Dabbawalla in Silicon Valley

The Indian diaspora conquered and staked claim all over SIlicon Valley. That is nothing new. But when something like this happens, the “immigrants” also import their culture and their institutions.

For anyone who has grown up in Bombay, the Dabbawallah is an integral part of city life. Fresh food prepared lovingly by a family member, is picked up from home around 9 am. It is delivered to the working person by lunchtime, and the empty tiffin, returned home later in the afternoon. All this for a pittance in delivery charges.

The efficiency of this ad hoc system, is fantastic. Even Prince Charles of England was fascinated by this and made a point of meeting the dabbawallahs during his last trip to India.

Personally I have witnessed this system as a child when my granny sent tiffins for my mom, who worked at Bank of India in the early 80’s

Now a very similar concept has started in Silicon Valley as the article below elaborates.

Knock, Knock. It’s Indian Comfort Food.

IT’S a few minutes after 1 p.m. on a Friday, and Raj Desai is ready for lunch and waiting for a knock on his door. A man he knows as Kishan soon enters his office with a clear plastic container that holds his lunch: fish fry, rajma masala (curried kidney beans), yogurt, rotis and rice.

“See you Monday,” Mr. Desai says as a goodbye.

As executive director of a large nonprofit organization in San Francisco, Mr. Desai barely has time to leave his office, but eating a good lunch is a high priority for him. Food from any old place – a cafeteria, a restaurant or takeout, Indian or otherwise – will not do. So he relies on a company called Annadaata, which makes lunch and dinner boxes for clients in the Bay Area.

This lunchtime scene is being played out each weekday in the United States in metropolitan areas with large South Asian populations. They depend on delivery workers to bring them the home-cooked foods of their upbringing, often prepared by cooks working from home. Having such a lunch is a way of life in Mumbai, India, where dabbawallas or tiffin-wallas (men who carry tiffins, the containers that hold the food) use an elaborate, 120-year-old system to transport lunches to workers at mills, shops and offices.

In Mumbai, formerly Bombay, the tiffin, or lunch, is prepared by the wife, mother or servant of the intended. In the United States, because of little time (and a lack of a domestic staff), many of these lunches are prepared by

outsiders, but the underlying principle is the same.

With the spread of these services, Punjabis can have their saag paneer and meat curries; Gujaratis can have their dal, bhat (rice), shak (vegetables) and rotis (flatbreads); and south Indians their rasam (tomato-based curry).
And as demand for home-cooked food on the job has increased, so has the number of outlets providing tiffins.

Annadaata, which began as a homespun operation in 2002, has morphed into a business with several delivery people distributing meals each weekday across

San Francisco. Kavita Srivathsan, 29, the chief executive of Annadaata, got her start by cooking meals for her new husband and his friends.

“I didn’t know how to cook, and the first two months after getting married my husband and I went out to eat all the time,” she said from her home in San Jose. “Two months later our credit card bills were out of control and we

were both gaining weight. At the end of the day I just wanted the basic Indian food I had grown up with.”

She did not have a job at the time, so she spent her time learning how to cook Indian foods. Using recipes from her mother in south India, she experimented in the kitchen for a few hours each day. On a whim, she advertised $5 box meals on justindia.com, a Web site based in the San Francisco area that no longer exists. “That was the only time I ever did any

advertising,” she said. “The very next day I got a few phone calls from people ordering the boxes, and from then on the word spread like wildfire.”

Mrs. Srivathsan’s business grew so fast that a few months later she decided she could no longer run it from her home. “It began as me cooking out of my kitchen, but since there was such a demand for it, I had to make it a legitimate business with a tax ID number and a rented kitchen,” she said.

Because she wanted to reach a wider market and knew that Indians generally favored cuisine from their region, she hired cooks from various areas in India, including Gujarat, south India and Punjab.

Today, customers can click on her Web site, annadaata.com, to view a menu for the coming week. After choosing from among a vegetarian ($7), a nonvegetarian ($8) or a south Indian meal ($8), they place orders over the Internet and pay with credit cards.

“Even though we are a lot bigger now, the food is cooked in small batches, so it is still homemade food,” Mrs. Srivathsan said. “This is the food my husband, my young daughter and I eat every day.”

Annadaata has delivered box lunches to Mr. Desai’s office almost every weekday at 1 p.m. for the past two years. “This is not like restaurant food at all,” he said. “There is minimal oil, and the different kinds of specialty food you get with Annadaata you would never ever find in a restaurant.”

In Redmond, Wash., dozens of homemakers prepare lunches for the thousands of

South Asians working on Microsoft’s corporate campus. More than 30,000 employees work there, a significant number of them South Asian, and there are several electronic message boards on which homemakers – they are almost always women – advertise. They charge $4 to $7 for the box lunches, and often have their husbands deliver them.

Kiran Sharma, 46, cooked for Microsoft employees before the demand became too great. “When I came here from India in 2001 I wanted to find a way to make extra money, and I knew I was a good cook,” she said. “My husband knew someone who worked at Microsoft who put up a posting about my food, and right away I had over 20 customers each day.”

Mrs. Sharma cooked only vegetarian food, and provided one curried vegetable,

one dry vegetable, a dal, three rotis, rice and salad in white boxes purchased in bulk from Costco. She charged $7.50 a box and made a $4 profit on each one. “I was making $400 a week, but I had to quit because my children needed my attention,” she said.

Vijay Beniwal, a software design engineer for Microsoft, orders lunches from

several home cooks and can explain why he does not order from restaurants.

“Indian restaurants do not compare to what these ladies serve,” he said.
“Today for lunch I ate pao bhaji” – a mixed vegetable mash topped with onions and coriander. “If you were to see it on any menu, which I doubt, it would be mass produced. This tastes like my mom’s.”

In the diamond district in Midtown Manhattan, Bhagwati Maharaj, a trained chef from India, prepares and delivers 15 to 20 vegetarian box lunches a day

for $5 each to Indian jewelers looking for a taste of home.

“When my customers take a break for lunch, they look forward to my meals,”
he said.

A drawback to the system can be a lack of consistency. Many businesses are not licensed. Most cooks work from home. Some cook for a few months before realizing it takes too much effort. Others, like Mr. Maharaj, who cooks from

his home in northern New Jersey, disappear to India for months at a time, then suddenly reappear in the United States. But for every cook who stops cooking, new ones are starting, ready to sate the Indian weakness for home-cooked food.

They feed people like Mr. Desai, who took 30 minutes to finish his lunch.

“As always, it was delicious, especially the fish,” he said. The box was still half full. He said the portions were so large that he could never finish an entire serving.

As long as Annadaata is around, Mr. Desai said he would keep his arrangement.

“Do you have the time to cook?” he said as he put away his food and prepared

to dive back into his work.

“Would you be able to produce the taste, quality and variety of this food at

home? For most of us, the answer is no.”


Copyrights Indian Express

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