Friday, October 3, 2008

Tiffin Story


Tiffin carriers or dabbas are a kind of lunch box used widely in India for tiffin meals. Normally they come in two to three-tiers. Tiffin carriers are opened by unlocking a small catch on either side of the handle, then removing it.

It is very simple product, yet highly significant and efficient, with a basic purpose of storing and transporting food, a product which is easily affordable, and without any question, a product which is a part and parcel of every Home/Kitchen.

With the opening up of more and more restaurants, dhabas, canteens, messes and fast foods in every part of the world, the practice of “carrying food” has greatly reduced.

The Beginning:

In Indian context, the concept/idea of transporting/storing food dates back to the mythology of Mahabharat.

Lord Krishna used to steal butter from stacked pots hanging from the ceiling. During olden times, long ago when there was no use of metal vessels, mud pots were extensively used to prepare, store as well as transport food. Starting from bigger size, the next smaller sized pots are filled with food and stacked in size order.

For this purpose, coconut fibre is woven into a thick and firm ring of sorts, and a tight rope passes through 3 equidistant points in the ring, to form a cone when lifted. Now the pots, whose rims are covered securely by cloth, are stacked over the ring in size order. This whole thing can now be lifted by the rope over long distances.

Generally Indian women used to conveniently carry the stacked pots on their heads using the ring. In additional to that, storing food in mud pots is desirable due to their properties, especially water and other liquids.

So the whole process of stacking up food in containers is inspired from this. This tells us that the highly useful Tiffin carriers we use everyday have their root connections to a period since myth began.

Traditional Indian Kitchens:

Cooking vessels were not so sophisticated many years ago in India; though the food that came out of those traditional kitchens was as delicious, aromatic and flavourful, or maybe more.

Traditional kitchens had a distinctive but simple range of kitchenware. Still the number of spices and condiments stored in such a kitchen needs a veteran cook to expertise on. Many of these utensils are still an integral part of Indian kitchens. One of them is the Tiffin carrier.
Home and Kitchen: -

· The first thing which comes to our mind when we consider an Indian kitchen is the transition from a contemporary kitchen to a modular one.
· Whatever are the changes in an Indian kitchen, the richness and variety of food and ingredients remain the same.
· Do these changes affect the usage of tiffin carriers to any extent?

Let’s take a look at the transition of Indian kitchens:

Contemporary Indian Kitchen:

· The use of traditional, ancient kitchen implements, vessels and other utensils are still in sound use today not only in urban parts of the nation, but also in rural cities.
· The very significance of the implements like stone grinders, stone wares, brass utensils and tiffin carriers, etc. add a touch to the taste of the food in order to retain the Indian-ness of food.

Taste of Food:

· The change in usage of brass utensils and tiffin carriers to aluminium and stainless steel (SS) due to its heaviness, rare availability and high cost, has made a direct impact to the taste of food.
· Nowadays, SS is preferred to aluminium because of its soft metal properties, high corrosiveness to heat and its toxic nature.
· But as far as the taste is concerned, the delicious touch to the food is not retained when one opens an SS carrier, when compared to a brass carrier.
· A major Indian population have adapted themselves to a colonial range of food. Ex: - A South Indian would prefer to stick to his colonial thali rather than the north Indian thali in routine life.
· Indian authentic traditional platter is purely vegetarian.
· And colonial food culture is in turn affected by the availability of crops grown, cultivated lands, history and geography of the place, as India has a rich and ancient culture.
· We always prefer a particular range of routine traditional and colonial food to satisfy out regular appetite.
· And as far as tiffin carriers are concerned, the kind of food packed in them invariably change from state to state within the country.
· With the advent of Western food culture and more and more Indians getting adapted to it, isn’t it obvious that the significance of Carriers is depleting?

Context and Viewpoint:

· Let us look at the tiffin carrier with a Zoom out viewpoint.
· We find Stainless Steel carriers constantly being opened, used and assembled with respect to various contexts such as Lunchtime, working people, labourers, office going people, school going children, and occasional events like Festivals, Picnics, tourists, visits, etc.
· With such a massive usage of this product in day to day life, more and more industries are interested in this object‘s manufacture in mass production, to suit everyone of all economic standards.
· All this brings in variety in tiffin carriers that were, are being and will be manufactured.
· Another important context where we find the carrier is the “Dabbawallas”. Day in and day out they transport the precious food safely and on time, being a big helping hand to Human Society.


· Antique tiffin carriers made out of precious material such as Gold, Silver or Brass, and decorated with fine intricacy and richness, and portraying the influence of Asian Art is no more a part of daily usage or manufacture.
· These rare artefacts are either showcased or treasured in museums/libraries.
· The priority of the society for food and kitchen tools, especially women during the early times was very high.
· The designs, styles and techniques such as gold lacing, enamel paints, stone studded, floral prints and motifs, nature inspired shapes and forms were used to ornament the exterior of the carriers, when the interiors were kept as simple as possible, for convenience and cleaning purposes.
· Even the locking mechanism was heavily stylized, and it had the simple spoon fitting system (the spoon was beautifully ornamented).
· Today, the industries aim at providing this extremely valuable product to the general public of all economic classes which has resulted in the present form and function of the carrier today.

Colonial Encounter:

· A very interesting point about tiffin carriers in an article about the Raffles Hotel, Singapore – March 18th 2006 gives us an overview of its history:

“We have come for tiffin, and according to the sign outside, we are at the right place. This is the Tiffin Room at Raffles Hotel in Singapore - a starched white room with high ceilings and chandeliers, evoking a decadent colonial past.

The food is kind of colonial. "Is this tiffin?"

"Not really, most people think it's got something to do with Tiffany but it comes from the carriers - over there, at the end of the room."

Up on the wall, behind the chef's white hat, is a display case of brightly painted cans. They look like saucepans stacked one on top of the other, and their purpose is - or was - to carry food, keeping it hot or cold and free of flies.

The Raffles tiffin carriers have a history. Sourced from antique shops locally and overseas, the carriers recall a tradition that the British adopted from India and brought with them to Singapore.

When the Raffles Hotel opened, in 1887 - named after Sir Stamford Raffles, the British colonist and founder of London Zoo, who claimed Singapore for the British East India Company in 1824 - tiffin carriers were in common use.

With two, three or four tiers and decorated with enamel paint, they were used to carry food from kitchens to workplaces or on long journeys, keeping it fresh on the way.

By the mid to late 19th century the word "tiffin" had come to mean lunch. A light lunch - often curry - served about midday. In 1899, "Tiffin Curry" was a regular on the menu at Raffles.

Tiffin carriers are still common in India - used by contract caterers or those who prefer to cook and carry their own - but in Singapore's Indian quarter, Little India, they have become few and far between.

Tiffin carrying was popular until the 1960s - "I'll tiffin it back" meant the same as "I'll grab a takeaway" - but it is the Chinese, who have adopted the tradition today, claiming it was theirs all along.

"Some carriers are very plain, some are very elaborate," explains Ron Shing, an antiques dealer with one carrier that should be in the glass case at Raffles, it looks so similar to those on display.

"Some people carry them to weddings, or to the temple. With the Silk Road and the trade routes through India and China, it's hard to know who discovered them first."

The origin of tiffin carriers is debatable but there is no doubt as to what they have become. More airtight, but lacking the decor of their ancestors, today's aluminium "food carriers" are freely available from pottery shops in Chinatown.

It is more reliable for preserving your picnic lunch. You can buy a small one for about $10. Fill it with takeaway curry and have tiffin with no frills. Or go to Raffles, where the tiffin experience is served on china plates and the carriers are only on display.”
· During the British rule in India (The East India Company), after the Industrial Revolution, it might have been possible that the first mechanised Tiffin Carrier was manufactured?

The impact of Lifestyle:

· With the attack of western culture into the east, a great deal of changes has happened over the few years. The material world has set in. Economy, infrastructure, fashion, trends, quick life, etc. are the main criteria of this changing world.
· Lifestyle has not only changed the physical living, but has also added to the views of the people. Time being one of the most important factors today; a working woman wouldn’t spend a lot of time in the kitchen.
· We feel that in such a fast forward world, the necessity of carriers makes it simpler for us, as far as packing and transporting food is concerned.

Modular Kitchen:

· Unlike any contemporary traditional Indian kitchen, in today’s city life, the major population prefers the completely designed Modular kitchens, not knowing that they still lack the fulfilment of an ideal Indian kitchen, however modern they are.
· A modular kitchen will look simple, seem simple, aesthetically designed for the cook’s comfort, proper spacing and lighting, use of artificial, long lasting materials, and all, but it is the most complicated task for the cook to organise, remember and sort out the kitchen items individually for his/her convenience, especially in such a kitchen.
· The Indian touch and taste to the whole process of cooking is enveloped by an artificial hi-fi sense of making food using all kinds of gadgets and artificial processes.
· This actually saves a lot of time, especially for working women nowadays, but it has affected the food habits, the adaptability to many kinds of food, and taste of food to a great extent.
· It’s actually a more hectic job to maintain a modular kitchen than a normal Indian kitchen.
· A modular kitchen uplifts the economic status and standard of living of that home.
· Well what we need is the sophisticated simplicity of a modular kitchen, Indian touch of cooking, designed more towards the cooking of Indian cuisine.
· Modular kitchen has made a great impact on the manufacturing of tiffin carriers.

How does a Modular kitchen affect Tiffin Carrier?

· It’s obvious that through this evolution of the kitchen, the INDIAN also has evolved.
· When one wants one’s kitchen to be designed elaborately, one would also want one’s kitchen implements like the Tiffin Carrier to be re-designed according to the modern age.
· Stainless steel industries not only in India, but also abroad are considering this product with high priority as the market demands for it more and more. Well in India and China, everyone already knows its importance and necessity.
· Well as far as any Indian home is concerned, modular or contemporary, old or new, the carrier always has its simple yet high significance. It’s just in today’s lifestyle, people are very conscious about user time, style and appearance of the carrier and it’s pricing.
· And fortunately, the carrier has its advantages at all these levels.

Health and Hygiene:

· Today’s Stainless steel carrier manufactures make sure ISO standard steel is used in their manufacture. Even the forms and overall shape of the carrier is enhanced in order to ensure easy cleaning, and maintenance of a carrier.
· But generally when a metal carrier is concerned, it is in no way any harm to the environment, on the other hand it reduces the usage of plastic food packaging.
· And a tiffin carrier is the safest thing to eat from, always.


· We have seen how more significant it is in today’s life, yet why do we get the feeling that there is a decreasing priority of tiffin carriers.
· In earlier times, a carrier was the first thing that was thought of when storing or transporting food was a concern. Especially with Indian and Chinese women, they are very nostalgically attached to the carrier for what it does. These can be some of the reasons why the earlier manufactured carriers were heavily ornamented.
· With the advent of fast foods, restaurants and packaged food systems, there has been a direct impact on the priorities of a carrier.
· Have the priorities changed over the other modern implements and these changes today?
· Do we still appreciate and acknowledge the fact of the significance, beauty of the tiffin carriers for what they are and what they do?

Technology/ Manufacture:

· Earlier, brass carriers were hand-beaten over moulds.
· Then came aluminium which is an abundant soft metal, cheap, but unhygienic to eat from in the long run.
· Since the Industrial Revolution, more and more stainless steel industries have come up converting the aluminium carriers into hard metal stainless steel, which is perfectly safe for the health, even in the long run.
· Mechanised processes and latest manufacturing techniques with high precision save manufacturing time and enhance the quality and precision of the product, etc.
· With the integration of new processes and techniques, the form, colour, material, and the tiffin carrier as a whole changes according to the market demand and target customers.

Evolution of form:

· The whole concept of stacking up vertically thus saving space has given rise to the basic form of the tiffin carrier.
· Later concerns relating to size, convenience, etc. have added to the evolution of its form.
· The tiffin carrier we see today is all about identical containers individually stacked one upon another fastened by a lock-handle mechanism, which has also evolved over the period of time.
· The rich decorated and ornamented forms have transformed into simple mass produced SS carriers. The essence of the rich decoration has today been replaced by the elegant simplicity of the product.


· Brass carriers are ideal for the purpose, but expensive which ultimately led to the use of Aluminium as a material.
· But as aluminium is unhygienic and toxic to health on the long run, they have been replaced by Stainless steel.
· As industries prefer SS due to its cheap production and processing, SS have become ideal for today’s world.
· Today starting from the container to the lid, lock- mechanism, and handle, SS is used for the manufacture.
· With more and more research and technology coming up, tiffin carriers are also made using Melamine, which is non-toxic, scratchproof, heat resistant and insulator, easy to clean and maintain, weightless, aesthetically appealing, but expensive. E.g.:
Remmerco tiffin carrier (England) made of white gastronom melamine priced at INR 800/-

· Tomorrow, carriers may also be manufactured in ceramic (porcelain), like the vintage carrier, and porcelain being an amazing material for the purpose; it beats all other materials in use. With the use of Porcelain in carriers, one can also provide glazing and other surface designs to enhance their priority in today’s world.

Techniques and Processes:

· Since ages, the basic vertical form of a carrier has remained the same, but the locking mechanism has undergone changes.
· Initially, the lock system of the carrier was such that from the bottommost container, 2 thin vertical bars arise from the opposite sides. These bars run parallel to the carrier upwards. At the lid, they bend towards each other to form a handle. Both the bars have holes at the handle through which a metal spoon is fitted, in order to make the bars stay in position to be able to carry.
· Industrial manufacture no more use moulds or jigs for production. Automated CNC lathe machines and others have created a revolution in the production techniques.
· Nowadays, in order to keep the food hot for quite a longer period, hot-bags and hot packs have been introduced.
· The concept of Thermal Insulation (materials used to reduce the rate of heat transfer, or the methods and processes used to reduce heat transfer) came to India only during the 1970’s. With this industries like Eagle and Milton came up with hot packs.
· Vacuum flask cooking was introduced to the Asian market in the mid-1990s. The vacuum cooker is a stainless steel vacuum flask. The flasks come in various sizes ranging from 20-40 cm (8-16 in) in diameter and 25 cm (10 in) tall. A removable pot, with handle and lid, fits inside the vacuum flask. The pot and contents are heated to cooking temperature, and then sealed in the flask. The flask simply reduces heat loss to a minimum, so that the food remains at cooking temperature for a long time, and cooks without continued heating. Note that the food is not cooked in a vacuum. It is cooked inside a vacuum flask. The hollow evacuated wall of the cooker thermally insulates its contents from the environment, so they remain hot for several hours.
· A hot bag consists of insulated rexin cloth from the inside, which is stitched to a tough material outside with a long wrap handle for convenience. A hot bag keeps the food warm enough for at least 5 hours.
· Whereas a hot pack is an insulated plastic vessel with a lid, and it keeps the food warm for a greater time.
· There are also electric hot case tiffin carriers, where an electric heating system is internally available in the hot-pack. So one can heat up food later also for half an hour before the meal.

Changes in Form/Colour:

· As we have already seen how the rich, decorated and ornamented carriers, even though they are treasured today, have been replaced by the aesthetically elegant simplicity.
· The basic cylindrical form is also played with, modifying it into slightly different forms.
· In the new carriers, every container has a lid. The product is today admired for the Stainless steel shine, rounded edges, ergonomically designed handles and locking mechanism, user sensitivity, and the long lasting effect of its clear shine.
· Earlier, including the Chinese carriers, a lot of floral, mythical and natural motifs were engraved or enamelled on them. This raised the importance of the carrier, brought in nostalgic moments to the user, transformed it into a product of extreme beauty, and also enhanced the cultural impact on them.
· The colour of the carriers is usually stainless steel silver, but different user groups prefer metal paints of various colours on them.
· With the packaging of carriers using hot-packs or hot-bags, the external appearance of the hot-packs and hot-bags are aesthetically designed.


· Tiffin carriers nowadays come as a lunch box set, along with spoons, forks, water bottle, etc. all packed in a zipped hot-bag neatly. This is one way of the Industrialist to attract customers as well.
· For example, let’s see a company’s profile:
Swanmac/Lunchmate is India’s first Stainless steel vacuumised tiffin carrier.

Made with the highest grade of stainless steel- AISI 304 (Salem Stainless Steel), Lunchmate is hygienic and very durable. It is vacuum insulated.Features:
· Avoid storing hot and cold food items together.
· Remove the inner containers and store ice cubes in the outer case.
· Boil milk. Allow it to warm. Add little curd. Transfer into Lunchmate and fix the lid as usual. Curd sets faster in Lunchmate.
· Lunchmate should be cleaned with warm soap water. No other precautions are necessary. When not in use, keep the lid open.
· Sizes: 2,3,4,5 containers.

· Packaging has become a very important factor for SS industries also. Thus packaging not only encases the carrier, but also adds a brand value to it, enhances the features to attract the customers and also gives protection to the carrier.


· Advertisements of Ever silver marts give the public a general idea of all Stainless Steel wares, including Tiffin Carriers.
· The World Wide Web has enabled online shopping, e- ads, search engines providing information, and many more related to the purchase of a Carrier. E.g.: E-Bay, Amazon, online Bazaar, etc.
· The basic awareness of a tiffin carrier in market is done by Branding.


· Industries look at producing better carriers at lower costs. And since the competition is very high, they employ all possible methods to save money, by adding in new forms, more mass production, cheaper but sustainable material, choosing suitable production techniques, etc.
· They aim at minimum wastage of material, minimum usage of power, labour and maximum production and attract maximum dealers. All this is possible with new enhanced designs, new forms, better user interface, and better ergonomics and a dazzling appearance to the tiffin carrier, giving it a whole new dimension.
· Carriers are available in the market for all standards of people, from the poor, the middle class, and the upper middle class to the rich (categorisation done only for understanding).
· Depending upon the number of containers, the quality and company of the stainless steel and the lock system, etc. the tiffin carriers are priced. Generally the carriers come in 3, 4 or 5 containers in stainless steel.
· A very conventional stainless steel tiffin carrier of 4 containers would cost around INR 175-250/- Such carriers are mass produced and sold to the wholesalers who in turn sell them to the retailers.
· With the introduction of Hot-bags and hot-packs, the rates have drastically gone up.

Foreign Exchange:

· A lot of export of tiffin carriers happens in India, and Indian stainless steel experts also go abroad and work for their tiffin carrier production.
· In some cases, foreign industries visit India just to know about the product, its manufacturing techniques and processes…
· Foreign industries have also seen its significance and necessity in their places as well, so they have their production of a variety of carriers available to all international customers.
· Online shopping is in boom, despite customs tax, shipping charges, and other charges.
· Its priority and awareness throughout the world gets highlighted with foreign exchange.

The Dabbawallas:

Tuesday, May 8th, 2007

The Financial Times reports on Mumbai’s dabbawallas, “an army of [5,000] men who deliver with faultless precision 200,000 meals to workers in the city direct from their homes in the suburbs using nothing but the city’s battered commuter railway system and bicycles.” (J. Leahy, “High-tech meets low-tech over lunch,” 8 May 2008.)

To fully appreciate the Dabbawallas’ achievements, a person first needs to see the rickety state of Mumbai’s infrastructure. A trip to the airport that should take 30 minutes can take two hours due to chronic congestion.

The trains are so overcrowded that people are frequently killed falling off the roofs of the carriages or being hit by poles alongside the tracks as they hang out of the doors. Monsoon rains regularly bring the city to a halt.

Yet none of this faces the dabbawallas. Daily, from about 9am, each dabbawalla collects a tiffin carrier – a tall, cylindrical, stacking metal food container loaded with different dishes – from 35 customers’ homes in the suburbs.

The colour-coded tiffin carriers are put in the luggage compartments of suburban trains and taken to the city, where the correct tiffin carriers are delivered to the correct individual customers starting at about 12.30pm, in time for lunch. From 1.15pm, the dabbawallas begin collecting the tiffin carriers again to deliver them back to individual customers’ homes, in a reversal of the whole process.

Like any successful corporation, the dabbawallas have a firmly entrenched culture and well-developed sense of mission and branding.
Founded in 1890, they claim to be descendants of the soldiers of Shivaji, the 17th century king who held off the Muslims in the area that is now the western state of Maharashtra, of which Mumbai is the modern capital.

Most of them are shareholders of the [Nutan Mumbai Tiffin Box Suppliers Charity] trust, drawing a monthly salary of about Rs5, 000.

“People recognize us by our Gandhi topi [hat] and our white kurta pyjama, which is our biggest brand,” says Mr Medge.*

While their average education is eighth grade, and many are illiterate, the dabbawallas have been given a Six Sigma performance rating of 99.999999 by consultants and a quality management system standard ISO 9001:2000 certificate. They claim to have an error rate of 1 in 16m.

*Mr. Raghunath D. Medge is president of the Nutan Mumbai Tiffin Box Suppliers Charity Trust.
Mr. Medge presented Prince Charles a tiffin carrier and a traditional Indian Dress for his wedding anniversary. Prince Charles being impressed visited India to invite him for the wedding feast at London.

Symbolic Life:

· Any Chinese or Indian woman, who spends a great deal of time in the kitchen, would consider a tiffin carrier as a very symbolic and memorable part of her life.
· When she sees a tiffin carrier, she would definitely miss a bit because it is one kitchen item that she cannot do without.
· Basically a carrier refers to the countries of India and China.
· It also symbolises delicious home made food that doesn’t upset your stomach. It symbolises Lunch time, afternoon, routine life, etc.

Failures/ Disadvantages:

· Plastic containers have been a great failure in concern with food packaging. They are no match to any tiffin carrier.
· Any alternative ware to the carrier like Tupper wares has been a failure.
· A carrier is a disadvantage when it strikes public areas with a bomb placed in it:

Ahmedabad, July 26
Blast inside AMTS bus claims one life, leaves eight critically injured.

A powerful tiffin blast that ripped apart the roof and floor of a CNG bus belonging to the Ahmedabad Municipal Transport Services (AMTS) claimed the life of one person and injured eight others. The blast occurred when the vehicle was passing through the sensitive Juhapura area opposite Amber Tower around 6.30 p m, the same time when serial blasts spread panic across the city.


Tiffin genius:

The One Stop Thali Cafe in Bristol has been selling these Mumbai tiffin carriers to their regulars - so they can get takeaways from the restaurant using them. They're £20 each (Inc your first meal) and they've sold about 1,500 in the last 18 months.

This is genius. In one fell swoop they've:

v Created genuine differentiation for the business
v Done something environmentally responsible
v Made a little bit of extra money
v Tied their customers a little closer to their business
v Won themselves some interesting PR
v Actually improved their service (tiffin carriers keep the food hotter for longer)

And they've done it in a way that's:

v Entirely authentic to their business and its heritage.
v Incredibly simple and charming (not some fiddly promotional thing with forms and vouchers).
v Generous and open - you can use your tiffin carrier at any restaurant.

Tiffin Post Box:

This is a yellow post-box which has been painted to resemble a giant antique tiffin carrier (food container).
Back in the olden years, people used this multi-tier container like a lunch box. What made it efficient was that different types of dishes such as rice, vegetables and meat could be carried around, each one compartmentalised into a separate tier.
The artists have painted on pretty floral patterns that make the post-box look really quaint. Spot it at keong saik road in Chinatown.

Clay tiffin Carrier:


Ceramic container, Tiffin Carrier II from the series "....these are a few of my favourite things", white earthenware, wheel thrown, assembled, terrasigillata slips / oxidation firing, Jaishree Srinivasan, Canberra, Australian Capital Territory, Australia, 1995

Straight cylindrical form consisting of (-2:3) two stacked bowls, on (-1) wide base sitting on three small inverted conical feet. On each side, a figure holding a vessel on their heads with squirrels sitting on their shoulders. Shaped handle with pointed knobs. (-4)Domed cover with looped knop and (-5) spoon-like clasp inserted horizontally through handle and knop on cover. Overall colour dark green with bands of white and orange. Designed by Jaishree Srinivasan, Canberra, 1995. Srinivasan was born in Madras, India in 1954, and educated in Tamilnadu at a convent of European nuns. She graduated in Fine Arts at the University of Madras in 1974, and subsequently trained in the United States and Australia, completing an Associate Diploma in Ceramics at the Canberra School of Art.

Our Information & Media Partners:


Ø My dear grandmother (Karur, Tamil Nadu)

Ø My Local Guardian (The Zaveri and co.)

Ø My mom (Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu)

Ø Extensive brainstorming

Ø My mom, dad and friends (Agartala, Tripura)

Ø The Financial Times

Ø Aakhash GV and Ratul Bhowmik



Happy Tiffin said...

Thanks so much for writing and compiling this write up on the history of tiffins and the dabbawallas. I will link to your article from the so people can refer to your pages as a resource. Thanks!

vineshkumar said...

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priyanka said...

your post was of great help..all thanks to you...