When the English were ruling India, tiffin meant a snack, something small to eat between meals.
Over time, in large cities especially in Mumbai, the custom evolved for office workers who could not afford to go to restaurants or did not want to eat street food in the 19th and 20th centuries, to ask their families to cook and their lunch to their office.
The meals are prepared (two or three courses) and packed in stackable enamel-lined metal containers that are fastened on top of one another. These containers are picked up between 9 – 10 a m.
Nowadays, containers may be specially designed and manufactured stainless steel or the old traditional enameled ones.
Dhabawalla (people who pick up and transport the packages) pick up the food. All containers are accumulated at the train station and transported to downtown Mumbai, or Golgata (Calcutta), or Chennai (Madras). Upon arrival the dhabawalla distributes the packages to offices. Often the food is still hot and according to reports very few containers ever get mixed up between pick-up and delivery, and fewer still are lost.
The cost of delivery is low and most office workers benefit financially from this arrangement.
Obviously, the advantage of this system is that the food is cooked with tender loving care and guaranteed to be unadulterated and less expensive than street or restaurant food.
The tiffin culture developed more in 1950’s, and today even medium-sized cities boast this system of delivery.
In the Middle East such a system has been used for centuries and continues to be used on a smaller scale. Here, individual porters pick-up tiffin-packed meals and deliver. They may use transportation (public or private or their own or walk al the way) and work as individual entrepreneurs.
The system evolved because in olden times, restaurants were far too expensive for the working people. Street food was of questionable quality at best, and execrable at worst.
In the western world such systems were not practiced. Working people took a sandwich from home and ate, then finished with a soft drink.
Recently, an enterprising Indian introduced the “dhabawalla” system of food delivery first in Vancouver, and then in Toronto in a 21st century version. She cooks the food in a downtown location, packages it in stainless steel insulated container and her “transporters” deliver them on Vespa-style two-wheelers.
The menu changes daily, but there is no choice. You can choose between two or three courses. A sample menu may include aloogobi (potato and cauliflower curry), paratha (oily flat bread) and coconut pancakes.
A few other Indian entrepreneurs in downtown Toronto offer a variation on teh theme. They offer choices but you have pick-up the food in “tiffins”(your own or rented from them.)
An interesting idea a few small-time entrepreneurs in western Euroepan countries or in North America may want to try.