You may have already heard about Mumbai’s famous tiffin delivery service. A tiffin is a cylindrical container, often made out of aluminium, that’s used to hold and carry food. Each tiffin will have four or five round compartments and might hold, for example, dal (a lentil dish), curry, subji (vegetables), rice and chapati (unleavened flatbread). Each of the containers in the photograph above holds a tiffin.
Every day in Mumbai, approximately 5000 dabbawallas (tiffin carriers) deliver around 200,000 tiffins, full of freshly cooked food, to workers in offices and workplaces all around Mumbai, in time for lunch.
So how does the system work? Wives and mothers of Mumbai workers freshly cook meals in the morning and pack them into tiffins (this might also be done by a worker’s favourite restaurant). A local dabbawalla collects the tiffins from the workers’ homes (for a fee, of course), usually by bicycle. He takes them to a sorting place where they’re sorted into groups, and marked elaborately with codes according to their collection point, destination, and pick-up and drop-off train stations. The grouped tiffins are then loaded onto special carriages of local trains and unloaded at the train station nearest to their destination, to where they’re delivered, again by bicycle, by another local dabbawalla. The empty tiffins are then collected after lunch or the next day for their return delivery back to the workers’ homes.
When I take a meal to work, it’s usually leftovers from the night before that I eat after heating it up in the microwave so the thought of opening up a container full of food that has been so freshly cooked that it’s still warm is very appealing!
The system is so well-known not only because of the vast numbers of tiffins that are delivered in Mumbai each year, but also because of the incredibly small number of delivery mistakes that are made. It’s been estimated that only 1 mistake is made in every 6 million deliveries, which is quite extraordinary!
A lovely film to watch about what happens after a particular errant delivery is The Lunchbox, starring Irrfan Khan whom you might have seen in The Life of Pi. You can watch the trailer for The Lunchbox here, but it’s likely to make you hungry!
Lower Parel West Railway Station, Mumbai, Maharashtra