Want to know what was packed in my tiffin box today? Alyona had packed delicious Punjabi kadhi, paneer and vegetable jhalfraezi, nachni ki rotis, brown rice, salad and yogurt. Wholesome and completely satiating. What did you have in your tiffin box?
What is tiffin?
Now before I go further let us dissect the word ‘tiffin’ which leaves a lot of people wondering what it actually means. When I was researching for my book on ‘Tiffin’ recipes, I found that the word tiffin was derived from the English slang tiffing. This word is now obsolete but it means ‘taking a little drink or sip’. In the present day it takes on a different meaning and pertains to food.
I further found that the word ‘tiffin’ as we understand now, originated in British India when the Indian custom of having light snacks replaced the British practice of afternoon tea. The wafer thin cucumber sandwiches and cookies that were served with the very British cup of hot tea in delicate china cups were replaced by mathris, samosas, chewda and the like. In South India tiffin is generally used for in-between-meal snacks which include dosas, idlis, medu vadas etc. So they have tiffin for breakfast in the mornings and tiffin in the afternoon too accompanied by cups of hot frothing filter coffee. However in other parts of India, including Mumbai, the word mostly refers to packed lunches that school children carry to schools or working people take to office.
When my daughters started full day school, Alyona would pack two tiffins for them – one for the short break and one for the long break. The one for the short break would be a smaller one in which she would pack sandwiches or biscuits or dhokla or khandvi or aloo tikki or some similar finger food. In contrast the other one would have wholesome foods like roti-sabzi rolls or some pulav or a pasta or some stuffed parantha or foods such as these. It really was some task for her, for the children expected something different every day. It was natural too for their friends too looked forward to their tiffin boxes.
How do you pack tiffins?
Tiffins can be packed variously: for example sandwiches can be packed in aluminium foil or in zip lock bags; you get airtight plastic boxes which are also leakproof besides being usable to reheat in a microwave oven. These days you get compact hot cases which keep the food hot.
In Mumbai there is this unique system whereby you need not carry your lunch with you. Tiffin dabbas are delivered at various destinations by around five thousand odd dabbawalas and they have been doing this without a break for over 125 years now. They deliver nearly two lakh tiffin dabbas everyday and that too on time. Their exceptional management and operational models have become subjects of management study in global business schools. It is a matter of pride that the dabbawalas have a Six Sigma quality certificate and a global business fan club that includes Prince Charles and Mr. Richard Branson.
Did you ask what’s so unique about this? First of all the dabbawalas are semi literate and have no formal education in management strategies. And yet the dabbas are picked up from various homes and delivered to workplace on time. Lunch over, the dabbas are once again collected from various offices and reached to their homes before the sun sets. Furthermore what is surprising is that a dabba is collected by one dabbawala and delivered to its destination by another and rarely is there any mix up. How do they manage to do this? It is because of wonderful teamwork and the way the team members manage the logistics with fabulous technical efficiency. The way it works is really difficult to comprehend by people like us who sit in the offices and expect their lunch dabbas to be delivered to them on time.
To better understand how they manage this I spoke to a dabbawala who delivers a couple of dabbas at our office. He explained thus: the dabbawalas provide the dabbas which are marked with a colour-coded notation which helps them to identify its owner and the destination where it has to be delivered. Once the dabbawalas collect the dabbas, they travel to the nearest railway station on bicycles, then board the train and reach the station nearest to the destination. There the dabbas are sorted out for area-wise distribution and then delivered. This way a single dabba change hands three to four times.
Fun filled lunch hour
In our office lunch hour is like a merry picnic. Tiffin boxes in different sizes and shapes come out and all of us sit at the same table, eat from our own dabbas as also from others’ amid lot of chatter and laughter. In fact whenever I am out of Mumbai I miss this wonderful hour of pleasant camaraderie for it also gives us the opportunity of tasting and learning new recipes.
What to pack in tiffins?
What kind of foods can be packed in the tiffin box? Anything that your child wants or anything that you wish to have at work. It can be a complete meal or it can be a compact meal like roti-sabzi or sandwiches or idli-chutney or vegetable upma or….the possibilities are many. But let me give you a suggestion that is based on my personal experience. When you pack your tiffin box, pack at least two portions or you may not get anything. Your colleagues would like to taste your food too, you see. Same is the case with your children – kids often look forward to eating from their friends’ boxes.
So you see you can make the tiffin a many splendoured one. Just let your creative imagination take over your kitchen and ladle out delicacies that will please everyone.