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Feeding the City: Work and Food Culture of the Mumbai Dabbawalas

Feeding the City: Work and Food Culture of the Mumbai Dabbawalas Sara Roncaglia
Paperback ISBN: 978-1-909254-00-8 £15.95
Hardback ISBN: 978-1-909254-01-5 £29.95
PDF ISBN: 978-1-909254-02-2 £0.00
epub ISBN: 978-1-909254-03-9 £0.00
mobi ISBN: 978-1-909254-04-6 £0.00

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Every day in Mumbai 5,000 dabbawalas (literally translated as "those who carry boxes") distribute a staggering 200,000 home-cooked lunchboxes to the city’s workers and students. Giving employment and status to thousands of largely illiterate villagers from Mumbai's hinterland, this co-operative has been in operation since the late nineteenth century. It provides one of the most efficient delivery networks in the world: only one lunch in six million goes astray.
Feeding the City is an ethnographic study of the fascinating inner workings of Mumbai's dabbawalas. Cultural anthropologist Sara Roncaglia explains how they cater to the various dietary requirements of a diverse and increasingly global city, where the preparation and consumption of food is pervaded with religious and cultural significance. Developing the idea of "gastrosemantics" a language with which to discuss the broader implications of cooking and eating Roncaglia's study helps us to rethink our relationship to food at a local and global level.

This book is part-funded by an Unglue.it campaign.

Feeding the City: Work and Food Culture of the Mumbai Dabbawalas
Sara Roncaglia | July 2013
234 | 6.14" x 9.21" (234 x 156 mm Number of Pages: 234
Dimensions: 6.14" x 9.21" (234 x 156 mm)
ISBN Paperback: 9781909254008
ISBN Hardback: 9781909254015
ISBN Digital (PDF): 9781909254022
ISBN Digital ebook (epub): 9781909254039
ISBN Digital ebook (mobi): 9781909254046
DOI: 10.11647/OBP.0031
BIC subject codes: JHMC (Social and cultural anthropology, ethnography), KDNF (Food manufacturing and related industries), JHM (Anthropology); SOC002010 (SOCIAL SCIENCE / Anthropology / Cultural & Social), SOC053000 (SOCIAL SCIENCE / Regional Studies); OCLC Number: 1133285913.

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2. Dabbawala Ethics in Transition 
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3. Nutan Mumbai Tiffin Box Suppliers Charity Trust: The Shaping of Dabbawala Relations 
DOI: 10.11647/OBP.0031.03

Conclusions: Tastes and Cultures 
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Appendix: Theory and Practice for an Ethnography of Diversities 
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Select Bibliography 

Sara Roncaglia is a cultural anthropologist. She has worked as a cultural consultant for ethnographic projects that led researches for the Italian National Railways, as well as working with workers of a Barilla factory in Southern Italy. Currently Sara's research is focusing on the cultural dynamics of food and the anthropology of work; her projects in the past ten years have been dedicated to researching identities and practices within the workplace, focusing on the mix of cultural differences and social stratification.In 2011 she co-founded AVoce; a non-profit organisation that promotes historical-anthropological research within work, companies and territory.

In the first chapter I explain how food can play a key role in such practices and how understanding the way food is processed and signified can help us gain a better grasp of current issues pertaining globalization and diversity.



In the second chapter I studied the cultural, historical and economic relationships between the city of Bombay/Mumbai and the Nutan Mumbai Tiffin Box Suppliers Charity Trust: the city provided the dinamic stage for the birth of this system of food distribution, a local cooperative that offers a sustainable way to feed the city in accord with traditional values. For the dabbawala, theirs is not just a job, a viable way to survive for workers that are mostly poor and illiterate people: it is their profession.



In the third chapter I describe how religion, caste and ideology have converged to generate meaning, ascribing peculiar values to Indian food. I employed a gastrosemantics-oriented approach, exploring how culture makes use of food to signify, comprehend, classify, philosophize and communicate. I strived to offer a description of the complex relationships that link this process of cultural semantification of food with day-to-day practices of sacrality, with the daily life of Indian women, and finally with extant caste-related hierarchies in a huge Indian metropolis such as Mumbai.



In the fourth chapter I describe the organizational structure of the Mumbai Tiffin Box Suppliers Charity Trust: its operational guidelines, its generational turnover, the logistics of distribution, the delivery process and the technical solutions that make it extraordinarily efficient against considerable odds. Simple devices, such as the signs drawn on the dabba in order to aid specify the recipient’s location, or more complex ones, such as the use of the railway network as a sort of mind map, allowing the dabbawalas to establish a symbolic and material rapport with this megacity of 19 million inhabitants.



I devoted my concluding chapter to the unraveling of the tight relationship that links the entire system of preparing and distributing the dabbas to the cultural processes of nutritional transformation affecting Bombay-Mumbai. I tried to trace this relationship back to what makes Bombay a global city. One key aspect is 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 this continuous inflow of migrants of very diverse origin has lent the city its characteristic nutritional phisionomy. One can recognize it in the diversity of cuisines and dining practices. Yet as the shift from Bombay to Mumbai progressed over time, a change heavily charged with symbolic cultural connotations, tensions among different minorities and local communities have risen and have been worsened by a growing ethnicization of the social landscape. Collective rights are claimed on the grounds of identity and affiliation to particular castes, regional origins or language groups. Mumbai has become the stage for bloody ethnic and religious clashes, and groups involved usually consider food the prime marker of differentiation and separation. Food has thus come to express distinctions and rivalries that were indeed, to some extent, already a given within the Indian cultural tradition, but that have nowadays been allowed to spin into open overt political hostility and outright violence. On this merciless new mumbaite stage, the Other is subject to a kind of cultural cannibalism, as each and every social group aspires to an exclusive monopoly of power and culture. I examine these dynamics of conflict and change by proposing the concept of foodscape, a comprehensive approach to global symbolic and material shifts concerning food itself, food cultures and nutritional practices. Using the foodscape as interpretive paradigm, the dabbawala’s case helps us understand how taste – the discerning and distinctive aspect in any food-related practice – is becoming a key factor of cultural transformation worldwide. Taste is thus conceived not merely as a sensory impulse, but as a signifier, a cultural construct that is socially engineered to transform and lend new meaning to the world one inhabits.