Last week a friend gave us tickets to see the film, The Lunchbox. Well of course, this was the perfect movie for TIFFIN to attend as it’s about her namesake, the tiffin box or, lunchbox. It’s a gentle story about Saajan and Ila who connect with each other through a rare mix up by the dabbawalas when they deliver Ila’s husband’s lunchbox to Saajan by mistake. A bit like an Indian version of 84 Charing Cross Rd, over time Saajan and Ila build a friendship via correspondence. Whilst there were no Bollywood dance sequences, there were plenty of delicious treats for the viewer’s eye as Saajan opened his lunchbox every day. And so many of my little tiffin cousins on the screen at once! Mustn’t let it go to my head.
Millions of Hot Lunches
Dabbawalas (or dabbawallas; dabbahwallahs; or, Tiffin Wallahs) collect hot lunches packed into tiffin boxes from homes all over Mumbai, to be delivered to waiting office workers throughout the city. They collect the lunchboxes from wives, mothers and lunchbox catering services late in the morning and travel via bicycle, train, hand cart and foot to deliver the tiffins to hungry customers by lunch time. Once collected, tiffins are taken to sorting areas where they are bundled into groups to be then delivered on to their final destination. Trains even have a separate carriage for the lunchboxes to travel in. They also collect the empty tiffins and return them back from whence they came, every afternoon. The amazing thing about the dabbawalas and this system is that they never write down details regarding collection or delivery, instead, committing the markings and colour coding on the tiffin box to memory. This would be hard enough to do with half a dozen boxes but imagine delivering thousands of these. It’s difficult to comprehend the volume – over 175 000 delivered every day!
It’s What’s Inside That Counts
So what’s inside these tiffin boxes? Typically there is a container of rice; portions of vegetables, dhal or curry; a bread such as roti or paratha; yoghurts and chutneys and perhaps a treat such as some crunchy bhel puri. The boxes are stacked one of top of the other and secured with a nifty side locking mechanism and then tucked into a padded sleeve to retain the heat for longer. One thing that works fantastically well in a tiffin is a potato or aloo chaat. This version, known as Gujarati Potatoes, comprises potatoes tossed with spices and coconut. It is quick to make and an excellent side to a traditional curry or to enjoy stuffed into a naan. The chaat is even better the next day and reheats well. Of course, it can also be eaten cold, as part of a lunch box. I have adapted an original recipe from an old episode of Indian Food Safari that was on SBS years ago.
- 440 – 500g waxy potatoes (though I generally use floury), peeled
- 1 tspn ground cumin
- 1 tspn ground coriander
- 1 tspn turmeric
- ½ tspn chilli powder
- Salt and white/black pepper to taste
- 2 tbsp vegetable oil
- 2 tspn sesame seeds
- 1tbsp desiccated coconut
- 3 – 4 coriander sprigs
- 1tbsp panch phoran
- 1tsp black mustard seeds
- 1tsp cumin seeds
- 5 – 6 fenugreek seeds
- Scrub potatoes (keep skin on if you can) and boil until tender. Cut into cubes and set aside.
- Mix cumin, ground coriander, turmeric, chilli powder and seasoning in a bowl and add potato cubes. Toss potato until evenly coated
- In a heavy pan or, I find a wok is easiest, heat the oil over a medium-high heat. Add the panch phoran or spice seed mix and fry until sizzling.
- Add the potato to the wok and stir to coat in oil and spice mix. Add coconut, sesame seeds and chopped coriander sprigs and toss again.
- Serve as an accompaniment to curry’s of your choice or as a spicy start to the day with scrambled eggs. Dress with tamarind chutney for a sweet and tangy addition.
Serves 6 – 8 as a side
It’s extremely rare for the dabbawala or tiffinman to make an error in delivery. ‘Almost never’. Some therefore think the plot device of a misdelivered tiffin is engineered and weak. I think those people need to suspend disbelief, relax and enjoy this delightful tale. You might think in this era of globalisation and fast food that the dabbawala industry is on the wain. In fact, it is actually continuing to grow which just goes to show, you can’t beat a home cooked meal.
Thanks to Tony O for giving us the tickets to see The Lunchbox. You can see The Lunchbox at cinemas now or at a free screening at QAGOMA as part of their #Harvest Exhibition on Fri 5th or Sat 20th September. It’s thoroughly recommended, as is my recipe!