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Dabbawalas and tiffin - a first recipe

An uninspired day, so I have resorted to a first recipe, although today I am not going to do anything on the actual recipe or the author or the book but will concentrate on the Indian meal of tiffin and those amazing guys in Mumbai - the dabbawalas.

My book is Classic Indian Vegetarian Cooking by Julie Sahni which I have come to realise is actually a bit of a classic in itself. And tomorrow I will talk about the book, it's author and the first recipe. Today though I am talking about tiffin because the recipe is first in a section called Breakfast and Light Meals (Tiffin).

I think I first became aware of the amazing dabbawalas when I saw the Indian film The Lunchbox. If you haven't seen it try and find it on a streaming service. I just checked and it seems that SBS ON Demand has it - as do a whole lot of other services. It's a feel-good movie that educates you at the same time about the dabbawalas.

So what is tiffin? Well I thought it was lunch - as shown in this film, but actually, depending on the region of India, well depending on just who you are really, it is any snack kind of meal. Well it can mean a snack, breakfast, lunch or afternoon tea. In fact the word comes from a British word 'tiffing' which is colloquial and means to take a little drink. I don't think it is used anymore, but tiffin certainly is. Initially it was used by the British to mean afternoon tea, but eventually it came to mean lunch - as it certainly does in Mumbai.

For that is certainly what the dabbawalas of Mumbai are delivering. Do watch this video, which will tell you everything about them. It's short and it's Indian, but in English.

It will tell you amazing facts, such as there are 5000 dabbawalas in Mumbai, that it is a bit of a closed shop - they all belong to a particular religious sect, they deliver 400,000 a day and the error rate is 1 in a million! But it only happens in Mumbai. Other cities have apparently asked the organisation - for it is an organisation - to service other cities but so far they have declined to extend elsewhere, citing transportation problems (the Mumbai service depends on the efficient train service and bicycles) as one of the main reasons. So for now anyway it's a low tech, supremely efficient service that only operates in one city. You would have to wonder why other people haven't started similar ventures though. Like I said it's a bit of a closed shop I think. And apparently unaffected by food services such as ÜberEats.

Tiffin, however, is a universal Indian thing and the tiffin containers also. You can buy them in Aldi for example when they do their week of Indian food. And there are lots of so-called tiffin services in Melbourne - I found a list of 182. Mind you these might just be Indian take-away services. I couldn't actually find pictures. Nevertheless they all have 'tiffin service' in the names of their offerings rather than take-away.

According to Julie Sahni tiffin is particularly important in Southern India:

"in southern Indian households, where lunch is traditionally eaten at 9.00am (meaning there is no breakfast in the morning), these dishes are served in the afternoon or at around lunchtime (12 noon to 3.00pm) as tiffin. ... Tiffins are classic south Indian preparations. Although they are very tasty and interesting dishes, they are rich in carbohydrates. This is because tiffins are generally made with different grains (high in starches) and contain very few vegetables (sometimes none at all), and practically no milk or dairy products (this is typical of much southern food - a reflection of the scarcity of nutritious food ingredients)."

So do watch that YouTube video - I really can't add to the information therein, and that lovely film.

Tomorrow - Julie Sahni, and breakfast.

#indianfood #foodservices


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