It is sometimes said in India that 'everything else is just tiffin'. But what exactly is Indian tiffin? In Hobson Jobson, the somewhat eccentric and dated historical reference dictionary of Anglo-Indian words, ‘tiffin’ is described as 'eating or drinking out of meal time'. Generally it's believed that the word ‘tiffin’ comes from the old English word 'tif’ which meant ‘to sip'. Today though, it basically means a light lunch. Read on for our guide to tiffin and how it makes the Delhi lunch hour tick.
If you look carefully you’ll spot these lunch boxes, usually distinctive three-tiered metal containers, on train seats, on the laps of commuters or carried on the back of a motorcycle. These lunchboxes (called dabbas), which contain the tiffin, are regularly delivered by ‘dabbawallahs’ whose job it is to get them to leagues of office workers, on time. Many travel by train, balancing dozens of lunchboxes on their heads, then darting through rush-hour commuter traffic.
So, what can a typical Indian office worker who orders some home cooked Indian tiffin expect? If it’s ‘veg tiffin’, it’s likely to be a variation of rotis (chapatis), some seasonal vegetables, one curry, rice and raita (often for less than one US dollar). Or, for meat-eaters it might be butter-chicken and roti or egg curry, with salads as a side. Ruskin Bond, the well-known Indian author of British descent, writes in his book ‘Delhi is Not Far’: ‘For tiffin we usually had rice, a mutton curry, koftas (meat balls) with plenty of gravy…’
One of the most ingenious things about tiffin – apart from no washing up and timely delivery – is that unlike a lunchbox, you can easily have more than one course. The different compartments mean that it’s easy for workers to separate their starters, mains and puddings, or their lunch from dinner. Also, given the numbers involved (there aren’t statistics available for Delhi, but in Mumbai 4,000 dabbawallahs deliver 160,000 home-cooked lunches daily) incredibly hardly any tiffin boxes ever go astray, even though there’s rarely a computerised system for back-up.
In India, unless you’re commuting and are in need of a tiffin service, a ‘thali’ might be the easiest way to sample this Indian-style smorgasboard of different little dishes. A thali is a large steel dish with compartments or a steel tray with katori (bowls) placed on it, which contains similar dishes to tiffin – usually rice, lentils, vegetable or meat curry, raita, roti and pickles.
Try the cheap and cheerful Andhra Bhawan Canteen on Ashoka Road, which serves up south Indian thalis for less than £1.00. For a more upmarket experience try Rajdhani Thali which has a Thali meter on its website (9536752 thalis sold to date) and serves Gujarati and Rajasthani vegetarian thalis.
Written by Caroline Eden
Ever sampled tiffin, thalis or local street food in Delhi? Share your favourite Indian food tips for future travellers below.
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About the author: CarolineEdenCaroline Eden
Award-winning travel writer and broadcaster Caroline Eden specialises in Asia. She regularly contributes to international media including the BBC, Geographical, National Geographic Traveller, Conde Nast Traveller and Asian Art Newspaper. She is also on the judging panel for the annual Asia Spa Awards. Follow her on Twitter as @edentravels.