On the heads and bicycle racks of an army of delivery men, more than 200,000 shiny tiffin boxes course like quicksilver through the grotty streets of Mumbai each day.
Like clockwork, these stackable metal pots arrive at the desks of the city’s hungry office workers at 12:45 pm precisely.
Considered the world’s most ingenious meal distribution system – a recent Forbes magazine survey found that only one in six million deliveries is misplaced – the century-old tiffin lunch delivery network is integral to the cultural life of Mumbai.
And now, from Boston to Burnaby and from Calgary to Cambridge, the tiffin is taking off across North America, with Metro Vancouver leading the way.
On Granville Island, Curry 2 U proprietor Shaffeen Jamal says the tiffin trend is going gangbusters.
“When I first started I was maybe doing 50 a week,” he says. “Now I’m doing 1,250.”
At the popular South India restaurant Chutney Villa on Broadway at Main, Vancouver restaurateur Chindi Varadarajulu says she’s just ordered in another shipment of tiffin carriers to keep up with demand.
“You’re sick of the finger food, you’re sick of the pizzas and the sandwiches, this is a healthy – and tasty – option,” says Varadarajulu, who now offers lunchtime delivery and corporate catering a la tiffin.
“A lot of customers will buy a tiffin for their leftovers. Others will come in just to buy the empty containers,” she adds. “I’ve had to order another 250 from India they’re so popular.”
In Calgary, Aly Ramji has named his restaurant after the cylindrical aluminum containers. Tiffin Curry and Roti House has just doubled its presence in the city on the strength of its lunchtime Tiffin Club, with a food court outlet at Mount Royal College expanding on the original restaurant on 28 Street SE.
“It’s picked up incredibly,” says Ramji, originally from Vancouver. “Our tiffins are pretty unique too, they come in a thermos container – being from Calgary, the winters are cold here and we want your food to be hot!”
The tiffin is a remarkably simple concept. Originating with the British Raj in 19th Century India – the word ‘tiffing’ in antique English means to eat between meals – the tiffin typically comprises three or four separate hot and cold insulated compartments.
In India, they are also called dabbas, and are delivered every lunch hour by some 5,000 dabbawallahs (literally, box carriers) in Mumbai alone.
Typically, they contain rice in one compartment, Dal or curry in another, and other items in the third or fourth tiers such as naan, vegetables or a dessert.
Just this month, the tiffin arrived in the U.S., with a leading restaurant chain specialising in Indian cuisine launching ‘Tiffin Meals,’ a new home and office meal delivery service in Boston and Cambridge.
With a click of a mouse, patrons now can order quality, home-style Indian food every day for lunch, the Boston based One World Cuisine restaurant chain said while launching the service patterned on Mumbai’s dabbawallah carriers.
“The launch of Tiffin Meals allows us to better serve our customers, whether in our restaurants, their homes or their offices,” said Amrik Pabla, president of the One World Cuisine group.
But unlike his counterparts in Metro Vancouver, who refill their customers cleaned tiffins at a considerable discount, Pabla serves up his Indian food in disposable, microwavable plastic containers.
Varadarajulu firmly believes that it is the “green factor” of the reusable aluminum tiffin carriers that will firmly entrench the tiffin trend here.
“The biggest reason it will take off is the enviromental reason, especially in Vancouver,” she says. “We recently catered to a group of 75 at a government office. Can you imagine, if they weren’t ordering the tiffins, these people would have had three plastic containers each – that’s a lot of plastic.”
Both Ramji and Jamal concur.
“We draw a lot of people who want to be environmentally friendly and are aware of the waste that’s involved in plastic lunch containers,” says Ramji, who has a degree in environmental sciences and has “always been conscious of the problems we’re facing.”
Adds Jamal: “I used to put 100,000 foam plates into the landfill every year. Now, I’ve put in a dishwasher than cost me 3,000 bucks and that is it.
“The idea is I want you to think green, be more responsible, and also buy your loyalty by asking you to come back to refill your tiffin.”
Varadarajulu says she is not surprised the time-honoured tiffin is making a mighty comeback.
“India is the cool thing,” she explains. “People are looking to India for the next thing, whether it’s movies, travel, music, spirituality, or food.”