At lunch, tiffin multi-tiered containers stack up

Popular in India, the tiered metal containers can pack curry takeout or a big picnic

By Tara Lee (published May 20, 2010)

Shaffeen Jamal serving a tiffin
Curry 2 U’s Shaffeen Jamal sells customers tiffins in which he layers fragrant Indian eats. The trusty containers can then be reused. Photo by: Tracey Kusiewicz

Naresh Shukla is the king of the tiffin in Vancouver’s vibrant Punjabi Market. Shukla, president of Mother India (6632 Main Street), a wholesale, distribution, and retail company, smiles broadly at the mere mention of the multi-tiered lunch containers that are used throughout India to transport the midday meal they’re named after. Surrounded by boxes of incense sticks and figurines of gods, Shukla extols the virtues of the stainless-steel containers, which are catching on as a convenient, environmentally friendly way to pack lunch here.

When Shukla was a kid, virtually all of the 1,500 students and 50 teachers at his school in Aur, India, used tiffins, with not a brown bag in sight. A different item would be packed in each layer, the layers would be stacked, and then the metal rods on either side would be joined at the top to keep it all together. Once he and his classmates got to school, they’d swap tiers if they wanted to sample another mom’s cooking, or, if they were territorial, they’d put a padlock on the top to prevent others from getting at their food.

These fond memories inspired Shukla to start importing stainless-steel tiffins from India. He sells up to 300 a month at his store and distributes 2,000 a month across North America. He runs around the store holding up the many options, from a simple two-layer tiffin ($14.98) to a four-layer one housed in an insulated case ($22.95). The mother of all tiffins is a gargantuan five-tiered one ($98) that Shukla says is great for picnics and can carry enough food to feed 25 hungry people.

Outside of the Main and 49th area, you can find tiffins at Granville Island Public Market. Shaffeen Jamal, owner of Curry 2 U (281–1689 Johnston Street), offers a two-tiered tiffin for $12, which includes your first meal at his food-court stand. After that, customers can bring them back to be refilled for $5.95, or $5 on Thursdays. Curry 2 U has 80 rotating menu items, with eight available at any given time.

Jamal explains that customers get basmati rice in both layers of their tiffin. Each is topped with a curry, such as spicy ground beef and mushrooms in a coconut, red chili, garlic, ginger, tamarind, and tomato sauce; or chickpeas in a curry fragrant with garlic, ginger, cumin, tomatoes, coriander, and turmeric. One piece of smart thinking: naan bread is placed on top of the curry in the lower layer so that the underside of the tier above doesn’t get wet.

Interviewed by phone, Jamal estimates that since he started offering tiffins seven years ago, he’s sold a whopping 40,000 boxes and that he refills about 200 a day. He’s even had hungry Emily Carr University students pool their pennies to buy one to share. And based on personal experience, he claims that tiffins last a lifetime: “I have one that I bought from an antique shop. It’s made from brass, and it’s over 62 years old.”

As takeout containers, tiffins kick styrofoam to the curb. Anjali Potdar, manager at Saravanaa Bhavan (955 West Broadway), opens a menu and points to the mini tiffin lunch option ($8.50), which requires you to bring in your own four-tier tiffin if you want to avoid disposable takeout containers: a savoury cream of wheat pudding (rava kichadi) in one layer; five button-sized steamed rice cakes (idlies) soaked in lentil soup (sambar) in the next; a thin rice and lentil crepe stuffed with potatoes (masala dosa) in another; and finally, a sweet, cardamom-infused cream of wheat pudding with raisins and nuts (rava kesari) for the dessert tier. If that’s mini, I’d like to see their large!

Even restaurants that don’t serve Indian food may be amenable to filling up your tiffin for takeout—but you might have to introduce them to the concept first. During a phone chat, Rami Zibat, sous chef at Tomato Fresh Food Café (2486 Bayswater Street), envisions stocking a three-tier tiffin with a customized lunch of spinach and watercress salad with zippy orange-ginger dressing; crab cakes with lemon, caper, and dill aioli; and a mini sandwich of carved turkey breast on sourdough with cranberry sauce and mayo.

Eugene Lee, manager of Irashai Grill (1368 West Pender Street), feels that a stackable configuration would be especially handy for their bento box selections ($9.50 to $15). He sits in Irashai’s sleek space and walks through four possible tiers: romaine, carrot, and daikon salad in a citrus-y vinaigrette; salmon, prawn, and scallop sashimi; a prawn tempura roll topped with spicy tuna, spicy mayo, and unagi (eel) sauce; and chicken, beef, or tofu teriyaki.

With such creative potential, it’s no wonder we’re discovering what Indians have known for years: tiffins are unbeatable lunch carriers.