Mumbai’s tiffin delivery service – the world’s biggest food delivery service


What’s this?

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!

Where’s this?

Lower Parel West Railway Station, Mumbai, Maharashtra


Bougainvillea in hot pink – my favourite!


What’s this?

The flower of the bougainvillea is my very favourite, especially when it’s in this incredible shade of hot pink, which also happens to be one of my favourite colours. There is no hotter pink than that of a hot pink bougainvillea flower, except, perhaps, the hot pink of a gharghra (long, flared skirt), choli (fitted blouse) and odhni (long shawl worn with one corner tucked into the skirt and the other over the head) of a Rajasthani woman!

One of the many small things that I love about India is that bougainvillea, its papery flowers in many glorious shades of pink, purple, orange, yellow, red and white, is everywhere. It grows in my country Australia, too, and also in parts of Africa, Asia and South, Central and North America, as well as the Indian subcontinent – it even grows in Switzerland.

Here’s an interesting story about the first European discovery of the bougainvillea that I read about in Wikipedia: it’s possible that the first European to notice these plants was a woman, Jeanne Bare, an assistant of the botanist who was accompanying the French navy admiral and explorer Louis Antoine de Bougainville in the late 1700s. Miss Baré was an expert in botany herself, but because she wasn’t allowed on a ship as a woman, she had to disguise herself as a man to make the journey, and so became the first woman to circumnavigate the globe! Of course the Bougainvillea really should have been named the Baré…

Where’s this?

Maheshwar, Madhya Pradesh


Chana masala – rain food


What’s this?

As I write this post it’s raining in Melbourne, so it seems appropriate to talk about this classic north Indian dish of chana (or chole) masala – spicy chickpeas.

I bought this snack from a little covered stall in the market place, already ankle-deep in water, whilst I was waiting for a down-pour of monsoonal rain to pass one afternoon in Rajasthan in August. Somebody told me that it’s ‘rain food’ which I think is a lovely expression – meaning food that’s particularly delicious to eat when it’s raining (although chana masala‘s available any time of year).

What’s in chana masala? Chickpeas are the main ingredient, of course, and they’re cooked in a gravy made from red onion, garlic, green chilli, ginger and tomato, as well as coriander, turmeric, cumin, garam masala (hot spices), red chilli powder, black pepper and salt. Like many dishes, exactly what’s in chana masala depends on who’s cooking it. At its most delicious, I think, is when chana masala is served with puri, a deep-fried bread. Yum!

Have you noticed the plate that my chana masala is served in? I think it’s a patravali, a plate made from the large leaves of the sal tree, a tree native to the Indian subcontinent. Tiny wooden sticks are used to hold the plate together when they’re made by hand, although they’re also made by machine. The plates are completely biodegradable! 

Where’s this?

Pushkar, Rajasthan

Remnants of bandhani – a tie-dye textile technique

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What’s this?

These tiny spirals of brightly dyed cotton thread lie on the ground outside many a bandhani fabric shop in India. Bandhani (derived from the Sanskrit word banda, meaning ‘to tie’) is a very old tie-dye textile technique used to produce patterned fabric in the states of Rajasthan, Gujarat and Punjab in northern India and in Tamil Nadu in the south. In order to create bandhani fabric, tiny sections of the fabric are plucked up by the fingers and bound tightly with cotton thread. When the fabric is dyed, the portions of fabric bound by thread is left untouched and so a contrasting colour is left behind. The tying, often done by highly-skilled women, creates patterns of dots that is detailed and intricate. I just love it.

When you buy bandhani fabric, it’s presented to you still scrunched up from the tying and dying process, to show that it’s authentic bandhani and not a printed version. To remove the cotton thread, often many metres worth, pull the fabric apart. Many of the tiny cotton bundles will spring off by themselves while the others need to be picked off by hand. The fabric then needs to be ironed flat before being sewn into a garment.

Earlier this year I bought three pieces of bandhani fabric from Hathipole Market in Udaipur, ready (except for the previously mentioned thread removal process) to be made into a lovely salwar kameez (the beautiful trouser and tunic combination worn with a long scarf by so many people in the Indian subcontinent) by a tailor. The original fabric was white when it was tied and then dyed red with a portion of it dipped in black, so the resulting fabric is red and black with a pattern of white dots. I wore my new salwar kameez with its accompanying dupatta (long scarf) to a performance of Indian music in my city of Melbourne and two young Indian women told me that I looked beautiful! I was absolutely thrilled!  

Where’s this?

Hathipole Market, Udaipur, Rajasthan

Samosa – the ultimate snack


What’s this?

Ah, the samosa – it’s everywhere in India! This golden deep-fried pastry filled with deliciousness, and often served with a tamarind or green sauce (mint or coriander chutney) or a green chili at the very least, is eaten standing up at a roadside stall, from a highway dhaba, in a friend or relative’s house, or after being quickly shoved through the bars of a moving train’s window by a platform-side samosa vendor who’s jogging along side the train to collect his payment. I’m sure that not a second goes by in India when someone is not eating a samosa!

So what’s inside a samosa? The samosa is the kind of food item that can vary according to who’s making it and where it’s being made. I’m a vegetarian, so the ones I’ve eaten have generally contained a mixture of mashed potato, onion, green chili and spices. They can also contain meat, fish, cheese, dried fruit or nuts, and can even be dipped in sugar syrup! I’m yet to eat a cheesy-fruity-nutty-sugary samosa, but I want to!   

The samosa, under different guises, has been around since the 10th century, and is likely to have come from the Middle East. It was probably brought to India in the 13th or 14th century by traders from Central Asia, and is now eaten, in one form or another, in many countries all over the world. Yum!   

Where’s this?

This classic samosa-chai combination was my breakfast one day in Mandu, Madhya Pradesh

Toddy – Kerala’s palm wine


What’s this?

Once containing mineral water, these bottles now hold left-over palm wine, or toddy, a mildly alcoholic drink made from fermented palm sap. Sap from palmyra or date palms can also be used to make it, but I drank it in Kerala where the ubiquitous coconut is the palm of choice.

Palm wine is drunk in many places around the world in Asia, Africa, South America and the Caribbean, but it’s mostly consumed in India in the southern states of Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, and is also referred to as kallu.

Toddy is made by cutting into the stem of the palm and collecting its sap.  When first collected, the sap is a very sweet and non-alcoholic liquid, to which a little lime juice can be added to stop it fermenting, which it otherwise does as soon as it’s exposed to air. This is served as a drink called neera. Within 2 hours the sap will have fermented to the point where it has an alcohol content of about 4 per cent, which increases during the day as fermentation continues. Toddy is usually drunk before evening, by which time the morning-harvested sap will have acquired a sour, acidic, vinegary taste. 

I drank toddy with some Keralan friends.  We drove from my friend’s home in Kozencherry, hired a motorised canoe with a driver and a sun-roof, and cruised up and down the canals near Alappuzha, whilst eating snacks, taking photos of each other and generally having a lot of fun. We pulled up to a canal-side toddy shop (a basic little shack with shaded tables for eating) and ordered regular toddy-accompanying Keralan food made up of curries of duck, fried fish and kakka (a small clam), served with tapioca, a potato-like root vegetable. We ordered something vegetarian for me too, but I had a few mouthfuls of the duck, the fish and the kakka curries, just to see what they were like. It’s very rare that I put my vegetarianism aside, and unfortunately I paid for it. In the car home I started to feel not quite right, but I put it down to the heat and car sickness. When we got back to Kozencherry it became very clear to me that the food I had eaten needed to leave my body! My friends held my hair and rubbed my back whilst I vomited in my friend’s front garden… Mrs Dharmajan gave her son quite a dressing-down for taking me to such a questionable and local eatery.

Do I like toddy? No, not really. I don’t really like coconut juice or water either, although I’d be happy to drink coconut cream out of a can with a straw. I got through a glass, but that’s enough for me!      

Where’s this?

Alappuzha, also known as Alleppey, in Kerala


The swastika – as it was intended


What’s this?

This familiar symbol is very well-known… for one reason or another.  Depending on where you’re from you might immediately think of fascism and Nazi Germany when looking at this photo, although recognise that the symbol pictured here isn’t quite the same as the similar black symbol, tilted to the right, that was adopted by Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party.  

The sacred symbol pictured above is the swastika (a Sanskrit word), an ancient sign of peace, well-being and good luck that originates from the Indian subcontinent and the religions of Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism.  It dates back nearly 11,000 years.  

Of course, it wasn’t a symbol of good luck and well-being for Europe’s Jewish population during World War 2, of which 6 million were murdered under Hitler’s regime. Extremely ironically, given its peaceful origins, it then became a lasting symbol of repression, fear, horror and genocide. In his autobiographical book of 1925, Mein Kampf,  Hitler wrote “as National Socialists, we see our program in our flag. In red, we see the social idea of the movement; in white, the nationalistic idea; in the swastika, the mission of the struggle for the victory of the Aryan man, and, by the same token, the victory of the idea of creative work.” Personally, I can’t understand how Hitler could think that a single race is more superior than others, and I can’t understand how he could possibly see the peaceful swastika as a symbol of that idea!

In 2005 and 2007, attempts were made in the European Union to have the swastika banned but they were stopped by Hindu groups in Europe. What a difficult issue! On one hand the symbol (or, I should say, it’s appropriation) is one of horror for millions of people, yet on the other hand, it’s a symbol of peace for millions of others.  Personally, I think the real symbol should be ‘reclaimed’ in the name of peace whilst looking ahead to the future, whilst acknowledging its awful appropriation and misuse in the past. 

Given the horrible post-World War 2 associations with the swastika, whilst researching for this post I was fascinated to see an image of a British wedding dress from 1910 that had the swastika embroidered on its lace for good luck. And look at this link for other examples of pre-World War 2 uses of the symbol: vintage swastikas – including Coca Cola!!

What are your thoughts on the swastika?

Where’s this?

Gwalior Fort, built in the 8th century in Gwalior, in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh