How do you feed a city of 22 million people? Ask the Dabbawalas (tiffin carriers) of Mumbai – they have been doing it for over 125 years.
Picture the city of Mumbai, the most populated city in India. A vibrant and energetic city of approximately 22 million people - hungry people and they all need to have lunch!
A balancing act - A Dabbawala carrying numerous aluminium tiffins.
Each day hundreds of metal tiered tiffin boxes or dabbas can be seen piled high on handcarts and bicycles. These are then pushed through the streets by white-capped tiffin walas who are delivering and collecting food to give to the workers. Unlike other food delivery services, this is usually home cooked food which has been picked up from the recipient’s house and then delivered in time for lunch.
It’s an ingenious and efficient service.
A unique code is given to each tiffin box.
The Dabbawala statue in Mumbai.
It may look frantic but there is order amid the apparent chaos. The tiffin boxes are collected mid-morning and taken to a local office or train station to be sorted. Each tiffin is given a unique code according to starting station, destination station, destination address etc. Then each dabbawala gets on a train with the dabbas heading to their delivery area. On arrival they are all sorted again, before being loaded onto bicycles and handcarts for the final leg of the journey.
A lifeline to the many workers within the city, the Dabbawalas are greatly respected. So much so that a huge glittering statue of a Dabbawala was unveiled on one of South Mumbai’s busiest junctions in 2017, as a tribute to these men and the work they do.
The tiffins (or dabbas), themselves come in all shapes and sizes, but traditionally they are round, with three or four stacking compartments firmly sealed with a tight-fitting lid, a side clip to avoid any spillages, and a handle for carrying on the top.
They are usually made from metal – tin, brass or aluminium to ensure the food is kept warm and each box would keep your food separate be it bread or rice, vegetables, lentils etc.
Often, they have a stamp on the top vessel cover reading e.g. 41/2 – this means there are four and half containers in that particular box. The top box, which is usually of 1 inch in height, is considered a half box. Some will even have a separate small compartment on the top to put a hand-written note inside to send to your loved one.
Brass tiffin boxes are coated with a tin interior to prevent the contact of the food with brass, as brass reacts chemically with certain types of food, particularly Tamarind juice and lime juice. On some designs there will be a spoon attached, offering dual purpose as a lock to the tiffin system and obviously for eating!
A spoon could be used to lock the tiffin system.
Each Tiffin Box bears individual marks of use and history, scratches and dents are all part of their charm, making them unique and giving them a personality all their own. They also appeal to collectors and designers as they are perfect to use as decoration for your home.
To find out more about the amazing Dabbawalas of Mumbai and see them in action click below.