India - Office Lunch Hour (and other meals)

One of my first posts highlighted the breakfast process each morning. In that post I hinted that the rhythm of the work day here is quite different from what I am used to in Chicago and is evidenced in things like start times. It is also very different when it comes to meal times, plural.

Before we launch into lunch, a general comment: people here generally do not do anything “to go.” However, what they lack in personal takeaway capabilities they more than make up for in deliveries. Anything and everything you could ever wish to consume can be delivered to your office free of charge. The notion that I would walk down the Stairs of Scares and fetch my own coffee completely surprised people during my first week here. The coffee shop, mind you, is one shop over from the stair landing at street level. While my office mates were concerned that I was willing to be so inconvenienced I, conversely, was eager to have an excuse for breathing outside air. If you’re not careful you can go huge spans of time never getting outside because everything is brought to you instead.

How this all applies to lunch and other meals is kind of fascinating to me. Let’s start with breakfast. People arrive at the office between 8:30a and 10:30a every day. The 8:30a crew will typically go back to the pantry (kitchen) and eat breakfast that they brought from home or that was just delivered to them in the office.
Eating breakfast at the office isn’t what surprises me because I do that myself every day back at home. Peanut butter, English muffins, and a half-functioning toaster are all integral parts of my weekday mornings. But here people do not eat at their desks like I do. Breakfast is eaten in the pantry and then the day is off to a proper start.

Around 10:30a there is a call placed to a street vendor or two. It’s snack time. Not everyone participates but there is a fairly consistent bunch that orders egg white sandwiches. Within 10 minutes the midmorning snack arrives. Here is our only exception to the do-not-eat-at-your-desk rule.

By noon you’d best be thinking about what you’d like for lunch, especially if you’re a non-native like myself. (This is actually happening right now.) How lunch makes its way to your stomach in India is really intriguing to me. Here is the range of food acquisition channels:

Do you see that last point? Mom (or your domestic help) makes lunch for you in the morning and it is delivered to your office or wherever by lunch time. Not only do you not have to make lunch for yourself but you don’t even have to bother carrying it during your morning commute! I know y’all think I have it made with a husband who does 99.9% of the cooking but even his talents don’t go this far.

The process of getting your tiffin/dabba from home to work is steeped in history and outrageous precision. Read here for more information. I’ll just offer that we studied the operational efficiency and consistency of the dabbawalas (lunch pail delivery men) in grad school and it is so cool to see it happen live and in the flesh. It’s easy to be skeptical of a system like this from the outside but now that I’ve seen my coworker’s tiffin show up every day at 12:30 on the dot I have pushed my skepticism aside and have asked to get on mom’s mailing list, so to speak.

Once you’ve got your lunch you meet up with the rest of your coworkers in the pantry. That’s right, no eating at your desk while doing some online shopping. And when you arrive at the table you open up your containers and offer samples to the group before tasting anything yourself. It is a giant potluck each and every day. Given this, I have tasted untold amounts of Indian dishes and haven’t had a bad bite yet. Everyone back home has asked how the food is and it is delicious. Truly. Continental food will surely taste bland after six weeks of spice and obscene amounts of butter.

Lunch tends to run from 1:30p to about 2p and then the pantry clears out and people return to their desks for the afternoon shift. At 3:30p the second round of the chai makes its debut. The natives get quite restless if cups aren’t at desks by half past the Most Boring Hour of the day.

5 o’clock rolls around and office activities are still very much in full swing. People show no signs of packing up for the day because the calls back to the US will start in another few hours. So instead, the late afternoon is like the start of second shift. Music from the mezzanine level above suddenly becomes louder and I love it, save for the Nashville country selections. I dislike country music in the States and it is only made worse, in my book, when listening to it in Asia. But overall the music is great and it reminds me of college studio days.

The other thing that happens around 5p is a call to the street vendors for afternoon snacks. Sometimes I partake, sometimes I abstain. On Skype call days I tend to join in and fuel up. The office crowd wouldn’t let me eat the afternoon snacks for a few days when I first arrived because this is “fried stuff” (the answer to most of my “what is that?” questions) that comes straight from the streets.

Purge your mind of doubts around sanitary practices and peel back the discarded paper. Yeah, that’s right, the fried stuff comes packaged in someone’s old office files. Dig in!

In case you’re wondering what it tastes like, I’d say it resembles a deconstructed taco in both appearance and flavor. Like everything else, it’s quite good. But you’re gonna pay for it in a few days…

P.S. The tiffins just showed up.

1 comment:

Meigan said...

Love it!

And yes, your taste buds will be bored when you return home. :)


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