Cultural differences

Tiffin time

12:00 PM

Tiffin! One of these words that couldn’t scream India any louder. To all the non initiated this is the name commonly given to a packed meal nowadays, and a little digging had me found out this was actually a British word derived from an old slang word to describe the light meal eaten at tea time. The British left India but the word remained behind, and is said to describe any light meal, though frankly in 8.5 years in India I never heard the name in that context at all, see the tiffin describe a packed meal of any size that one take to work or school or on a trip, and more commonly refers to the box in which the meal is carried, which wasn’t what the original British slang was about but how the word has evolved nonetheless. In fact I am willing the original use of the word has died in UK as well and has therefore become an Indian term.
As a Swiss the notion of having a lunch packed to go to work is pretty foreign to me, of course I heard it from friends in the US where it is done, but in Switzerland until recently, people went home to have their lunch, courtesy of the housewife making sure kiddos and husband had a sit down meal in the comfort of their home before heading back to work. The French term for the lunch box is “Gamelle” or “Cantine” and is a typical blue collar term, no one eats out of that thing if they can afford it, and the only time a housewife will actually break out the Tupperware boxes will be to go to a Summer family picnic, or at least it was so in my childhood, because economy oblige, very few are those who can have a family on just one income in my homeland, and with two parents working, nobody really want to cook a meal during their lunch break, so kiddos eat in the lunch meal program in some school, and older kids or get lunch money to buy the plate of the day in the cafeteria or bring their own lunch in a plastic box, which due to the lack of cultural tradition hasn’t been nicknamed to anything cute, no one will use the two blue collar word to refer to their packed meal though, because they are looked as degrading and pejorative. And truth be told, we pack a lunch only in the hot days where a salad or a sandwich is substantial enough, in Winter, we break the bank to get something warm tossed on a plate in the canteen or a local cafe if we can’t go home for lunch.

In India, the distances are often too big to allow one to get home for lunch, not to mention the lunch break significantly shorter, so much so that packing a lunch is no big deal. Your most common tiffin box is likely to look like this:

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3-4 stainless steel containers that are stackable and held by a clamp together, the cheapest consist of just the steel container, the most sophisticated one have an insulated outer box to slide the containers in as it is the case with one of ours, this way it keeps the meal warm-ish between the morning packing time and the lunch time, ours has a small plastic container to put on top to keep the chapatti in. DH used this one for years, but recently started complaining it was leaking, smelling and half of the time the food tasted funny by the time he opened it so we upgraded for this one:

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Tupperware had to have tiffin solutions in this country, and DH keeps raving about it, it’s leak proof, smell proof, and because they are plastic containers I don’t need to heat the food to put it in, he can microwave it in office, which we suspect contribute to keep the food fresh longer. Gone the complaints of funny smelling food and dal spillage, beside DH says the little carry bag looks really smart too…his words!

And if you have kids chances are you have some of these around:

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The kid’s tiffin is smaller, and rarely contain a full meal as kids have lunch after coming back from school, so these typically contain a snack, which by western standard would be called a lunch, but as I came to know over the years Indians don’t think a Sandwich or a salad is substantial enough to qualify as a lunch.
Ishita being Dora crazy, I got her that one first, to ease her transition into playschool, never mind that she is in school for just 2 hours a day, they do enforce snack time to teach kids table manners, and a tiffin must be sent along with the kiddo daily. On most day I put cut fruits and sandwiches in hers, they tried enforcing a set menu, but for some reason they stopped. The Dora box is great for dry snacks and sandwiches, but leaks if anything remotely wet is put in, so we bought another smaller pink one for that when the set menu was asking us to put idli and sambar in the box.
Now with the Summer break having started for some schools, stores across the country have started selling the back to school stuff to spoil the fun, and by June every shops and supermarkets will have a huge selection of kid’s tiffin for sale, generic ones for those not brand conscious which isn’t the majority, and Dora, Ben 10, Spiderman, Lightning Mc Queen, Hannah Montana and the Disney princesses for those who are, along with the matching water bottle (called sipper).
As a parent the easiest task being to find a box your kid will like, but the toughest remain: what to put in said box that will still look appetizing at snack time, that your kid will like and that will not be considered offensive to the school as many enforce a strictly veg rule, meaning no meat sandwich and nothing containing eggs, in order to make sure no kiddos belonging to a strict diet family accidentally take a bite of something religiously offensive such as a home made muffin made with egg in the batter.

12 comments

  1. You lived in Bangalore and did not hear TIFFIN in other contexts? MTR is Mavalli Tiffin Room, CTR is Central Tiffin Room, restaurants here serve Meals and Tiffins. :-)

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  2. I used to love tiffin time when I was young. My mom is amazing cook and would always give me home-made delicious tiffins.
    When my younger brother started school (play group), my mom made him "bombai toast" (a spicy version of french toast)for his first ever tiffin. He refused to eat anything else for tiffin for the next two years!

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  3. Of course heard of MTR and CTR, been to the first, never got to visit the second one but know many who rave about it, but other than these two outlets, never heard anybody refer to a small meal as a tiffin if it doesn't come out of a box :)

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  4. My daugther's favourite is my pasta salad, she loves vanilla French toasts, but this contain eggs and her playschool wants strictly veg food in the tiffin because the kiddos share their tiffin food with each other.

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  5. " ...but as I came to know over the years Indians don’t think a Sandwich or a salad is substantial enough to qualify as a lunch."

    Ha ha, before coming to the US I was in this category, and today, I'm going to have a sandwich for lunch! Though still, I can't JUST have a salad for lunch (I think that's a woman thing), but like salad as a side to an entree.

    ~ Krishanu

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  6. Agreed a green salad is side dish to me too, the salads we eat as lunch in Switzerland are pasta salads, potato salads or a green salad that his been tossed with a lot of chicken and other veggies

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  7. Even I never thought Sandwich would qualify as a lunch until I went to US and came back. Even there, I had to have a sandwich with a bag of french fries/ soup to feel full. Funny though, that now that I am back here, I am back to the Indian mindset, and two/ three sandwiches of Indian size still do not make me full here like how it was sufficient when I lived abroad.. I have come to the conclusion that food gets digested faster in India ;)

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  8. Navya, it could be that the day schedule in India is different with people waking up earlier and going to bed later too.
    I also noticed that sliced bread sold in India is smaller than Sandwich bread sold in Europe, so that too could make a big difference. In Switzerland and France when we mean a sandwich it's generally a sub made of half a baguette which is about a foot long so that is more substantial than the British club sandwich made of sliced soft bread, though of course it's during a trip to London that i found out the British club sandwich is heavily loaded compared to the ones they sell in stores in Switzerland too.

    During the Summer time in India I generally eat two sandwiches and a side salad for lunch when I plan on a sandwich meal, my side salad is lettuce with tomato when I can find lettuce, otherwise it's a happy mix of tomato and cucumber and black olives.

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  9. Yes you are right about the sub being made of half a baguette. Perhaps all of that bread contributes in making us feel full. I have always felt kinda full when I have the subway sandwiches..
    It is of course the kind that we prepare at home that doesn't quite qualify as lunch for me :) due to the lack of substantial filling inside - I usually use the local sliced bread ( preferably wheat ones that are nowadays available in every store) with a green chutney used as a spread followed by either a tomato/potato stuffing or an egg burji masala ( can you tell we are lacto-ovo vegetarians like most Indians?).

    If I were to make it heavily loaded like the sandwiches we get abroad, I am sure it would qualify as lunch here as well.

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  10. Yeah the issue in India is that fill a sandwich in a subsantial way also is costly, there are vagetarian options out there that can be substantial, but you find them in gourmet stores and cost a fortune :(
    I found that the vegetarian alternatives to a non veg diet are absent here, you get tofu, but it isn't that good quality, Quorn which is a mushroom processed thing that looks and taste close to meat doesn't exist, I'm non veg, but I used to like vegetarian food in the west too because there was a lot of variety and options other than just dal and vegetables, not that there is anything wrong with it, but I'm a foodie, I love different textures and tastes on my plate :)

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  11. sudha4:37 PM

    hahahah...i too was unaware of this MTR nd CTR...funny ...but i guess this mindset is changing as u start in a cosmopolitan environmnt we too eat sandwiches at lunch or even at dinners!!! my son infact loves it ..the veg stuff in school is really disgusting ..bt i do send the muffins or ocassional ginger cookie man ...or may be a small slice of whole wheat cake etc ...how long do they eat roti and sabzi!!!

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  12. I think for a school tiffin it's better to put something else than roti sabzi, because not only they can smell funny after a few hours kept in a bag, it's likely to be messy too after the kiddos shaked their bags around, and not look appealing, especially since you can eat a fresher, better looking version of it home.
    The kids in Ishita's school like finger food better, fresh fruits, cut carrot sticks and sandwiches, things they can handle well with their little hands and give them some independence. They tried re-introducing the set menu, but full of junk food, and half the kids going to the playground after school had their tiffin pretty much untouched and parents wondering why the school bothered enforcing that menu as half the food ended up wasted anyway.
    Ishi loves puri and paratha at home, but each time it ended up in her tiffin it was a massive fail, probably because once cold it doesn't taste as good. But should I put a brown bread cream cheese sandwich and a handfull of nuts on the side, it usuallly comes back nearly finished, and no one can argue that almonds and cashew nut is not healthy. I also put cookies and cake these days, but when I do it's always with a side of fruits or nut.

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