The etiquette of returning Tupperware: ‘It always comes back with something in it’

For most of my life, I considered myself well-versed with the basics of returning Tupperware. They had to be cleaned and of course, they had to be returned. Then, last year after my son was born, a friend who is half Korean thoughtfully gifted me some home-cooked meals in Tupperware. When I gave her back her containers, I learned that in Korean culture it is custom to return Tupperware that had originally been given with food, full not empty. She wasn’t offended but I was mortified, and the idea of returning Tupperware full stuck with me. I loved it.

Karima-Chloe Hazim, founder of the Sydney-based Lebanese cooking school Sunday Kitchen, has been returning Tupperware with food in it since high school. “I would never give someone their Tupperware back empty,” she says.

The act of returning Tupperware is something Hazim learned by observing her mother, as well as others in her community. “This is very common, very Lebanese,” says Hazim. It’s also something Hazim practises with people outside the Lebanese community. “My neighbour is a 92-year-old Italian man. I would take him homemade Lebanese pastries and biscuits and he always returned the container with lemons, garden tomatoes or fresh garden herbs,” she says.

The practice began to take hold at her workplace, too. “I had borrowed Tupperware from a work colleague … and I returned it with Lebanese sweets we had left over from a family gathering. Another colleague loved the sweets so she took it home and returned it a few days later with Macedonian sweets,” she says.

“This Tupperware remained at our workplace and we all took turns taking it home and returning it with food to share. The original owner of the Tupperware ended up leaving but her Tupperware stayed and so did our tradition for a few years.”

So what are acceptable Tupperware fillers? According to Hazim it can vary depending on who you’re returning to and the size of the Tupperware. If you are giving back to someone you don’t know well or aren’t related to, Hazim recommends buying something. “If [the container] was small, maybe a bag of chocolate-coated nuts. If it’s large Tupperware I would buy some good sourdough bread and maybe some butter,” she says. For someone you know well the approach can be more personal. “If it was family, or a close friend, I would keep it on hand until I’ve made something that I know they’re going to love,” says Hazim.

According to Rosa Mitchell, Sicilian-born, Melbourne-based cookbook author and chef, reciprocal food giving within the Italian community in Australia has always been done. “You don’t want to let anyone go home empty-handed,” she says. The gesture isn’t limited to returning Tupperware either. Whether it’s a bowl, tray or even a pot, the concept remains the same. “You take a plate of food, or you might want to share a cake. It always comes back with something in it,” she says.

For gifting food, Mitchell says she likes to give something from the heart or that she’s made. Vegetables or a bunch of basil out of her garden, even homemade biscuits or pickles. “It’s just lovely to give back to people that have given to you.”

For Korean-born, Victorian-based chef Jung Eun Chae of her namesake culinary workshop Chae, reciprocal food giving was a basic etiquette she grew up with in Seoul. This act is connected to jeung, an important cultural concept tied to many Korean social practices. Loosely translated, Chae says that jeung can mean love, affection or attachment. In a dining setting for example, to show jeung would be dividing the last scoop of rice evenly among the guests instead of giving it to just one person.

When returning food in Australia, Chae has become more flexible, embracing her own interpretations. If she had extra food on hand to share she’d return Tupperware full, but otherwise wouldn’t go out of her way to cook something. “I can think of other ways to return the favour like taking them out for lunch, inviting them over for tea or even returning empty Tupperware with a small gift,” she says. If gifting, the cost should be of a similar value to what was given to you.

Of all the rules when returning Tupperware however, acknowledging the gesture is probably the most important. “Never let it go unnoticed and return it in whatever shape or form. But if you do decide to fill up the Tupperware, fill it completely because it shows you are full of jeung.”

A Tupperware-returning recipe: Karima-Chloe Hazim’s kaak biscuits
Kaak biscuits are a traditional Middle Eastern sweet biscuit made all year round and are perfect for dipping in hot milk, tea or coffee. They keep for up to a month in an airtight container and are usually made in large quantities and shared around to neighbours, friends and family.

Prep 15 minutes
Makes 20-30 biscuits

2 ½ cups plain flour, plus extra if needed
⅓ cup neutral oil (I use canola or sunflower)
⅓ cup ghee
1 egg, lightly beaten
1 tsp baking powder
2 tbsp aniseeds
1 tbsp caraway seeds
1 tbsp mahlab (available at Middle Eastern supermarkets)
¾ cup sugar
¼ tsp salt
⅓ cup water, plus extra if needed
1 cup white sesame seeds

Preheat your oven to 200C.

In a large bowl, mix the flour, oil, ghee, egg, baking powder, aniseeds, caraway seeds, mahlab, sugar, salt and water, and knead until a sticky dough is formed. If the dough is on the dry side, add 1 tablespoon of water. If you find the dough is too sticky, sprinkle flour and knead until well combined.

Divide the dough into equal balls, roughly the size of a ping-pong ball, or even smaller. Roll each round of dough between your palms, until they form an elongated rope shape about 7cm long.

To make the ring-shaped kaak, pinch the ends of the elongated rope together, forming a circle. Dip in the sesame seeds, making sure the sesame seeds cover the kaak on both sides. Place on a lined baking tray, allowing space between the kaak. Bake until golden, approximately 20-25 minutes.