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Packed lunches Mumbai style

Unique to India's commercial capital Mumbai, there's a delivery service for packed lunches, or "Tiffin" as they are commonly known. Every day, over 4,000 messengers known as "dabbah-wallahs" collect, deliver, and then return as many as 200,000 Tiffin boxes. This means the school children, students and workers of Mumbai can enjoy home cooked food that's tasty, balanced and nutritious.

Daily service of packed lunches on the streets of Mumbai

On a recent visit to Mumbai, a city that teems with over 20 million inhabitants, I was fascinated to learn all about this extraordinary, daily delivery service of packed lunches. Food is carefully prepared at home and dishes placed in separate aluminium containers known as Tiffin. These Tiffin boxes are stacked and labelled, collected by a dabbah-wallah and in the most ingenious way, delivered to the address in Mumbai.

Packed lunches in tiffin boxes

The empty Tiffin boxes are collected and returned to their owners' homes, ready for the same process the next day. This roaring trade has been in existence for over a century and it's still growing, I'm told at over 5% annually. The astonishing fact is that a Tiffin box rarely goes missing. I was informed that on average only one box will go astray every 2 months.

The Tiffin boxes come from all over the city and beyond, arriving by train from suburban railway stations, by bicycle or even on foot, into central Mumbai. It is a sight to behold when around midday; trains arrive into the crowded stations, reminiscent of Slum Dog Millionaire, loaded with Tiffin boxes, which are then carried in long trays, on the heads of the dabbah-wallahs, to be sorted for fast delivery.

The Dabbah-Wallah - the tiffin carrier

The dabbah-wallahs are easily identifiable in their white jackets and caps. The final delivery may take place by bicycle, on a cart or by foot. After seeing this first hand, it didn't surprise me to learn that Forbes, the world famous American Business Magazine, awarded the dabbah-wallahs, a coveted 6 Sigma performance rating. Colour coding seems to be the key to safe delivery however this level of success is a model of perfection for any modern day distribution company.

If only some ingenious person had adopted this system when I was at school, I would have been saved from boring and tasteless school lunches where all the foods were mashed together.

Linda Walker

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Linda Walker

Travel Foodie

A passionate food and wine lover with a penchant for trying out traditional world cuisine, both...

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