Blog: Bombay Dreams

Catherine Sleep | 19 November 2003

My first trip to India did not disappoint. Leaving the sun drenched beaches of Goa and the wonderful churches and temples of Mumbai (Bombay) aside, allow me to struggle through my jetlag to share a few observations of a culinary nature. This is, after all, a blog for the food industry.

The cuisine at all levels was superb. From the lovely art deco Mandovi Hotel in the Goan state capital of Panaji right down to the most humble corner café serving just one curry of the day along with roti and chai (tea), the food was warm, tasty and fresh. The only minor irritation was a tendency in tourist restaurants to default to disappointingly mild imitations of their curries just in case our western palates weren’t up to the spices and chillies in the normal versions. However, we soon remembered to mention that we liked our food “quite spicy” and all was well.

We visited several local produce markets and were wowed by the quality and variety of fish on offer. From juicy tiger prawns to pomfret, shark, tuna, kingfish, eel, flounders, lobster, crab and any number of fish we didn’t recognise, all was fresh and plentiful. We only wished we had cooking facilities and so could try them all. Seeing such bounty highlighted the mean offering in the UK – my town’s fishmonger closed down when the two supermarkets started selling fresh fish, but these only offer a limited range of rather expensive fish. Of course there are complex reasons for this sorry state of affairs, but that’s another story.

Let’s talk about trains. I’d heard they were grubby, erratic and extremely slow, but since I am used to trains in Britain, I found them more than acceptable on my 12 hour second-class overnighter from Goa to Mumbai and the return trip a few days later. Best of all, attendants were constantly running through the carriages offering reasonably priced chai, coffee, soft drinks, water and all manner of snacks, and every few hours orders were taken for dinner, breakfast or whichever meal was due next.

They provided a good choice of freshly prepared tasty dishes, such as vegetable noodles, chicken biryani or other curries. Having a fully fledged ‘pantry car’ on board helped – those guys were pros at slapping up perfect omelettes as the train lurched along. Definitely a cut above the service here at home. That said, the dal roti produced from the tiffin box of a fellow passenger was in a higher league altogether, but then homemade’s generally best, wherever you are. (Yeah yeah, I know some of my readers in the prepared foods category will beg to differ.)

Talking of tiffin, let me finish by recounting one of the most impressive sights of the holiday. Arriving at Mumbai CST station mid-morning, we were just in time to witness the linchpin of one of the world’s most sophisticated logistical exercises. A little background: Mumbai office workers like home-prepared food for lunch, but many do not have the time to get home for it. Neither is it convenient for them to carry it with them, as this is not a “sandwich, apple and a bag of crisps” kind of place. It is customary for their families to send them their ‘tiffin’ (lunch), usually a curry, some rice, bread and a range of pickles, in a tiffin box (see the picture hyperlinked below). Some 200,000 tiffin boxes are delivered to workers in the city of Mumbai every day, and the box is then returned to their family.

They are delivered by around 5000 ‘dabbawallas’ (tiffin carriers) who operate a well-oiled relay network that ensures every worker gets the correct box. No documentation is involved – the lids of boxes are simply coded with their origin and destination, and pass through many pairs of hands via train, rickshaw, hand-wagons, cycles and dabbawallas’ heads before they reach their hungry recipient. 

Many of them are illiterate but these dabbawallas make so few mistakes that they have drawn the attention of management gurus and are now being invited to lecture to MBA courses on their own incarnation of Supply Chain Management and the Just In Time principle. With an average of just one meal every two months failing to reach its intended stomach (that’s one error per eight million deliveries, or 16 million if you count the return journey), small wonder that the London School of Economics is studying the tiffin supply chain as a best-practice business model.

Tiffin boxes


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