Mention ‘tiffin’, and it’s likely to lead to two different discussions: one, around the Mumbai Dabbawala and its founding father Mahadeo Havaji Bachche, and two, a shorter one on how the idea of tiffin came up – which is conveniently credited to the British. According to David Burton’s The Raj At Table, “tiffin emerged in the 19th century.” And to a large extent, Burton’s theory is right. Not only tiffin, the word, but tiffin as a lunch carrier too became popular in and around the 1880s when Gora Sahib began a tradition of having a lighter snack after the (deliberate) light lunch to survive the hot weather in India. For the working Indians though, the tiffin was the lunch that they couldn’t go home to.
The lunchboxes that came up in Europe, the United States and the Great Britain in the 1800s were mostly toolbox-lookalike lunch packs designed by R J Reynolds in Wisconsin, who stumbled upon the idea after watching kids and miners reuse their tobacco and cookie tins to pack their lunch – for safety. It was at the time (1885) when the first ekiben – a lunch of rice balls with pickled apricot – became popular in Utsunomiya Station, Japan.
But are tiffin carriers that young? While most histories of lunchboxes will help you believe so, for India – and much of South East Asia – the concept of tiffin carriers predates the Raj by a century at least.
According to old Jataka tales, the invention of tiffin boxes came about from a traveller’s necessity. An old tale narrates how a merchant after having sattu from his bag had left it open for a snake to take refuge. The merchant carried the snake to the nearest Sabha (rest houses during the Mauryan time) to be bitten and killed by it during a refill.
Back in the yore, animal skin or jute and cotton bags were the more preferred way to carry travel food, especially by the orthodox Hindus who didn’t eat on the road. The only respite was the rest houses where they could rest their tired selves and replenish their stock. It was, in fact, the only time merchants and travellers ate a well-cooked meal. Coincidentally, the best-supplied Sabhas were closer to the city’s entrance – like Taxila had one right outside its toll gate. Hence, food in a bag was not just the only option but also susceptible to thefts by the outlaw.
Whether it was the snake, the cons of food in a bag or the sheer boredom of eating sattu and dried boiled rice, the first tiffin carriers, which were heavy metals made from aluminium or brass, came from the necessity to carry edible food with safety. The merchants took to it instantly.
The popularity of the pails, which were eventually compartmentalised to be able to carry more food, led to the rise of travel foods like chikki, doodh roti, khakhara, gurgoli (energy bars) and the famous chivda (to which even Queen Elizabeth took fancy). Made in different sizes, a pair or two could carry even pickle and slow-cooked dishes like the Parsi umbriyo, mutton sukkhe, masala channa, pickles and Oriya macho chutka and the UP Kukur rotla as well. While the metal body kept the food warm for a reasonable amount of time, the heaviness discouraged not only the robbers but also the merchants who refused to carry more than two if travelling alone.
This is when the Bento Box, which was invented by military commander Oda Nobunga around the late 1500s to serve his men individually portioned food, reached India through the Silk Route. Made of bamboos, these boxes were great for carrying, and could accommodate quite a few things; however, for Indian-styled meals, they were highly unsuitable. The few made of metal were good to carry dry food.
The other tiffin carrier lookalike that reached the shores were the Arabic Safartas. Essentially stacked boxes – one on top of the other – secured by an iron frame, it made carrying food easy. Though tedious, it was a better alternative to the heavy metals and was instantly popular among merchants on the Silk Road. Although some believe that the Safartas was inspired from the first Indian iteration of the carrier.
There is another theory that the idea of the first tiffin carrier came from the way food was carried in temples without spilling. The first tiffin carrier, in fact, replicated the temple style – where similar-sized pots and pans were kept on top of each other and then secured with a coir – it was the exact replica of how milk and milk produce were stored in traditional kitchens.
The other influence came from the food servers on the port station who transported food in the same manner, and the food carriers from Mughal Kitchens who would skillfully carry a tower of pots and pans on their head without a drop spilt.
It is said that the tiffin carriers were a replica of these techniques but with a few tweaks – the frame, for instance, was fixed, in which similar-sized pails would be inserted. While this ensured that a complete thali could be carried at a time, the pails kept moving, leading to some spillage. This was when a friction clamp was added to the tiffin carriers. In the coming years, there were more experiments done with bottles, barnis and other utensils. An example of those experiments is the curd carrier still used by tribal women in Rajasthan to sell curd.
Curiously, the first tiffin carriers that got popular were made of brass – this may have something to do with the wide use of brass – or the fact that brass didn’t add any flavour to the food like iron or other metals once it’s cooked. The other reason is, of course, the lightness that made carrying four to five pails secured with clams easy.
Funnily, tiffin carriers – and the food they carried – quickly became a favourite with the wealthy as well, who saw it as a convenient device to transfer food, say, to the temple. In fact, the Chettiyar community, which is famous for their elegant tiffin carriers – each of them were either enamelled or had a design carved on them – used it for taking their offerings to the temple, and getting the prasad back home.
So fond was this community of the tiffin that soon these carriers became a part of their gifts to the groom, or even to a kid starting school, albeit with a difference. The presented tiffin carriers were bespoke to the core – with a few commissioned to the Swedish enamelware companies. There’s a good chance that it was the Chettiyar tiffin carriers that reached Indonesia, where it took the shape of a Rangtang. These exquisitely decorated tiffin carriers became an integral part of the Game cuisine as well. Carriers would be filled with dry fruits and snacks and given to the mahut to be carried on elephant backs during royal hunting trips. There is a possibility that the British could have first seen the interesting contraption tied to a rope on an elephant during one of these expeditions – and would be surprised knowing it was food that was still warm, tasty and miraculously hadn’t spilt.
In a manner of speaking, the queen’s travel pandaan too was a variation of the tiffin – and could have later led to those old stainless steel and brass school tiffins that had compartments to carry more food.
What was privy to the merchants and royalty became a mass item of use in the 1850s, with the Raj setting up offices and cities which changed the way Indians ate – there would be no lunch at home or nap after that. Tiffin became the best way to carry home-cooked food. In fact, the tradition of carrying tiffin started with the Parsis, who found the eat-nap habit a waste of time and got lunch delivered to the office instead. It is said that Mahadeo Havaji Bachche began his inning as a dabbawala while delivering hot, home-cooked meal to a Parsi businessman and then Gora Sahib – and soon his service was so much in demand that he had to employ jobless youth who knew their area from the back of their hand. And that’s how Harvard’s biggest case study was born.
With industrialisation, tiffin carriers became a matter of convenience to eat home-cooked food, the only difference was while the workers carried their own food, for the babus and sahibs food was delivered fresh in tiffins that were decorated Chettiyar style.
It was with the Indians and the British that the tiffin carrier reached the rest of the world – including the iconic Raffles Hotel in Singapore, which opened in 1887, where tiffin carriers were used to serve the desi meal of Raj-style curries, kebabs and rice. And while the tiffin carrier kept changing – brass gave way to stainless steel and the Railways, on taking the dabba for serving meals inside the train, added a section for cooled water too – the one thing that didn’t was the way food was filled in the pails: dry food at the bottom, curries in the middle and sukha sabzi on the top. Aside from the fact that such a buildup kept the food secure and warm; it was the secret for why food carriers never spilt food even as they sprinted towards the destination.
Madhulika Dash is a writer with over 13 years of experience writing features from tech to cars to health. She is also a seasoned food appreciator who writes on Indian restaurants and cuisines across different platforms. She has also been on the food panel of MasterChef India Season 4.
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