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Illustration by April Dela Noche Milne

Every auntie I know has a kitchen drawer full of a carefully maintained collection of yogurt dabbas. Dabba is a pan-Indian word that is literally translated as “box.” The 750-millilitre containers that hold the yogurt we buy at the supermarket and eat every day are saved and washed and washed again.

Like the Hindu concept of reincarnation, dabbas live many lives; holding leftovers, religious offerings and potluck contributions. They pass from house to house, living in their drawer, the fridge or the pooja room (often it’s actually a closet) where the morning prayers are said. Sometimes, they are even returned to their original owners, full of some other delicious food. This is a fairly advanced manoeuvre and one only the elder aunties of the community can manage – recognizing their 750-millilitre dabba from their friends’ seemingly identical container is nothing short of miraculous.

I grew up in a community of immigrants and the labelling on the dabbas, like everything else, were a source of information about the families they came from. The standard seemed to be whole milk Balkan style; not particularly thick, a little tangy. Rich fatty yogurts might indicate a still-secret pregnancy, as women are routinely encouraged to eat everything (and I mean everything) when gestating. Low fat – or worse – non-fat yogurt meant someone’s doctor had been talking about cholesterol. And sweetened, flavoured yogurt? That was an abomination that didn’t bear mention.

At my house, dabbas were actually relatively rare, though we ate yogurt with just about everything. Every few days, my mother made her own yogurt, scalding milk on the stove and mixing in a spoonful of leftover curd, leaving it on a warm vent in the kitchen to set overnight. Dabba yogurt (which was distinct from yogurt dabbas because it referred to the contents rather than the container) was reserved for dinner parties, religious ceremonies requiring fresh and never used yogurt, and the rare event of a failed batch of the homemade stuff.

Nonetheless, somehow the refrigerator was always full of dabbas. Growing up, my mother cut no corners, grinding her own spices and grating fresh coconut by hand after a full day at the office. The leavings of her elaborate meals would inevitably find their way into yogurt dabbas. When I felt peckish late at night I would open the fridge.

Trying to decipher which dabba contained whatever food I was craving was my first lesson in deductive reasoning. Yogurt dabbas with matching lids were out: they clearly were on their first life and therefore contained only yogurt. Smaller, 500-millilitre sour cream containers were also out: they would generally contain chutney only. Dabbas at the back of the fridge might contain leftovers from earlier in the week, but that night’s leftovers were probably in a 750-millilitre mismatched container in the front of the fridge. Then began the process of opening the likely candidates and finding the treasure. If I was feeling dangerous, I would put the dabba directly in the microwave, no doubt releasing any number of chemicals and carcinogens into my food. No matter, I’m fairly certain it just tasted better. Occasionally, a tiny particle of the tin foil inner lid from the original incarnation would remain, unnoticed. Those evenings the sounds of the microwave exploding would wake my sleeping mother. Needless to say, she was unimpressed.

But just as every auntie cherished her dabbas, every uncle hated them. My own father, a generally laid-back man, meticulously avoided the drawer of dabbas. He always wanted to get rid of them. “How many of these things can you possibly need?” he would ask my mother, exasperated. My mother would shoot him a look that would surely have killed a weaker man and place her dabba carefully back in its drawer. Occasionally, my father would get fed up and dispose of all the dabbas. They simply disappeared. My mother would start the process of recollecting yogurt containers and she made sure to point out the innumerable times they would have been useful, had he only kept them.

When I went away to university my mom used to cook food and send it back with me with strict instructions to wash the dabbas and bring them home. I was embarrassed – why did we need to save these things? Couldn’t I just toss them out when I was done? No, I could not. My mother would not have it. I weighed the options: If I recycled the dabbas would she still send me food? I knew the answer was yes, but it was not a risk I was prepared to take. So, I washed the oil- and turmeric-stained dabbas in the common kitchen and just scrubbed harder when I felt the eyes of my roommates on me.

I have my own dabba collection now. No matter how many glass, microwave- and oven-safe containers I have, no matter how beautiful and functional they may be, I compulsively collect yogurt containers. They truly are the most versatile of objects: part food storage, part bath toy, part source of a strange and unnameable comfort. I don’t expect them back when I give them away, but a tiny part of me grieves when they go. I hope my friends understand what a gift my dabba is. I’m fairly certain my friends just recycle them, but I still secretly hold out hope that they continue to be passed from house to house, living their multiple lives.

When I married my husband, an American from Boston, my mother was concerned. “You know, you come from very different backgrounds.” Navigating cultural differences is surely an adventure. But the other night, I heard my husband yelling in the kitchen and the next morning I found my dabbas in the recycling bin. I narrowed my eyes a little as I fished them out, washed them up and replaced them in their drawer. I was practising my death stare.

Arundhati Dhara lives in Halifax, the ancestral and unceded territory of the Mi’kmaq People.

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