Canned Heat

In a few weeks time the rather genius pop-up, Tincan, will be shutting its doors and relocating to New York. It’s been a brilliant coup – a restaurant selling tinned seafood slap bang in the middle of London’s West End, and without doubt better then most of the fare on offer around it. Personally I’ve always been fascinated by food in tins. My mother, a good but unadventurous home cook, never really had the courage to attempt anything English beyond egg and chips or draw on the huge range of tinned products available in the seventies. Her meals were limited to Indian and pretty much cooked from scratch so eating anything canned was to glimpse into an exotic world of pleasure. Even then the range was limited; baked beans, soup and occasionally sardines and tinned peach slices. Not for us tinned spaghetti and meatballs or spam or vegetables of any sort (definitely not potatoes – a concept I still find disturbing).

Talk about being a slow learner, it wasn’t until my mid 20’s that I first tried Heinz Macaroni Cheese though it was well worth the wait. I can distinctly remember being beguiled by its pale, sticky blandness and mystery chemical taint that could surely only have been attained using illegal food additives. It was (is) a great canvas for culinary experimentation. I can lay claim to having invented several dishes – in particular macaroni cheese simmered with chips and garnished with chopped pickled gherkins (a little tang to cut across the mass of sticky carb) and a ‘delux’ version with tuna (tinned obviously) mixed in.

Of course it’s easy to behave stupidly around tins. During a period of anxiety, revising for my undergraduate exams, my sister told me to eat fish – it was good for the brain, she said. I bought 20 cans of tuna and my method was to eat one raw for breakfast and one cooked as an evening meal. I lasted four and a half days before succumbing to feelings of nausea and depressive thoughts. Acknowledging my weakness, I resigned myself to producing an extremely mediocre academic performance instead. To add an extra helping of abuse she clarified her advice saying, “fresh fish, you idiot, not tinned”. tin can and canning process really took off in Europe in the early part of the nineteeth centurry. Not quite as old is the Indian variant – the Tiffin Tin or dabba. This is a kind of multi-tiered tin can only with the added bonus of being reusable; three or more small metal containers sit snugly one atop another all bound together by a metal clasp. This simple stacking system has allowed generations of wives to send a home cooked lunch to their husbands working in the heart of the city.

More often than not, lunches today will be prepared by companies but still, spend any time in Mumbai and you will see the Nehru hatted Dabbawallahs ferrying tiffin tins to their office destinations. They’re an eye catching bunch in their white shirts and Nehru hats as they gather to share out their rounds before attaching a dozen or more wire handled canisters to their bicycles and dispersing into the traffic. Everything about the process seems anachronistic, from the uniforms to the simple coding system at the heart of their delivery system. Yet each year millions of lunches are delivered with barely a fault in one of the most congested cities in the world. It sums up perfectly the enigma of India; how out of the chaos and seemingly impossible, comes something simple and perfect, something greater than the sum of its parts.

If you like a little romance with your Indian take away then you must watch The Lunchbox. I saw it twice on a flight recently – outbound and inbound – and it’s now my favourite foody film. The plot revolves around a simple mistake. A tiffin lunch delivered to the wrong person. This in itself is a curiosity worthy of exploration given how rare this actually is.

The food is received with surprise and much pleasure by Saajan, a widower, whose normal tiffin, of mundane fare, is provided by a local cafeteria. The cook responsible for this treat is Ila, a woman on the cusp of middle age. Married with a young daughter of school age, she feels she is becoming distant from her husband. Taking advice from her ‘aunty’ one floor up in the block she lives in, she attempts to rekindle their love for each other starting with his lunch. Alas despite her best efforts he doesn’t notice since he now is also receiving a tiffin from another source (the cafeteria formally supplying our hero).

Mumbai is a bully of a city and its most abundant and hapless victims are commuters. In connivance with wealthy landowners in whose vested interest it is, the city remains located on a tatty, ear shaped piece of land detached from the wide open spaces of New Mumbai across the water. As the film brilliantly captures, the reality for millions of commuters is several hours of misery each day crammed nose to armpit in trains or sitting trapped in congestion on the roads. The intractability of carving a niche in this city is matched by the even trickier negotiation of personal relationships outside of family and cultural norms. Ila’s husband’s detachment towards her is not strictly brought on by the strain of commuting. There is another woman on the scene and Ila foresees her life becoming one of subservience and invisibility.

A captivating story line is literally delivered by the dabbawallahs and with plenty of food to tantalize; peas kachori, stuffed bitter gourd, a fragrant masala rice studded with shiny whole red peanuts, a rich yellow dal topped with succulent tomato. What’s more Sajaan is so mannered in his ways that even watching him eat is pleasurable. There are also culinary insights into the real lives of Mumbaikars survive in the city from the frugal lunching on bananas to the commuters who save time by chopping their vegetables on the train home.

The scenes of the dabbawallahs singing on their way home feels timeless but what of the future of this service? While tiffins remain popular in Mumbai changes are happening which may make my photos, taken in 1997, a less common sight. Commercial providers of tiffins are finding that increasingly customers no longer like their food served in the traditional steel containers. They want disposable ones which are perceived as being more hygienic. If there’s no need to recycle the containers then what becomes of the carriers? If you only need someone to deliver then you lose the magic of the system. And perhaps someone’s chance of falling in love.

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