Tiffins deliver a lunch that really stacks up

Published Tuesday, Jan. 11, 2011 5:57PM EST  GLOBE & MAIL

When Shaffeen Jamal first offered tiffins at his Granville Island food counter Curry 2 U, many customers had never heard of a tiffin before.

Nine years later, Mr. Jamal is selling up to 300 of the Indian-style lunches boxed in multitiered stainless steel containers a day, and tiffin services have since popped upacross the country.

The delivery of tiffins to office and factory workers is a more than century-old tradition in Mumbai. An intricate and highly efficient network of tiffin carriers, ordabbawallas, keeps track of tens of thousands of lunch boxes a day in the city, ensuring each gets to its rightful owner on time.

In Canada, entrepreneurs are tailoring their tiffin services for the local market. At Curry 2 U, Mr. Jamal sells a tiffin container with an initial meal for $12 and charges $5 to $6 when customers bring them back for refills. The concept is particularly popular with budget-conscious students, he says.

In Calgary, the Tiffin Curry and Roti House delivers about 120 tiffins each business week. Since June, Tiffinday has been delivering vegan meals to Toronto cubicle dwellers, who order them over the Internet a day ahead. In Victoria, Seana Hegney, who launched her once-a-week Rustic Tiffin service last spring, departs from Indian food altogether, delivering bistro cuisine,such as bison wild mushroom ragu and roasted root vegetables, to clients for $12 a meal. In West-coast style, she transports them in a cedar box for insulation. And although they’re not approved by public health authorities, dozens of unlicensed home cooks offer tiffin delivery services on online classifieds sites, such as Canadian Desi.

Besides taste and convenience, says, Caz, Ramji, managing partner of Tiffin Curry and Roti House, many customers are drawn to the reusable packaging.

“The best part about a tiffin, I would say nowadays, is an eco-friendly lunch,” he says. “When you’re done, I come back after a few hours and pick up the containers so there’s no waste.”

While most local businesses offer two- or three-tiered tiffins, the traditional Mumbai lunch box usually contains about four or five stacked compartments – one containing rice, one with pickles, another with lentils, one for curry and one for bread, Mr. Jamal says.

“But,” he says, “in this day and age, who eats like that?”

Building the perfect tiffin:

The trick with tiffins is they transfer and lose heat quickly. Since the multiple stainless steel compartments are stacked on top of each other, any hot items will warm the food in the other tiers.

While the variations are endless, when building tiffins for himself, Caz Ramji, who has operated a tiffin delivery service at Calgary’s Tiffin Curry and Roti House for the past six years, goes by the basic guideline of having a balance of protein, vegetables and carbs. Here’s how his perfect tiffin stacks up:

– Chicken and spinach curry: “Whenever somebody hears Indian food, all they hear about is butter chicken,” Mr. Ramji says. “This is something that is richer in flavour and it’s actually a healthier option. It’s just one of those dishes that you like to have on a cold day.”

– Cabbage curry: Chopped cabbage is stewed with fresh tomatoes, tumeric, garam masala made in-house, cumin and coriander.

“We make it fairly simple,” Mr. Ramji says. “We tend to let the spices carry the food.”

– Basmati rice: Plain, white rice is a staple, although Mr. Ramji admits he prefers whole-wheat roti as his main carb.

– Peas pilaf: Basmati rice is cooked in vegetable broth and contains green peas and red peppers.

– Green chili chutney: Mr. Ramji adds this spicy chutney made of fresh chilis blended with coriander to everything.

Wency Leung