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Time for Tiffin – A Look at the World’s Greatest Lunch Box

For a nation of more than one billion people, keeping the country fed during the working week is no easy task. Tiffin boxes have evolved to play a vital part in making sure that millions of workers across the Indian subcontinent can get fresh, homemade, nutritious meals delivered to them reliably each day.

The boxes themselves are a hallmark of practical, no-nonsense homeware, perfect for lightning-fast deliveries as well as lazy afternoon picnics.

But what exactly is a tiffin box, and how have they come to be so essential to Indian daily life? In this article, we’re taking a look at the history behind this lunchbox-par-excellence – and why you need one in your kitchen.

A Brief History of the Tiffin Box

What Is a Tiffin Box?

Nowadays, classic tiffin boxes are usually stainless steel food containers – light, durable, cheap, and big enough to carry healthy meal portions for a hungry worker. They usually come in sets of three or four, in order to carry foods such as rice, curries, and condiments separately. Tiffin boxes can also be made from plastic, ceramic, aluminium, brass, or any other durable material.

A distinguishing feature of tiffin boxes is how each set is designed to stack one on top of the other, effectively forming a lid for each dish and keeping it cleanly packed. Stacked tiffin boxes can then be sealed and bound together using a clip, preventing leakage even when being shipped, juggled, and carted around. A handle on top allows you or the carrier to lift all the boxes in one go once they are attached to one another.

Tiffin Box

Why Is It Called a Tiffin Box?

The word ‘tiffin’ itself appears to have its roots in India’s colonial era. It is said that during this period, the British and other white foreigners, not accustomed to the region’s heat, would often forgo a full meal during the hotter hours of the day, opting instead for a sip or two of ‘tiff’, a popular local liquor.

Some believe that ‘tiff’ or ‘tiffin’ then came to refer to any refreshment or snack taken between main meals, with the word eventually coming to be synonymous with the containers in which such foods would be brought.

Tiffin containers are also referred to as dabba, a Hindi word meaning ‘box’ or ‘small container’.

Where Did Tiffin Boxes Originate?

Although the word may be traced back to British colonial rule, the need for merchants, travellers, soldiers, and other folks on the road to have ways of storing and carrying food safely clearly predates this era! To suggest that the British, simply by requiring refreshment in the heat, may have somehow ‘invented’ the tiffin box is surely wide of the mark.

Some have suggested that the need to carry food in and around temples without spilling it may have influenced the method of stacking pots on top of one another to form sealed containers, a distinguishing feature of the tiffin box. Others have pointed out that comparable Asian culinary tools, such as bento boxes in Japan, appear to have been developed at the request of generals wishing their troops to have portable, individual food portions on the march.

People on the move have, for centuries, needed ways of keeping food sealed and secure, and it would seem that methods of doing so have evolved over generations, with different materials leading to different forms of carrier. Tiffin boxes, as they appear today, can be seen as just one modern result of this process, with the exact origin of the technique being difficult to identify with any certainty.

Dabbas and Dabbawalas

A modern-day phenomenon whose roots are perhaps easier to locate is that of the dabbawalas. This is the name given to the thousands of men and women across India who gain their living by ensuring that millions get fed on time each day,  delivering freshly cooked food direct from home kitchens to workplaces and then back again.

In the 19th and 20th centuries, it became increasingly clear that workers in Mumbai who worked long hours and commuted long distances were not able to bring traditional, home cooked food with them in the mornings, as the preparation time would simply be too long.

In the 1890s, Mahadeo Havaji Bachche developed a lunch delivery service for Mumbai workers, where delivery staff would collect freshly made food from the homes of city employees and deliver it straight to their workplaces, before returning the used containers back to the respective homes to be washed and dried, ready for the next working day.

This hugely important and wildly popular service evolved into a dizzying network of dabbawalas across the city, now run by the Mumbai Tiffin Box Suppliers’ Association. Dabbawalas cater to roughly 200,000 office workers in Mumbai alone. This extraordinary operation is considered so efficient and reliable that international businesses will often study the logistics of the Mumbai dabbawalas in order to improve their own global distribution networks and supply chains.

Dabbawalas themselves are held in high regard, both in terms of their reliability and the integral part they play in the daily functioning of this bustling city. There are even anecdotal reports of workers sending their pay packets home in empty tiffin boxes rather than risk carrying the cash with them during their evening commute!

Dabbawalas

How Do Tiffin Boxes Work?

Keeping Food Warm

It’s true that today you can buy thermos food containers which, with their multi-layered insulation, will do a better job of keeping your food piping hot for hours than a stainless steel tiffin box.

It’s worth noting that tiffin boxes in their traditional form became widely used in a country where the ambient temperature is significantly higher than many Western nations. They were also developed during a period where keeping food at a perfectly even temperature was not necessarily seen as being so crucial, or even practical!

Nevertheless, traditional tiffin boxes can be ideal if your meal doesn’t have to be piping hot to be enjoyed, or if you are travelling a comparatively short distance. Food can retain its heat for around an hour in a traditional tiffin tin, longer if you purchase a tin with a more modern insulating design. If you need your food to remain cold, playing an ice pack in a middle tier can help with this.

Leak-proof?

Tiffin boxes have evolved to carry solid and not-so-solid food through bustling city streets, up stairs, along railway tracks, and back again, all without spilling all over the place. The clip that binds the set together helps seal the tiffin boxes, keep food clean, and prevent leaks. That said, we wouldn’t recommend turning your tiffin box upside down or laying it on its side for minutes at a time just to see whether it can defy gravity!

Tiffin boxes are not designed to be airtight, and their seals are functional rather than perfect. They’re leak-proof when carted around sensibly, even roughly, but don’t trust them to hold every spoonful of curry if you take them on a rollercoaster.

Reheating Your Food

Tiffin boxes, particularly metal ones, are not designed with reheating food in mind. Stainless steel models can’t be microwaved, and high heat from a flame is likely to warp the material.

Some plastic tiffin boxes can be used in microwaves if you wish to reheat your food, but these containers have primarily been designed to store, carry, and then eat food, rather than as cooking vessels.

Tiffin vs Normal Lunch Boxes

Given the above limitations, why wouldn’t you then opt for a normal plastic lunch box?

There are many reasons why tiffin boxes may be preferable. Not least of all is their durability – many traditional tiffin tins are built to last years and years, not to be thrown away after a couple of school terms because the plastic seals have thinned out or the handles have broken.

Furthermore, if you want a more sustainable way to store, carry and eat your daily meal whilst on the move, doesn’t it make sense to opt for a more sustainable material rather than a landfill destined piece of plastic?

Finally, the stacking design of tiffin boxes gives you the option of carrying multiple food types that can then be combined to form a delicious, wholesome, and properly prepared meal – not just last night’s leftovers or a damp and sorry salad.

Tiffin boxes have stood the test of time for a reason – affordable, reliable, tough, washable, and perfect for all who need feeding during the busy week, as well as those who fancy a picnic on a lazy weekend!

Tiffin vs Normal Lunch Boxes

What Goes in a Tiffin Box?

Traditionally, the largest tiffin tin at the bottom of the stack would hold rice, with progressively smaller tins on top holding curries, sauces, and condiments. Different food types can also be divided using the tiffin box system, with grains, vegetables, and meats being held separately to preserve flavour and avoid contamination.

In Mumbai, tiffin boxes, or dabba, are synonymous with the lunchtime meal for busy office workers, often delivered by walas. In South India however, tiffin may refer to snacks throughout the day, such as idli, dosa, vada, and more. Regional variations in cuisine will also influence what goes into tiffin tins for working men and women, with local dishes cooked at home making their way into offices, warehouses, and factories up and down the country.

Of course, the beauty of tiffin is that you can really put into it whatever you want, and Western food can go into the stack just as readily as traditional Indian fare. Read on for some tasty tiffin box ideas that you can take on your next commute.

What Goes in a Tiffin Box

Tiffin Box Recipe Ideas

Traditional Indian Tiffin

Why not use your tiffin box the way the culinary gods intended? Start with basmati rice at the base, followed by a delicious vegetable, meat or fish curry, topped with a dahl, chana or potato side dish, finished off with a cooling curd, or perhaps a spicy coriander chutney. You could also swap out one of the liquid dishes for something more solid – grilled chicken, fried fish, or tandoori vegetables.

Traditional Indian Tiffin

Three Course Meal, Western Style

If you love the idea of a working three course lunch, why not use the tiffin box to make the dream a reality? One tin can be used for a soup, another for a classic main such as fish and chips, hotpot, gammon steaks, or chicken and rice, with a third for a chocolatey dessert. If you have a spare box left over, consder adding in some bread or fresh fruit. Remember, if you haven’t got room for it all at once, you can nibble on the leftovers later on. It’s there to keep you going between meals, after all!

Summer Picnic

Family outings are where the tiffin stack really comes into its own. Why not head out on a summer’s day armed with a tiffin full of sausage rolls, sandwiches, potato salad, fresh bread, and cheese? No need to worry about endless plates and cutlery, the tins can be shared out amongst the family once you’re settled in and will pack up nicely afterwards, leaving no mess and no lengthy cleanup. Just stick everything in the dishwasher once you get home and the job’s done.

Italian Alfresco

I’ve often thought tiffin boxes are perfectly suited to meals that work because of the different components they involve, and light-Italian dining has all the makings of a perfect tiffin dish. Put antipasti such as olives, artichokes and sundried tomatoes in one tin, followed by Italian bread or focaccia in another. A third can be used to carry fresh mozzarella, slices of parma ham, or grilled aubergine. Top it off with a tomato and basil salad, drizzled with olive oil and tossed with capers.

Middle Eastern

Tagine, shakshuka, couscous, tabbouleh, hummus and halloumi. Any or all of these could go perfectly in a tiffin stack, mopped up with flatbreads or pittas. Middle Eastern and North African cuisine is often the perfect mezze set-up, which lends itself ideally to the flexible, shareable, portable nature of tiffin.

Final Thoughts

We hope you’ve been inspired and intrigued by our brief look at the venerable tiffin tin, the champion of lunch boxes, bringing meals to millions and dearly loved to this day.

If you like the idea of preparing filling, traditional, nutritious food and enjoying it whilst out and about, we recommend you consider adding a tiffin box to your kitchen arsenal. Hearty work lunches, picnics, sharing with friends, or dining properly even when you’re on the road – all of this and more is possible with a traditional set of tiffin tins.