As Seen in MACLEANS Magazine Dec, 2010
Tiffin arrived just before lunch time in a Honda Fit. The three containers, packed in a thermal bag, were still warm to the touch. There was hot aloo gobi (a potato and cauliflower curry sprinkled with fresh coriander), a flatbread called paratha, and two cardamom-coconut pancakes. All the dishes looked homemade, but the food came from Tiffinday, a business serving hot prepared lunches in those distinctive tiffin boxes to hungry people in Toronto’s downtown.
The tiffin carrier, a stainless-steel stackable lunch container that is used all over India, has made the trip around the globe and is now growing in popularity in this country—though with a Canadian twist. “It’s a vertical version of a horizontal meal,” said Krishnendu Ray, an assistant professor of food studies at New York University, who grew up in India. In high school, he recalls, he’d trade his egg salad sandwich for his friend’s tiffin. “You have the dahl, the rice and the curry all served simultaneously,” he said. These days in Vancouver, you can pick up a two-tier stainless-steel tiffin, full with curry, for $12 at the Granville Island food court take-away Curry 2U, and bring it back another day for a $5.99 refill. In Calgary, Tiffin Curry and Roti House offers a thermal insulated tiffin box (it can get cold in Calgary) that they fill with two curries and two rice pulaos. They will even deliver them to boardroom lunches. In addition to Tiffinday’s new venture in Toronto, there are plenty of home-based businesses in that city’s suburbs, such as Komal Shah’s home-cooked Gujarati-style food that her customer base of about 100 picks up in one of the stainless steel containers. “Some people have no time for cooking,” she said, explaining the popularity of her service.
While Shah often caters to homesick students who are far away from the Indian cooking they grew up with, the tiffin lunches appeal to urbanites used to all sorts of cuisines, said Seema Pabari, president of Tiffinday, who delivers the lunches herself. “It’s the corporate crowd,” she said. “Most of my clients are young, white males in the finance industry and the IT industry, and they want a good meal.” She has one client to whom she delivers every single day. He prefers that she select his meals for him, and he’s so busy when she arrives with lunch that all he does is sign the receipt, and off she goes. (While she has some South Asian clients, she thinks those who eat Indian food at home don’t need the treats she brings.)
The word tiffin, as used to describe the midday meal, dates back to colonial times in India—there is debate about whether it originates with the English “tiffing,” meaning eating out of meal times. However, the practice of sending noon-hour fare to office workers arose post-independence. The growth of the national metal-processing industry in the 1950s, which helped to proliferate the vessel, and the expanding urban middle class that saw men work in city offices, made the tiffin lunch part of the culture, said Ray.
Tiffin lunches are practically synonymous with a hot meal—no microwaving, with all that metal, so the food must come fresh and hot. Indeed, every day in Mumbai, hundreds of thousands of lunches are still prepared at home and packed in these boxes. They are picked up by a fleet of dhabawallas who ride motor scooters and rickshaws through traffic and deliver the food, ready for office workers to eat. The tiffins are then returned to their respective homes by the same delivery men in time to be cleaned and repacked with the next day’s lunch.
Shaffeen Jamal, owner of Vancouver’s Curry 2U, believes he introduced the commercial version of tiffin to Canada nine years ago. He said the idea came to him when he saw his daughter’s lunch packed in one of the tins. He’d been struggling to attract customers to his new stand in the food court, where a Chinese joint was the big draw. “People would walk by and not stop. Yet they’d eat broccoli steamed,” he said with indignation. Once he started offering his tiffin deal, business picked up. Since then, he has sold more than 45,000 tiffin carriers, often filled with dishes like mango black pepper broccoli and butter chicken.
While the tiffin box was a marketing ploy at first, now he sees the environmental benefits of not using countless Styrofoam takeout containers. “We do 80 to 100 tiffin refills a day. You can imagine what that comes out to,” he said. (He’s also switched to stainless-steel cutlery and thalis, or platters, for eat-in customers.)
Ray expects this trend to spread because eating your lunch from a tiffin box is suddenly a sign of being cosmopolitan, worldly. Caz Ramji, owner of Calgary’s Tiffin and Roti House, agrees. “People have seen it once and they’ve got to have it,” he said. So far, the experience of Tiffinday’s Pabari also follows the theory, since her main customers are in Toronto’s office towers. “It’s a novelty right now,” she said. “But I want to make it a normal thing.”