Spending 10 days in Chennai with my sister and assorted family has been very fulfilling — emphasis on FILLING. My sister’s cook was away practically the whole time. The result was that we ate out or ordered-in a lot more than is typical.

Two eateries offer bento boxes. One is the amazing Dahlia, a restaurant serving authentic Japanese food at excellent local prices. The owner is a Japanese who came to India in search of fish for the Japanese market. He stayed on and made Chennai his home. The bentos must be ordered a day in advance. The boxes are made of lacquer and must be returned to the restaurant. The food is presented with an artist’s eye for beauty in a grid of rectangles: white rice, pink salmon, strands of black seaweed. And one bright green plastic leaf! Just for balance.

The other box-meals were from a south Indian eatery, Sangeetha. They are aimed at a different audience of connoisseurs. The containers are made of sturdy but disposable plastic, formed into a number of rectangles, suggestive of a linear thali. The main compartment is for the rice, with sambar, two vegetable curries, one slot for curd-rice, another slot for a sealed packet of pickle and the whole assembly sealed with plastic film, with no spillage between compartments. Filling and delicious.

We were invited out too: our uncle and cousin took us for dinner at the Gym, still teeming with the ghosts of our combined pasts. Our Uncle, the last of my father’s brothers, regaled us with stories of his youth and of his father, whom my sisters and I never had a chance to meet. The club waiters were also of the past, looking as if they were recruited during the Raj, with their thick white uniforms. But their services have been updated: paying a bill requires a one-time password!

We also had a wonderful dinner at the beautiful home of Nirmala Lakshman, guiding spirit of The Hindu Lit Fest. There were so many droppable names present that even the mosquitoes did not dare to disturb the diners, as we sat outside in the garden. The star of the evening was definitely the dinner: served in thaals, it was elegant simplicity expressed in vegetarian food, fresh dahi in tiny earthen pots and pineapple rasam. We sat at tables of eight, with printed menus and plenty of sparkly conversation to go with the wine.

For our final lunch out, my sister, niece and I went to the incomparable Amethyst. It’s like a gracious family home that just happens to be a sort of club with a restaurant, lush tropical garden and multiple boutiques: an all-round lovely place to hang out. We ordered Indonesian and Italian food, ending with sugary churros and chocolate sauce. Our waiter’s watch was so beautiful that I admired it. He in turn favoured us with warm happy smiles. When we left he asked, “And how was the service?” “The BEST!” we all chorused.

Manjula Padmanabhan, author and artist, writes of her life in the fictional town of Elsewhere, US, in this weekly column