Tiffins and the Mumbai Dabbawala

Learn about tiffins and dabbawalas — and enjoy delicious food too.

Cuisine from a different culture: Besides complex deliveries, Indian foods are known for complex, interesting spice blends that add flavor to their dishes.

By Donna Zitter Bordelon

“So, tiffins are what?” my husband asked. And I explained that in Mumbai, India, tiffins consist of stacked aluminum/stainless steel tins (two, three or four tins) with a handle that carries hot lunches — vegetables, rice and even a dessert, separately but intact.

But the interesting part of the story begins here. Over 125 years ago, a wealthy banker working in Mumbai wanted regular, home-cooked meals delivered to his downtown office, and he hired someone to do this. Over the years, this delivery service grew to 5,000 men, each known as a dabbawala (“one who carries the box”), who carry 200,000 tiffin lunch boxes daily — always on time.

In the morning, each dabbawala collects filled tiffins from homes and restaurants that he transports on bicycle/carts to the train station. A secret system of hand-painted symbols and color coding, passed to heirs so the business stays in the family, identifies where the tiffin originated, which train it is to be sent on, and the final location of its lunch destination, again delivered by bicycle. The system reverses for empty tiffins.

The dabbawalas are mostly unskilled laborers, some illiterate, who criss-cross the city by bike and train, yet their error rate is only 3.4 mistakes in 1 million deliveries, according to a Harvard study. This efficiency has been studied by management trainees from various universities as well as executives from FedEx and Amazon, even Virgin’s Richard Branson. High-tech Mumbai’s Uber-Eats equivalents, fast-food chains and restaurants aren’t soon replacing the dabbawalas, whose business growth is 5 percent to 10 percent yearly.

Besides complex deliveries, Indian foods are known for complex, interesting spice blends that add flavor to their dishes. These include chutneys — condiment-cousins to our relishes. Major Grey, a 19th-century English Bengal Lancers officer who lived in Colonial India, is said to have created the following fruity, sweet-sour, tangy chutney with the help of his Bengali cook. The chutney popularized by Crosse & Blackwell copied the recipe. Available in supermarkets here and abroad and on Amazon, Major Grey’s Mango Chutney is now made by several companies. Here is a homemade version, delicious served with poultry, meat, fish and cheeses.

MAJOR GREY’S MANGO CHUTNEY

2 mangoes, peeled, small diced

2 Tbsp. lemon juice and the zest of one lemon

1 medium onion, diced (about ¾ cup)

1 clove garlic, minced

1/2 cup raisins

3 Tbsp. peeled, grated ginger root (about a 3-inch knob)

3/4 cup brown sugar

1/3 cup molasses

1/2 tsp. mustard seeds

1/2 tsp. crushed red pepper

1/2 tsp. Coriander

1/2 tsp. nutmeg

1/2 tsp. ground cloves

1/4 tsp. cardamom

1 cinnamon stick

1 cup plus 1 Tbsp. apple cider vinegar

Combine all ingredients in a large saucepan, and bring to a boil.

Stir and reduce heat to medium-low. Continue to cook uncovered, stirring occasionally until mixture reduces into a thick, jam-like consistency (about 40 minutes.) Store in sealed glass container in refrigerator. Keeps for a few weeks.

Makes about 4 cups.

This recipe uses Major Grey’s Chutney. I made chicken soup the other day to warm up from this weather, and used some of that chicken for Curried Chicken Salad. If pressed for time, rotisserie chicken works well.

CURRIED CHICKEN SALAD

4 cups cooked chicken, cubed

1 apple, cored and chopped

2 Tbsp. parsley or cilantro, minced

1 cup celery, chopped

1/4 cup red onion, chopped

1/4 cup raisins or Craisins

Juice and zest from 1 lime

1 Tbsp. curry powder

1/4 cup Major Grey’s Chutney

3/4 cup mayonnaise

1/4 cup cashews, almonds or walnuts, chopped (optional)

In a large bowl, combine the chicken, apple, parsley/cilantro, celery, onion and raisins.

In a small bowl, mix together the zest and lime juice, curry powder, chutney and then the mayonnaise.

Fold the mayonnaise mixture and the nuts, if using, into the large bowl of chicken mixture. Chill.

Serve on a bed of lettuce, on a croissant, bread or roll.

Eat well, live long, enjoy!

(Ques­tions or tips can be sent to Donna Zit­ter Bor­de­lon at WhatscookinNEPhilly@gmail.com or in care of the Times, 2 Executive Campus, Suite 400, Cherry Hill, NJ 08002)

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