Culture for Lunch II: Tiffins and Dabbawalas

Image 22In verbal language, we combine various sounds, words, and sentence structures that are unique to our respective languages in an effort to express ourselves. Results are often mixed, with misunderstandings happening all the time. What did he just say? Is she kidding? What’s your point?  A subtle form of communication that is understood by all, food is an inherent part of the human experience. With food, different flavors, ingredients, and techniques are blended together in a way that reflects personality and experience. Take a bite of something, close your eyes, and let out a low “Mmmm” sound; everyone knows what that means. So, in an effort to further my cultural knowledge one lunch at a time, I thought it might be interesting to take a look at tiffins and the men who deliver them, the dabbawalas.

A Tiffin for Lunch…

Derived from the obsolete English slang tiffing, meaning to “taking a little drink or sip”, the word tiffin (now primarily used in Indian English) is applied to lunch or a light meal.

In South India and in Nepal, the term is generally used for between-meals snacks, but in other parts of India, such as Mumbai, the word mostly refers to a packed lunch of some sort. This is the type of tiffin I’m talking about. Usually tiffins are light lunches prepared for working Indian men by their wives after they have left for the day or for schoolchildren by their parents.

Tiffin carriers or dabbas (“dabba” is Hindi for box or receptacle) are a kind of multi-tiered lunchbox usually made from steel. The hot meal is packed into the dabba and dispatched through the network of tiffin deliverymen known as dabbawalas. 

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…Delivered by a Dabbawala

“Walla” is a suffix, denoting a doer or holder of the preceding word so dabbawalla can be literally translated to mean “one who carries a box”. This may sound like a simple task, but it’s actually quite an impressive feat. The service started in the late 1800s with about a hundred men and has since grown to be the Mumbai Tiffin Box Supplier’s Association with the number of dabbawalas ranging between 4,500 and 5,000. Having garnered much acclaim, some of the dabbawalas have even been invited to give guest lectures at some of the top business schools of India, and the president of the association has been interviewed repeatedly for the secret to the dabbawalas’ success.

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Between 175,000 and 200,000 tiffins are delivered by the network of dabbawalas in Mumbai, one of the most populated cities on earth. And despite the fact that many of the dabbawalas are illiterate and limited to bicycles and trains for transportation, the lunches always arrive on time. The estimated error rate is 1 in every 16 million transactions. The empty boxes are collected after lunch or the next day and sent back to the respective houses.

Dabbawalas aren’t just delivering meals, they’re helping wives and mothers communicate love through food, and love is a language everyone understands. So get out there and share an Indian (or any cuisine that catches your fancy) packed lunch with a loved one and see if culture resonates through your meal. you might not notice it because of all the “Mmmm” sounds.

What are your favorite dishes to pack for a to-go lunch? Don’t you wish your local pizza restaurant’s fail rate were as low as the dabbawala’s? I sure do.