A Tale of Tiffins: One Person’s Doggie Bag is Another City’s Lunch Box


I’d never heard of a “tiffin” until I saw them several years ago at Luna Red restaurant in San Luis Obispo. Now, I rarely leave home without it!

As you can see from the pictures, a tiffin is a round box that clamps shut and is typically used for transporting food. As the wise knower of all things – aka Wikipedia – states: “ ‘Tiffin is an Anglo-Indian word, derived from obsolete English slang ‘tiffing’ (to sip), for a light lunch or afternoon snack, and sometimes, by extension, for the box it is carried in.”

I use my tiffin for bringing home restaurant leftovers. Sometimes having it encourages me to eat less, but at any rate, it saves on packaging, especially all the Styrofoam clamshells a lot of restaurants use. Also, the tiffin is easy peasy to clean. It’s metal, so you can wash by hand or throw it in the dishwasher.

My tiffin’s appearance in a restaurant usually sparks some conversation, usually with the server. Perhaps initially they think I’m trying to steal the salt and pepper shakers, but once I explain the concept and point out that it saves them having to buy to-go containers, they usually think my tidy tiffin is pretty darn cool.

Interestingly enough, while little ol’ me is using my tiffin as a doggie bag, one of the world’s most populous cities uses hundreds of thousands of them on a daily basis as lunch boxes. Each day in Mumbai, India, about 5000 dabbawalas (or “those who carry the box”) fan out across the city to carry home cooked lunches to some 200,000 urban workers.

Using trains, wagons, bicycles and foot power, the dabbawalas not only deliver the meals, but also retrieve the tiffins and return them to the home kitchens from whence they came, all within a three to four hour window each way. According to this slideshow from the BBC, the “system was first established about 125 years ago by a Parsi banker who wanted to have home-cooked food in his office.”

Many of the dabbawalas come from a particular rural region in Western India, and the position of dabbawala is often passed down through generations. Most dabbawalas are literate only to the level of an alphabet, so they’ve devised a coding system of colors and numbers to get the tiffins where they’re supposed to go.

Given our Western standards of technology, this seems incredibly crude and inefficient, but consider this – it’s estimated that the dabbawalas’ error rate is 1:16 million. Yes, that’s one wrong lunch for every 16 million deliveries and that error is usually due to accidents or weather!

Tracking number, schmacking number. Watch these amazing dabbawalas at work.

(btw … Luna Red and Robin’s in Cambria used to carry the tiffins, but not enough people understood their usefulness, so now the most “local” place I’ve been able to find them around here is at World Market. If anyone knows of somewhere else, let me know and I’ll post it on Fbook.)


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