What is a ‘tiffin tin’?
How simple it is now to arrive home after a long day at work, take a brief look at the kitchen, imagine the pile of washing-up that fore waits you after cooking a meal, and think “nah, not today”. So, you take your phone from your pocket, open your choice of food delivery app, tap-tap here, tap-tap there, and bam! 30 minutes later you’re sitting there with your favourite Friday comfort food, ready to binge watch a weird documentary series on Netflix. It’s okay. We all do it.
What if I was to tell you that India has had this whole thing sussed out for 129 years without any technology whatsoever. No technology, 100% people-powered, home-made, kitchen to mouth delivery system – and it’s almost completely unfaultable!
Let’s dig into the history of it first. During the British Raj in 1890, an influx of migrants to the big cities meant there were many more mouths needing to be fed. Mumbai and other cities, however, were not yet equipped for feeding so many workers, and there were no effective systems in place for feeding the them all at lunchtime…yet! As a solution, lunches would be made up in the home by the cook of the house and packed safely into rather charming steel tiered lunchboxes called dabbas or tiffin tins (dah-dah!) delivered by fastidious men called dabbawalas, which literally translates to “one-who-carries-the-dabba”. This food delivery system started off with just 100 dabbawalas delivering lunches into the city by bicycle or train. Today, India sees 5,000 dabbawalas delivering 200,000 tiffin tins every day!
The typical day of a dabbawala starts out around mid-morning, when they are expected to collect tiffins filled with homecooked and hearty food from the households of the workers expecting lunch later in the day. As many as 40 dabbas weighing an average of 45kg altogether are carried in crates and by bicycle to the closest train station, often passing through very busy and lively roads on the way. Each tiffin is marked with a code to show which station it is to be delivered to and the address of the worker it will finally end up feeding. The well-organised tiffins travel on the city’s train network until finally being collected by another group of dabbawalas who will ultimately deliver the tiffin tins to their hungry owners – just in time for lunch. Once empty after satisfying the bellies of the city’s workers, the whole process is reversed, and the hopefully much lighter tiffin tins make their way back to the household, all to be repeated the next day.
Dabbawalas are the city’s heroes. Working as a dabbawala is highly respectable and seen as a job for life. They are a model for service excellence and have been studied by Harvard University for their astounding record of precision. It’s claimed the dabbawalas are so efficient that they only make one mistake in every six-million deliveries – That’s according to the president of Mumbai! And, of course, they are especially loved by the hungry workers receiving their tiffin tin.
So, there we have it. The inspiration behind our name and an interesting bite of information which will make for good table conversation the next time you are tucking into your Tiffin Tin delivery.