By Rani Chehal-Bassi
In India, Tiffin is the traditional style of lunchbox, very similar in idea to the classic Japanese Bento box or American lunch pails from the 50’s. “Tiffin” is an old-fashioned English word for a light lunch or afternoon snack. Therefore, the name for the stainless steel, stacked boxes was adopted during British-ruled India. In many areas of India, it’s common for Tiffin boxes to be delivered during lunch to business people working in cities.
A dabbawala (also spelled as dabbawallah), literally meaning “person with a box”, is a person in India, who is employed in a unique service industry whose primary business is collecting the freshly cooked food in tiffins from the residences of the office workers (mostly in the cities), delivering it to their respective workplaces, and returning the empty boxes back to the customer’s residence by using various modes of transportation. Dabbawalas are also sometimes called Tiffin Wallahs.
The tiffin is also used in the more rural areas of India as well. Farmers eagerly wait for their lunches in the hot afternoon sun, usually being delivered by their wives or young servants. The tiffin makes it very easy to transport a large variety of foods without them spilling over into one another, due to its wonderfully designed steel compartments that are locked securely in place with a steel mechanism and latch. Tiffins are not usually pre-packed, mainly due to the fact that refrigeration is not as abundant in India and the food would spoil if received or taken hours beforehand.
People from distinct states and regions of India eat very differently from each other; therefore the type of food that is packed in tiffins can vary. A good example of what would be packed in a tiffin in North India would be: a type of bread (Roti or Naan), some rice (Chawal), a lentil dish (Daal), yogurt (Dahi), chutney (Achaar) and possibly a chicken style dish as well. In southern India, they might pack their tiffins with the similar foods cooked and spiced a bit differently with some more fish based dishes, more rice, no bread and possibly an additional appetizer type food.
Lately, the Indian ‘fast food’ craze has been spreading globally. You can now find “Tiffin” style restaurants and delivery services all over the world. Some include… ‘Tiffin Wallah’ located in New York City, ‘Tiffinday’ in Toronto, ‘Tiffin Meals’ in Boston/Cambridge, ‘Tiffin Temptations’ in London, and ‘Le Tiffin’ in Paris.
You can also easily purchase your own tiffin at your local Indian grocery store and start creating your own Indian style lunches. A tip for when packing your tiffin; always remember to put the bread and drier items from top to bottom, that way when you are removing them they won’t spill quite as easily!