Gourmet Files Columns

Tiffin tales

The trick is to make the snack easy to handle and unlikely to spoil. Photo: C.V. Subrahmanyam  

Tiffing, “eating or drinking out of meal times”. Grose, 1785

“When I have a free period, I could eat the chips.” Aditya Banerji, 13, gets healthy lunch and a mid-morning snack provided by his school. I had asked what he would like to take from home if it were allowed. My kids got compulsory lunch but could take their “tiffin” from home. Like Aditya, they would have preferred chips, crisps, wafers, but these were forbidden. Aditya also said he wouldn’t mind a peanut butter sandwich. We had only heard of the stuff — or read about it, if we were inclined to literature, in Archie comics — we had never tasted it. (Enid Blyton gave no indication of its existence.)

So what we got, if our mothers were unimaginative, was sandwiches. White bread, torn by the attempt to spread cold butter, with a tomato filling. By the time we ate them the centre of the bread was wet and soggy from the tomato juice and the edges were dry, chewy and curling up. This was bad enough but, on worse days, the filling was jam. We weren’t allowed to spend “break time” in our classrooms, so we’d drift around outdoors, looking at the unappetising thing, and fortuitously a kite would swoop down and snatch it away. Back home, when I told my mother about the kite, she’d say she wasn’t surprised — I must have offered it the raptor — because this never happened when I had kabab sandwiches. And she was right, because when I knew that there were left over shaamis that had been flattened into soft white bread, I ate them in the first period.

We had perfected the technique of eating surreptitiously. In those days desks had wooden lids that we lifted, hiding our heads from view, pretending to be foraging for a book, while we stuffed our faces. And that jam sandwich deserved to be fed to kites. But some people got really nice tiffin. Shobha Mani brought soft homemade dosas with podi. Her tiffin-box was a neat aluminium rectangle with three red clamps that went click when she opened or shut them. When she opened the box, the sweet, yeasty, fermented smell told me what was coming. Sometimes she had an extra one and, to this day, when I smell that homemade, non-commercial-Udupi flavour from an unknown household window, I want to walk in and ask. Some brought soft parathas with haldi-yellow potato in the separate compartment that the same aluminium boxes provided, and I longed for the contents as well as the kind of box. I meanwhile was given my tiffin in an old Morton’s toffee box, prising open whose metal lid put my fingernails at peril.

The concept of “tiffin” has changed noticeably in a few short years. My children were miserable about never getting instant noodles. They said that the occasional version with vegetables that they got at home wasn’t a patch on what their schoolmates got, where the noodles were cold, solid unadulterated starch in a cuboid block in the shape of the box. Today kids are getting foods that reflect changing tastes: upma, poha, idlis, all variations of a delayed breakfast, which in turn has become more cosmopolitan. But there’s also pasta and pizza, which the good mothers must make at the crack of dawn. Earlier “tiffin” was an Anglo-Indian term for lunch or a light snack in the middle of the afternoon. Mumbai’s delivered dabba lunches are also tiffin; and in some parts of the South, that which is not lunch or dinner — “meals” — is “tiffin.

Aditya’s mother tells me that fruit is still packed for kids, as it was then. Oranges and apples, I suppose, because I remember the black, pulpy mess that became of bananas after two hours of being rattled in a hot bus. They looked like dead mice. She tells me that now too children are given sandwiches, but they have to look like they’re bought, preferably from Subway. So the trick is to make the snack easy to handle and the ingredients safe and unlikely to spoil, and the look like something from a gourmet magazine.


Makes 8 rolls

2 tbsp creamy peanut butter

2 tbsp jam or jelly

2 slices bread

Remove crusts from bread. With a rolling pin completely flatten bread. Spread 1 tablespoon of peanut butter and 1 tablespoon of jam/jelly on each slice. Roll each slice into a tight spiral. Cut each spiral into 4 pieces.


1/4 cup powdered sugar

2 tsp ground cinnamon

2 large apples

Preheat oven to 250°C. In a small bowl, combine sugar and cinnamon. Using a serrated knife, thinly slice the apples crosswise. Discard seeds and both ends. Place in a single layer on aluminium foil-lined baking sheets. Sprinkle with the cinnamon sugar. Bake the apple slices, turning every half hour, until dry, 1.5 to 2 hours. Remove and transfer to racks to cool. Store in an airtight container


Makes 12

1 cup flour

1 cup cornmeal

1 tbsp sugar

1 tbsp baking powder

1 egg

1/2 cup milk

1/4 cup vegetable oil

300 g corn kernels

2 small zucchini, grated

Pre-heat oven to 200°C. Lightly grease bottoms only of 12 muffin pans. Sift dry ingredients into a bowl. Mix wet ingredients including vegetables in another bowl. Stir together the two mixes. Spoon into prepared pans. Bake 15 - 20 minutes until golden.


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Printable version | Dec 1, 2021 6:09:51 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/magazine/mag-columns/tiffin-tales/article6966029.ece

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