Food, food culture, food as culture and the cultures that grow our food

Dabba Wallah - git yer tiffin while it’s HOT

December 10, 2004


You’re a dutiful wife (actually I’m temporarily in-between relationships) and nothing short of your own love-imbued cuisine will suffice to nourish your office-bound husband for his lunchtime meal. Problem is you’re out in the suburbs of Mumbai and he’s situated downtown for the lunchtime hours. How are you going to get something hot in Lovey’s tummy?

Easy. You pay 150 rupees (EUR2,55/GBP1.70/USD3.40) per month for a Dabba Wallah service and let the ‘tiffin guy’ or lunchbox carrier bring the Mr. his grub.

In Mumbai (pop +16 million) there are reported to be more than 5,000 Dabba Wallahs. A “Dabba” is a ‘tiffin’ or ‘lunch box’, a ‘Wallah’ is a man or the carrier. The Dabba Wallahs deliver home cooked meals, picked up piping hot each morning from suburban households, and distribute them to more than 170,000 office workers spread across the entire city. This system relies on multiple relays of Dabba Wallahs, and a single tiffin box may change hands up to three times during its journey from home to office.

No matter that few Dabba Wallahs can read or write, they interpret a series of colour coded dots, dashes and crosses on the lids of the lunch containers, indicating the area, street, building and floor of the Dabba’s final destination. The Dabba Wallah margin of error has been calculated at an one mistake in eight million deliveries, an accuracy that has earned the Dabba Wallah system a Sigma 6 rating by Forbes magazine. ‘Sigma’ is a term used in quality assurance if the percentage of correctness is 99.9999999 or more. Here comes the math: for every six million tiffins delivered, only one fails to arrive. This error rate means that a Mumbai tiffin goes astray only once every two months. Anyone else we know who got this same Sigma rating? Oh that would have to be Motorola.

Dabba Wallah distributed system has been going strong since 1890 according to some sources. In doing the ‘research’ for this entry I came across the term twice in a list of internet innovators under the header ‘packet protocol’.

For more information take a look at the following urls:
Tiffin Bites, the package, but not the distribution. This English company sells neat lunch packages that one can buy from stores not yet stalls and definitely not delivered to office. Their tiffin containers are made of plastic and not aluminium because, ‘We’re not made of money!’

Here’s a nice story on the Tiffin Bites website about the Dabba Wallahs.

Dear Jouke tipped me this film: Dabba Wallahs.

A well written article about the Dabba Wallah.

debra at 12:02 | | post to


  1. I have a Tiffin, My wife got it 4 me in Portland {Oregon U.S.A.}…. my co-workers make fun of me until they have a taste….Oooo Ahhh….

    Comment by Jeff Pool — June 6, 2009 @ 3:19

  2. We’ve done a pilot with a Dutch version of the dabawallah on a primary school in Heemstede, Holland. Kids were thrilled: preparing lunch for other kids in their class made them proud. See the news item on this pilot, or for the video of the pilot. (sorry, in dutch only….)

    Comment by Hans Rutten — February 11, 2010 @ 13:05

  3. Wat schattig! Wel suf van die klagende moeder. Alsof het zo veel scheelt, lunch bereiden voor éen oftwel 4 kinderen. BIG DEAL, TUTJE!

    Comment by debra — February 15, 2010 @ 12:19

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