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Feeding the City

Sara Roncaglia


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  • 1 I decided not to use diacritic marks when spelling Hindi and Marathi terms (nouns, names of people (...)

1This book is an ethnographic analysis of a local workers cooperative in Mumbai: the Nutan Mumbai Tiffin Box Suppliers Charity Trust (NMTBSCT). This enterprise employs up to 5,000 dabbawalas, who have been delivering 200,000 lunch-dabbas daily to students, office workers and factory workers since the end of the nineteenth century.1 A dabba, also known as a “tiffin”, is a specially designed circular steel box made up of three separate sections that fit together to form a cylinder of about 20 cm in height. These food containers are commonly used by Mumbaikars (the inhabitants of Mumbai) to carry their lunch, which is prepared in their home and then delivered to them in their place of work by a dabbawala. The system allows everyone to eat home-cooked food without hygiene and cross-caste contamination risks.

  • 2 Throughout the text I have attempted to follow a historiographical approach, referring to the city (...)

2The first chapter looks at the cultural, historical, and economic relationships between the city of Bombay-Mumbai and the NMTBSCT.2 The city provides the dynamic backdrop for the establishment of a system of food distribution that offers a sustainable method of feeding the city in harmony with traditional values. The dabbawalas do not consider this to be merely a job, a viable means for mostly poor and illiterate workers to survive: they see it as their profession.

3The second chapter describes how religion, caste, and ideology have converged to generate meaning, ascribing specific values to Indian food. Here I apply a gastrosemantics-oriented approach, exploring how culture makes use of food to signify, comprehend, classify, philosophise, and communicate. This chapter offers a description of the complex relationships that link this process of cultural semantification of food to daily religious practices, the daily routine of Indian women and, lastly, surviving casterelated hierarchies in a vast Indian metropolis like Mumbai.

4The third chapter describes the organisational structure of the NMTBSCT—its operational guidelines, its generational turnover, distribution logistics, the delivery process, and the technical solutions that make it extraordinarily efficient despite considerable odds. This includes simple techniques—like the symbols drawn on the dabba to identify the recipient’s location—or more complex expedients, like the use of the railway network as a sort of mind-map that allows the dabbawalas to establish a symbolic and material affinity with this megacity of nineteen million inhabitants.

5The closing chapter penetrates the tight-knit relationship that links the entire system of dabba preparation and distribution to the cultural processes of Bombay-Mumbai’s nutritional transformation. The chapter traces this relationship back to the reasons that have made this Indian metropolis a truly global city; it looks at the eating habits and value systems ascribed to food by the many different migrant groups that make up the city’s population. The ongoing acculturation process that accompanies the continuous inflow of migrants of very diverse origins has forged the city’s characteristic nutritional physiognomy, recognisable in the diversity of cuisines and eating habits. Yet as the shift from old Bombay to new Mumbai progressed over time, there have also been changes in the tensions between different minorities and local communities, exacerbated by the city’s growing ethnicisation. Certain groups have claimed collective rights on the grounds of identity and affiliation to particular castes, regional origins or language. Mumbai has become the stage for bloody racial and religious clashes, and the groups involved usually consider food the prime marker of differentiation and separation. Food has come to express distinctions and rivalries that to some extent already existed within the Indian cultural tradition, but have now been allowed to degenerate into overt political hostility and outright violence. In this harsh new climate, the “other” is subject to a kind of cultural cannibalism, as each social group aspires to an exclusive monopoly of power and culture.

6These conflicts and changes are examined using the “foodscape” concept—a comprehensive approach to global symbolic and material shifts that affect food itself, food cultures and nutritional practices. The case of the dabbawalas helps us to understand how taste—the discerning and distinctive aspect of any food-related practice—is becoming a key factor in worldwide cultural transformation. Taste is not conceived simply as a sensorial impulse, but as a signifier, a cultural construct that is socially engineered to transform and lend new meaning to geo-political relationships.

7Finally the appendix provides an extensive introduction to the fundamental issues that made my fieldwork possible. It analyses the polysemic nature of cultural diversity, embracing the multitude of meanings attributed to the subject. The diversity theme is usually addressed in relation to practices of social acceptance or rejection of otherness within organisations and institutions. In this perspective, my research is closely entwined with notions of identity, gender, and economic and social status in ethnic and religious minorities.

8The book’s title, Feeding the City, grew out of this consideration and the verb “to feed” is used here in the sense of “providing nutrition”. It is an explicit reference to the way a nutritional regimen, a specific diet, affects an organism’s state of good or poor health. Stretching the organic metaphor, food can be seen as a vector of phenomena expressing the easy or uneasy coexistence of different cultures in urban contexts. In this perspective, the way the city feeds itself is crucial for a broad cultural anamnesis of Mumbai. Thanks to the daily work of the dabbawalas, these cultural shifts come to light as the meals are ferried around the entire city in a distribution system that offers a tangible testimony of cultural coexistence mediated by one of its most potent signifiers, and the one most essential to human physiology: food.

9As the twenty-first century ushers in an era of increasing anxiety with regard to humanity’s ability to feed itself, we also witness the gradual global ascendance of a unified cosmology of tastes well as a heightened concern with nutritional practices. This trend is driven by a growing consensus on the importance of food—what it means, how it is produced and processed—and the deeper ethics of its preparation and consumption.


1 I decided not to use diacritic marks when spelling Hindi and Marathi terms (nouns, names of people and places); nor do I use any Anglicisms in the transcription – such as double vowels (e, o) to express long vowels (i, u). The only exception is the term “dabbawala”, formed by the noun “dabba” and the suffix “wala”, which turns the word into a compound noun (like, for instance, “milk” and “milkman”). Please see the glossary for original spellings. The names of Mumbai districts are the official versions applied by the city’s authorities.

2 Throughout the text I have attempted to follow a historiographical approach, referring to the city as Bombay when referring to its history up to 1995, when the name was changed to Mumbai, and as Mumbai when discussing its situation during the subsequent years. The name-change came about as part of a concerted government strategy to set modern India apart from its colonial past. Yet given how the city’s inhabitants themselves tend to associate different meanings and allures to the old and the new name, in some cases I have found it more meaningful to keep the two names as one single construct (Bombay-Mumbai), reflecting two different, and yet complementary ways of understanding the city’s complex soul.


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