The tiffinwallahs of Mumbai

Some very contemporary tiffin boxes have just been delivered to Galerie CO. We’re happy to have them in time for the good weather; think picnics!

GT Joules tiffin box

tiffin box by Garden Trading, available at galerie-co.com

For those who don’t know, a traditional tiffin is a tin container consisting of a number of bowls, each containing a separate dish, held together in a frame, made famous by the amazing tiffin men (tiffinwallahs or dabbawalas) who deliver them in Mumbai, India.

tiffin on head

Source: Aija-Rahi/AP via npr.com

Mumbai, the business capital of India, is one of the largest, most sophisticated cities in the world. Ironically, in the midst of the progress and modernization the business people of Mumbai continue to cherish and respect a thoroughly traditional and low-tech service provided by the city’s tiffin men who deliver their lunchtime meal to them from home.

Every day around 5,000 tiffin men deliver up to 200,000 home-cooked lunches (tiffins) from suburban communities directly to commuters in the offices of Mumbai. This extraordinary service started in 1890 when there were few restaurants around the city and people tended to be suspicious of food offered outside the home. But it has continued despite the explosion of restaurants onto the food scene in Mumbai.

tiffin time

photo: Satyaki Ghosh via letz trend

Each morning the tiffin men stop by the homes of their clients (who have already commuted into Mumbai) to pick up their lunch boxes, or tiffins. The tiffins will typically be filled with a home-made lunch of rice, dal, vegetables, and roti packed into the separate sections. They are frequently packed into insulated bags and taken by train from the suburbs to a central station in Mumbai where they are organized according to street address and floor. The 100-kilogram crates of tiffins are then dispatched for delivery at lunchtime on tiffin men’s heads, hand-pulled wagons or bicycles.

tiffin-on-head1

 Source: meerasodha.com

After lunch the process is reversed and the tiffins are collected and delivered back to suburban homes before the commuter returns home from work.

The exercise involves a fine balance between chaos and precision, evident in this video portraying a day in the life of a Mumbai tiffinwallah.

There are no computers behind the tiffin-delivery system. There is no paper trail. In fact, most tiffin men are illiterate. On every tiffin there are simply four codes indicating where the tiffin came from, where it needs to go, and railway stations for delivery and pick up. The sturdy tiffins are re-used day in and day out, eliminating the waste associated with take-out and delivery food.

tiffin on bike (1)

Source: npr.com

Despite the low-tech system, the accuracy with which the tiffin men deliver their lunches is astonishing. Theirs is one of the most efficient supply chains in the world; they only make one mistake in every 8 million deliveries. One such error inspired a film entitled, in hindi, “Dabba” (translated as “The Lunchbox”), which tells the story of the people affected by the mistaken delivery of a tiffin. You can still catch the film (Indian with English subtitles) in several Canadian cities including Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver.

The service provided by the tiffin men is highly valued and they command enormous respect. In the midst of change in a rapidly developing part of the world some values hold true; in this case the traditional preference of the people of Mumbai for a home-cooked meal.

What would you put in your tiffin box? Let us know in the comments below, on Facebook or on Twitter. We love to hear from you!

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