The husband is off to work and the children are finally at school. It’s time for Jyotsna Bhalla to hit the stove. As her phone buzzes with orders, Bhalla’s kitchen fills up with the delicious aroma of ginger, cumin and turmeric.
Bhalla is preparing lunches for dozens of customers who crave a taste of home while eating at their desks.
Homemade-lunch delivery, known as a tiffin service, has long been a hallmark of India’s food culture. Men known as dabbawallas race through the streets of Mumbai on bicycles laden with dozens of shiny, round, stainless-steel containers known as tiffins, each of which is packed with a lunch made in their customers’ own homes. Once the daily meals are ready, the dabbawallas pick them up and deliver them to offices throughout the city.
On the other side of the world, an inspired service is now thriving in Toronto. Over here, the silent backbone of this business is Indian immigrant women like Bhalla, who moved to Toronto from Punjab, India, two years ago. She is one of many domestic cooks tapping into the growing demand from South Asian immigrants in Canada missing their homeland. In their kitchens, they cook up the flavours of home.
I’m an international student from India. The aromas filling up Bhalla’s kitchen make me feel like I’m home.
Bhalla’s business operates on the same principles as a traditional tiffin service, but on a smaller scale.
Watch Jyotsna Bhalla explain her business:
Instead of using stainless-steel tiffins that keep meals warm over long delivery distances, she uses standard styrofoam and plastic containers that are ideal for pickups or short deliveries.
Her sons, Aayush and Pratham, deliver lunches on foot within her North York apartment building, which is in a neighbourhood dominated by South Asian residents.
“I made a packed lunch for my husband and kids every day,” she said. “Once, a friend from my colony asked for a packed lunch as well. She made me realize the high demand. A business just had to be started.”
News of Bhalla’s cooking spread quickly after she got out her pans six months ago. Sometimes she receives dozens of orders in a week.
Working from home with limited investment and marketing, she operates mainly through word of mouth, WhatsApp and her Facebook page, Jyotsna’s Kitchen – Homemade Desi Food.
“Social media has made my life really easy,” she said. “I wouldn’t know how to proceed without it.”
The real marvel may be that a banker turned stay-at-home mother who had never considered cooking professionally has found recognition and potential financial stability through a tiffin service.
The impressive reach of her business is reflected in Bhalla’s gross monthly profit, which is easily enough to cover the high rent of her family’s apartment in one of Canada’s most expensive cities.
Amitvikram Dutta, a graduate research assistant of thermal engineering at the University of Waterloo, said the business model taps into memories of home.
“In India, every mother/grandmother has a different cooking style that is part and parcel of the emotional framework that makes up every Indian family,” he said by email.
“Homemade food equates to primal feelings of safety and security related to a happy childhood. It’s a gastronomic nostalgia.”
For many Indians, restaurant cuisine is for celebration. The act of eating restaurant-catered cuisine at home is considered unnecessary and expensive as it takes away the fun of going out and enjoying the evening.
With time, tiffin services in Toronto could become a force to be reckoned with for established delivery services, like UberEats and Skip The Dishes.
These applications encourage the desocialization of food delivery through a lack of human engagement. Bhalla’s business model does the opposite: Her food provides an emotional experience tinged with sentimentalism that professional delivery services cannot compete with.
“There is definitely a difference between the Indian food you find in a restaurant than from home-cooked dishes,” said Harman Wadhwa, an Indian international student at the University of Toronto’s Scarborough campus.
“When I feel homesick, UberEats can’t find me the food I really want.”
Bhalla embodies a food culture that manifests the passions, talents and daily duties of Indian housewives. This unspoken culture shows the ultimate difference between professionally catered restaurant cuisine and homey, domestic dishes.
“I definitely think there is a potential for us to open a shop and make our business more large-scale,” Vineet Bhalla, Jyotsna’s husband, said. “It’s something we’re considering after our sons (have) grown.”
As someone who’s a long way from home, I, too, understand the desire for home-cooked food. Whenever I visit my family during the holidays, I ask my mother to prepare me kadhi chawal, a simple dish of a spiced yogurt-based curry and rice. She doesn’t understand why I crave a boring staple.
What she doesn’t know is that this simple dish tastes of something no other food can offer: memories.