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The charm of an Indian tiffin

Tiffin can mean anything from MP’s khasta kachori to TN’s vazhaipoo vadai

Growing up in a village in western Uttar Pradesh, I missed out on some of the pleasures of the urban schoolboy’s life. For instance, the concept of tiffin and tiffin box was alien to me. Our morning meal resembled a lunch, and since school was near home, I would nibble on something like a laddu when I returned after school hours.

In college, again, I never had a tiffin box. Instead, we had what was known as a ‘Diet’ — an arrangement in one of the neighbourhood eateries, where we were given, for a certain sum of money, a fixed meal. Our tins of ghee (which came from the village, old Hindi film style!) were kept in lockers inside the eatery.

It’s never too late. These days, when I go out to meet friends for lunch, I carry an insulated three-layered tiffin box. It actually carries my lunch, but I have come to the conclusion that tiffin in India means different things to different people — and in some quarters, it is just another word for a meal.

A light meal

I have been going through an interesting book called Tiffin: 500 Authentic Recipes Celebrating India’s Regional Cuisine by Sonal Ved. The book has recipes from across the country, and spans the entire gamut from soups and snacks to entrées and desserts. I have been in particular salivating over the snacks, from Banarasi tamatar chaat and Indori poha to Kanchipuram idli and kori gassi.

“When we have friends over for tea we often daydream of matching a Jabalpuri chicken samosa with khasta kachori from Madhya Pradesh, along with vazhaipoo vadais from Tamil Nadu and Kutchi kadak toast,” Ved writes. “And on Sundays, with brunch on our minds, we want our tables laden with Bhojpuri dum aloo, Bengali luchis, Rajasthani gattey ki sabzi, chingri cutlet, Assamese chicken-and-banana-flower stir-fried, and adhirasams from Tamil Nadu,” she says.

How did tiffin originate in India? The word comes from the Old English ‘tiffing,’ which means having a little drink or a sip. It is believed that it entered the Indian lexicon sometime in the beginning of the 19th century. The colonial sahib used to have a light midday meal because of the heat and the fact that he’d had a heavy dinner the night before. Tiffin was his light meal.

“...tiffin is a play on the time of the day and the nature of food served in many homes in India — an informal snack or light meal served at breakfast or with late afternoon tea,” Rukmini Srinivas writes in Tiffin: Memories and Recipes of Indian Vegetarian Food, a delightful book that alternates between descriptions of dishes such as masala vadai and vegetables cutlets to the author’s memories as she moves from city to city with her social anthropologist husband M.N. Srinivas. “Significantly, as dinner time changed and was pushed to later in the evening..., ‘tiffin,’ the transition food, became important and continues to be so.”

It may have come late into my life, but it certainly continues to play an important role in it. A major part of the morning is devoted to discussions on what the day’s tiffin should be. One of these days I plan to take some chicken samosas for lunch; Ved’s description of the Jabalpuri samosa is mouth-watering. Boil some chicken, she says, then pull the meat out into thin shreds. Fry onion, green chillies and ginger-garlic paste. Add the chicken, turmeric, red chilli powder and coriander leaves. Top with lemon juice and chat masala. Stuff the meat into samosa casings and fry. Sounds good!

For me, the word ‘tiffin’ itself is magical. It’s all about thinking out of the box for what goes into the box.

The writer likes reading and writing about food as much as he does cooking and eating it. Well, almost.

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Printable version | Feb 20, 2020 8:05:21 PM |

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