Here's a little history lesson for you. We hope you'll find it interesting, and put all this knowledge to good use telling others about bento and tiffins!
“Dabba” is the Hindu word for tiffin container, and a “dabbawalla” is the name for one who carries these containers. Each day in Mumbai 5,000 dabbawallas carry over 200,000 dabbas (tiffins) from houses to workplaces for lunch.
The concept of this system originated while India was under British rule - many of the British people in Mumbai did not like the local food, so a system was set up for them to have home-cooked food delivered to their workplaces for lunch. This first began in 1880, and in 1890 the first official system was set up with about 100 delivery men. In 1930, there was an attempt to informally unionize the delivery men. Then in 1956 the “Mumbai Tiffin Box Carriers Association” was registered, this is what the group is still called today.
Since then, the system has grown: today a collecting dabbawalla (usually on a bicycle) collects the tiffin in the morning around 9am. Each tiffin has a distinguishing mark on it indicating the place of origin and the delivery place. After pick-up, the collecting dabbawalla delivers the tiffin to a designated place (usually rail station) where another dabbawalla sorts and bundles them into groups by destination. These bundled tiffins are then put on trains (usually in a designated car of a coach train)with another dabbawalla who ensure they make it to their destinations. The markings on the tiffins tell the dabbawalla at which rail stop the tiffins need to be unloaded. At the destination rail station, a local dabbawalla picks up the tiffins and delivers them to their final detinations by 12:30. The local dabbawalla then collects the empty tiffins around 2pm and sends them back on their way home, where they arrive by 5pm (being dropped off by the same dabbawalla who picked them up in the morning). So, each tiffin passes through the hands of four dabbawallas and travels an average of 60km (~37.28 miles).
You are starting to think this is an expensive way to get your lunch to work, aren’t you? Well, the cost for the delivery service is only 200 to 300 rupees (~4.30-$6.50) per month, and some affluent families are taking advantage of this service now to also deliver their children’s lunches to school.
This system is both simple and complex. The simplicity (only four sets of hands, no wording, just colored marks for identification) ensures that the tiffins make it to their destinations on time, and the complexity is that the shear quantity of tiffins (200,000 a day) can be handled. The barefoot delivery men (there are very few delivery women) who are barely literate (on average, they’ve made it through 8th grade) manage to deliver all the tiffins to their destinations using only a color coding system. The management system only has three layers, and the dabbawallas are expected to pay back into the system by providing two bicycles, a wooden crate (to carry the tiffins), white cotton kurta-pyjamas (their uniforms), and the trademark white Ghandi topi (cap) (if they get caught without it on their head it’s a 25 rupee fine!). They are paid 2,000 to 4,000 rupees (around $40-$80) per month when their unit’s monthly earnings are divided up.
Now we know you are thinking that 5,000 practically illiterate, barefoot men delivering 200,000 lunches per day through a city of 13,662,885 people and approximately 170 square miles would make lots of mistakes and lose lots of lunches - so this will surprise you- the dabbawallas make less than 1 (yes one) mistake per 6,000,000 (yes, 6 million) deliveries! (That’s just one misplaced lunch every month!)
Hein Period (794 to 1185) - Nihon Shoki’s Chronicles of Japan describes how falconers used feed sacks to carry their lunch when they went out hawking. Ise Monogatari’s Tales of Ise contains illustrations of people eating dried rice during trips.
Kamakura Period (1185 to 1333) - Rice that had been cooked and then dried was stored in small bags and eaten either dry, or re-boiled with water to cook it. This was called hoshi-ii, which means “dried meal”.
Azuchi - Momoyama Period (1573 to 1615) - The word “bento” is said to have first been used by Odo Nobunaga (1584-1632), a military commander who fed the inhabitants of his castle by handing out small convenient meals. These meals were referred to as bento. Also during this time wooden lacquered boxes (similar to today’s) appeared and were used to pack bento eaten during a hanami or party.
Edo Period (1615 to 1868) - people carried koshibento (waist bento) as a meal when they went to the theater or on other outdoor trips. These bento consisted of several onigiri wrapped with bamboo leaves or in a woven bamboo box. During this time the packing and eating of bento during celebrations, ceremonies, and entertaining guests evolved into a sophisticated art form. Makuno-uchi bento (between-act bento) were first packed during this period. When people came to see Noh and Kabuki, they ate these specially created bento between maku (acts). Many cookbooks were written about how to cook, pack, and what to prepare for these special bento.
Meiji Period (1868 to 1912) - The entertainment and practicality factors of food came together during this time. Since the Japanese railway system appeared at this time, travelling for work became more common. Ekiben (“station” bento) showed up around 1885. These bento consisted mostly of rice balls with umeboshi inside, and were sold at Utsunumiyo station in Togichi Prefecture.
Taisho Period (1912 to 1926) - Aluminum bento-bako became coveted by many for their ease of cleaning and clean, sleek, silver-like appearance. During this time (particularly after World War I) the disparity in wealth from family to family grew, and there were movements to abolish the practice of children carrying bento to school. The Japanese were concerned that the bento carried by a schoolchild reflected their family’s wealth and in turn would negatively influence them both physically (from an inadequate diet), and psychologically (from a poorly made bento or richness of food). After World War II the popularity of carrying bento to school suffered a decline, and the schools began to provide uniform food for the students and staff in the schools.
Showa Period (1926-1989) & Heisei (1989-??) (1980 to 2009) - Bento began to regain popularity with the growing prevalence of microwaves and convenience stores. Most bento shops abandoned the fancy wood and metal boxes and replaced them with disposable polystyrene boxes. Bento are once again seen in schools, and used by families to pack meals for day trips, school outings, and sports days.
Heisei (1989-??) (2009 to ???) - Bento is gaining popularity in the US along with many other facets of Japanese culture. Parents are packing bento for their kids to take to school, and adults are packing their own lunches to save money on meals and to watch their calories. Many individuals and families are turning to the bento packing style to create waste-free lunches, as well as healthy and creatively displayed meals.