platforms that sent her all over the country. She didn’t want to be pigeonholed as an “Indian chef,” so she kept a deliberate distance from the food she grew up with. It “was always Indian-inspired but I tried to meld Indian and Mediterranean flavors, used some French techniques I learned. It was sort of this fusion cuisine with American influences as well.”

In 2017, she won a Women in Culinary Leadership grant from the James Beard Foundation, which sent her to Chicago for a six-month externship at Rohini Dey’s Indian-Latin Vermilion. Her goal was to learn back-of-the-house restaurant operations. After a month she was holding her own in the kitchen, she says, but missing human connection. “I couldn’t interact with my guests and see their reactions to the food, which was what my pop-ups afforded me.” She switched to the front of the house and wound up managing the restaurant for an extra half year before taking a tour of the Boka Group, with managing stints at GT Fish & Oyster, GT Prime, and Swift & Sons, and then settling in at Momotaro for a year. 

Meanwhile, early last year she launched the Chicago chapter of the community-driven Queer Soup Night fundraising series, and in October, worn out from the restaurant business, she left Momotaro and took a more lucrative job in management consulting, with the aim of supporting a return to pop-ups and more intimate and community-oriented cooking. 

But “when COVID hit, I obviously couldn’t host, or gather large amounts of people. I had been wracking my brain thinking about what I can do. It was such a challenging time for a lot of people, and what brought me a lot of comfort was speaking to my family, cooking my family recipes every day, and eating my own comfort food.” 

In early May, she launched Tasting India, a meal delivery “dabba service,” each week announcing on her Instagram, @the_amusebouche, a thali-style set of dishes from one specific Indian regional cuisine, taking virtual orders and payment, and delivering, in the beginning, mostly to Facebook friends and coworkers. 

There would be no more fusion. The first menu focused on Punjab, the northern Indian state whose food westerners are probably most familiar with—except the season’s last ramps were folded into her roti dough, and not many restaurants on Devon offer vegetable khichdi, “an Indian ‘detox’ dish made with mung beans, lentils, rice, and vegetables flavored with the immune-boosting power of turmeric.”

From there she moved southwest to Gujarat, featuring, among a half dozen other dishes, the staple wheat flour pudding sheero. Then it was west to Bengal (shorshe dharosh—okra in mustard and poppyseed sauce); on to Tamil Nadu (poliyogare—tamarind and peanut rice); Rajasthan (gatte ro saag—chickpea flour dumplings simmered in yogurt curry); and Goa (mushroom cafrael—a dish brought to the region by African soldiers in the Portuguese army).“The intent was very much about educating folks about Indian food. In the western world our view of Indian cuisine is, ‘I want a curry or chicken tikka masala or saag paneer.’ Those are amazing dishes and I very much enjoy eating those things, but that is not what I grew up eating day to day. What I really want to do is show people there are so many more flavor profiles, techniques, and regional cuisines that are not showcased in any restaurant here in the U.S.”

Not that everyone needs to be educated. About half of her regular clients are Indian and “at one point or another, some of them reach out and say something like, ‘Oh I grew up in Goa, I’m really looking forward to this sorak coconut milk vegetable curry.’ While that’s amazing it’s also a lot of pressure, because I want to make sure I’m doing it justice.”

On the other hand it’s probable that the other half have never tried the scarfable batata vada, mustard-seed-and-curry-leaf-spiked, chickpea-battered potato croquettes; or misal, sprouted mothbeans simmered in tomatoes and onions, and topped with gathia, crunchy chickpea noodles; or poran poli, flatbread stuffed with split peas and the unrefined sugarcane jaggery, fragrant with green cardamom and saffron, drizzled with melted ghee. 

I’d never tried those things either, but once I had, I began wondering how I could get them again. Those dishes were part of the Maharashtrian thali, her 11th and maybe her most personal—Maharashtra is her home state, after all. As with each week’s menu, she offers detailed descriptions of each dish, historical context, and personal stories about the people she learned to cook them from, and eat them with, when she was growing up. 

On the Bengali menu, she vividly described visits to Kolkata, her mother’s hometown, and the sweet cardamom-laced labneh it’s known for: “My uncle’s mission in life was to ensure we enjoyed every single fresh dessert in the city. Mishti Doi were his favorite, and each year at the end of our vacations, he would drop us off at the train station and hand us a clay pot full of fresh Mishti Doi. We could not/would not board our train without it!”

Tasting India is, for now, a one-woman show. Sheth announces the week’s menu on Sunday; she researches, shops, preps, and cooks throughout the week; then masks up on Fridays or Saturdays and delivers tidily packaged, labeled, and wrapped dishes, along with biodegradable thali trays to eat them from, all preceded by regular text updates on arrival times. 

This Saturday she returns to Punjab, specifically the city of Amritsar, where Sikh temples host free, volunteer-driven, vegetarian community feasts called a langar. “Langar ka khana (the food at a langar) is always a vegetarian meal consisting of a dal (lentil soup), rice, vegetable and roti,” she writes. “At the end you are also served the most delicious bhog/prasad (a sweet offering from God). It’s simple and peaceful, one of the best meals and experiences you will enjoy in your life.” A part of this week’s proceeds will go toward creating a langar for Uptown/Edgewater tent-city residents.

Still, in the beginning, while she was doing it all while holding down her day job, a portion of each week’s proceeds went to organizations supporting restaurant workers, the homeless, or Black Lives Matter, but four weeks ago she was laid off again, and currently Tasting India isn’t enough to support her. She’s trying to scale up. She envisions a product line (she makes her own ghee), and a coffee table cookbook featuring 52 recipes, highlighting one from each week’s thali.

“I would love to see every day or week my own network of dabbawalas that are passionate about bringing Indian cooking to Chicago,” she says. “I’ve cooked for 1,500 people out of a small studio kitchen in Manhattan. I know I can do it. I just feel tremendously fortunate to have the clients that I have every week. They have a ton of different choices in terms of chefs and food they can order. There are those who started with me in week one and still order from me every single week today. Having that consistency of companionship has really boosted my confidence.”  v