How Tiffin came about
When the British established themselves in India in the late 18th century, it soon became clear that adaptation was needed. For a start, the rituals of eating were going to have to change to accommodate the hot, languid days and nights. In the heat of the day lunch became a much lighter meal – but what to call it? Somehow, the word that seemed to stick was “tiffin”, taken from the slang words “tiff”, a tot of diluted liquor, and “tiffing”, to take a sip of this liquor (perhaps a hint that a sahib’s lunch might quite often be of the liquid variety!). Tiffin took off and “a spot of tiffin” soon became a peg on which almost any culinary indulgence between breakfast and dinner could be hung.
From these origins in British India tiffin has evolved to create a fascinating world of its own, a world that involves a whole range of dishes and equipment and above all of suppliers, from the tiffin wallahs of Bombay to the sellers of spiced tea and savoury snacks who cater for busy punters on the run. Today tiffin might mean a packed lunchbox or afternoon tea, a savoury snack or a sweet treat. As long as it is munched between breakfast and dinner, it is simply tiffin.
Lunch in a box
The word tiffin is also used as a name for a lunchbox. Tiffins (or dhabbas) come in all shapes and sizes, but traditionally they are round, with three or four stacking stainless steel compartments firmly sealed with a tight-fitting lid and a side clip to avoid any nasty spillages and a handle for carrying on top.
In India food cooked at home with care and love is considered to deliver not only healthy (and relatively cheap) food but also divine contentment. Lunch is usually eaten thali-style, with a tantalising selection of regional delicacies that may include any combination of spicy vegetables, dhal, rice, yoghurt, pickles, bread and pudding served on a big steel plate or a banana leaf. The separate compartments in the tiffin lunchbox accommodate thali lunches perfectly.
Tiffin culture is now to be found all over India. Everyone – from women in brightly coloured saris working in the fields to giggling families on long train journeys – carries a tiffin to provide a compact, portable, homemade lunch.
The tiffin wallahs of Mumbai and their hot home-cooked cargo
Every weekday without fail something rather extraordinary is to be seen around midday on the chaotic streets of Bombay (or Mumbai). This is the sight of hundreds of stainless steel tiered tiffin boxes or dhabbas piled high on handcarts and bicycles being pushed through the streets by dhoti-wearing, white-capped tiffin wallahs.
Expertly run by the Mumbai Tiffin Box Suppliers’ Association, armies of these tiffin wallahs provide the invaluable daily service of speedily delivering piping hot home-cooked lunches to more than 200,000 busy office workers.
Many workers live 50 kilometres or more from their workplace, a long commute on a packed train. There is certainly not time for the cook of the house to prepare a full meal before they leave home. So the lunch-filled tiffin boxes are picked up later in the morning, colour-coded and transported to the station, where they are collected by the tiffin wallahs, whose mission is to deliver each box to its corresponding workplace still hot from the pan – and to return the empty tiffin to the home before the end of the working day. With the essential core values of punctuality, teamwork, honesty and sincerity providing the backbone to the business, they have a staggering 99.99% success rate.
The tiffin wallahs have become so revered that they are now called on to lecture to big businesses, and have been honoured guests at British royal weddings. They are considered so trustworthy that workers often place their wages inside the clean tiffin box on its return journey rather than risk carrying money on the commuter train.
Main image – Tiffin tins. Photograph: Chris Caldicott
Article taken from The Guardian – read full article here