Memories of my mother
Are you old enough to remember receiving hot, freshly cooked meals in snugly-fitting, multi-tiered containers at school? I still recall the thrill of rolling down the ringed edges to catch the first fragrance of a fresh roti and sabzi or rajmah-chawal, maybe aloo-ka-parathas and butter…….or whatever it was that my mother had prepared for us on that day. Sleepy mornings and a reluctant breakfast (probably only a glass of plain milk) would be followed by sports and a queue of lessons at school, and by lunchtime, we (at least I :P) would be famished. I seem to recall often becoming distracted just thinking about the contents of the tiffin-box. This is one of the warmest memories I have of savouring a hot meal made by my mother, who was otherwise an unexceptional cook by the time I, the youngest of four, was becoming aware of my surroundings. The privilege of having a freshly-cooked, carefully-packed meal was short-lived as we soon moved from Chandigarh to Delhi where school was too far to sustain daily delivery. But the practice of packing home-food to school stayed through the school years. I never realised how much work went into preparing those meals until I started packing food for school for my children.
This Friday on Masala Chai we bring you an essay on tiffin-boxes, and I dedicate the essay to my mum who, unknown to me at that time, spent her early mornings, day after day, year after year, preparing fresh meals for us to ensure that we would be well-nourished with balanced, clean, simple and affordable meals. I don’t remember ever having to buy food from the canteen, in fact, I’m not sure we even had a canteen at school. Thanks Mummy, this one’s for you.
Tiffin box: Carrying home to school everyday
Tiffin boxes are a popular item in Asia, widely available in stainless steel or other metal, wrapped in a cover of plastic or canvas for insulation if needed. I distinctly remember an old beaten up, five tiered tiffin-box in our home as a child that was made out of brass, bell metal, or some other alloy that was safe for carrying food. More recently, plastic, glass and other options are also available. Carrying food from home to school or the workplace seems an especially elaborate activity in Asian communities. In Hungary, for instance, tiffin boxes or food carriers (éthordó), are used for the reverse movement of food: Bringing restaurant food home. As per Wikipedia, henkellman is a German expression for a similar object. Other names for the item include rantang in Indonesia, mangkuk tingkat in Malay, and safrartas (Travel bowls in Turkish). Thus, the use of customised boxes to transport food between places harks back to a time when food delivery and availability outside the home could not be guaranteed. Thus, the lunch box is an object at the intersection of time and space, binding us with our past, and connecting us with others.
The word tiffin is commonly understood as a small snack and derives from the English expression for a cake or desert that became commonly used in the 19th century having evolved from the verb ‘tiffing’, meaning ‘to sip’ something. Thus, typically, tiffin meant a small meal. In southern Indian communities, there are special timings for smaller snacks (like vada or dosa) that are not considered full meals, consumed typically between meals. Restaurant owners in the South would frown at ignorant travellers who were unaware of this separation of snacks and main meals. However, they seem to have responded to increasing demands from moving populations and all foods are now commonly available at all times in bigger cities. Basically, in the regions below the Deccan plateau, tiffin still retains its older meaning: a small, wholesome snack in between meals. More commonly, the word is used to refer to the container in which food is transported. These can be called tiffin-box, tiffin-carrier (bigger in size, usually multi-tiered), or just tiffin! Dabba is another commonly used expression.
Boxes, and boxes within boxes
Tiffin boxes would make excellent toys for children to practice stacking or arranging parts into a whole, closing lids and fitting little boxes in bigger ones (seriation). As mentioned earlier, tiffin boxes or tiffin carriers are containers used to transport food, and in India at least, every household has several different sized ones for different functions. These are used for train travel, picnics, sending food for the neighbours in the event of absence (of an adult) or tragedy, carrying special meals for someone in hospital (to aid in the recovery through affectionate meals), either the patient and/or companion to make them feel cared for. Smaller containers were used to send freshly cooked food to children at school during break-time. Over the years, tiffin boxes have become smaller and more compact, glass and plastic has replaced steel in many homes, just as sending food to school became burdensome. The easy availability of meals on wheels (trains and planes, home deliveries) and the apparent efficiency of commercially prepared food has become more attractive as an option. It is hard to see this as progress when we look at the wastage of paper, plastic, food and other resources. The benefit of convenience just does not weigh-up to this immense cost to the environment as well as our health. Fortunately, although providing fresh meals for family no longer seems possible in all situations, the value and importance of a home-cooked meals is still a high priority in Indian homes (and other cultures as well), where emotional connections, traditional foods, principles of Ayurveda, the importance of spices, cleanliness and hygiene, health and social exchanges are important messages contained in a home-cooked meal. Tiffin-carriers may have been replaced in many kitchens, seeming too old-fashioned and bulky, but the value for its contents still sustains, in spite of the competition faced from all directions: ready-made foods, meals on wheels (Swiggy is a particularly popular one in our area), and mushrooming restaurants and dhabas for everyone.
Another endearing aspect of the tiffin(box) and its contents is that mostly, the person who consumes the food is unaware of the contents until the opening, adding an extra element of surprise to the experience. Of course, this only happens when a positive culinary dialogue has already been established between the maker and the consumer. My memory of preparing school meals for the boys has been purged of all subversive content like lost moments of quilted warmth on a winter morning, running out of ideas (or ingredients), or eagerly handing out money for a snack at school. But these did happen, and packing lunches was not always fun! Mostly, however, I think I got it right, and I believed that the contents would communicate that. And when something special had been baked or cooked, I would also find a moment to scribble affectionate messages (usually smiley faces) on notes stuck on the inside of the boxes. The recipes were always my own, allowing me to slip in something ‘healthy’ into a tasty-sounding snack……and mostly, that worked well. When it didn’t, I would receive gentle feedback from the boys that this time, I had gone too far with the creativity :P. (Thanks boys!) Packed food was conversation between us that transcended the home-school barrier, I felt I was with them in school, just the way I feel now when I send something special across the oceans. he box also blurred the family-friends divide since their friends too would enjoy my cooking. A home-baked cake would be quickly devoured, and my nutritious version of a home-made pizza (in which I would slip in the strangest of vegetables, sometimes overdoing that), was a hot favourite with their buddies. I remember my younger one complaining once (with a happy smile) that he had managed to get only a small bite of what I had sent. As soon as I heard that, I started slipping in another (secret) box into his school bag!
Tiffin boxes are thus packed with so much more than food……it is a storehouse of memories, as this narrative reminds us. A friendship that is initiated around the sharing of dabbas, “Most of my memories while growing up were with my best friend–we’d share everything, tease each other and complete each other’s homework. We came from different worlds- my family was liberal and hers was strict –she wasn’t even allowed to go out. But still, we were attached at the hip. Whatever she brought in her dabbas, I’d eat it and I’d bring my dabba for her. If her mom made a hair garland for her, she’d give half to me. It was a special friendship.” To know how the friendship advanced over the next several decades, read more at Humans of Bombay. Does anyone else remember that things always tasted better in other people’s lunch boxes? The bond that I shared with my friends in college was cemented over shared food. Some of our most profound discussions (academic, personal, cultural) took place over lunch. After moving out of Delhi and teaching, I miss those gatherings as much as I do the classroom!
Resisting corporate coldness, one tier at a time
One of my favourite writers, Santosh Desai, brings the issue alive in his weekly column (City City Bang Bang, TOI, Mondays) from 2012 titled ‘The magnificence of the multi-tiered tiffin box’. In this essay he remarks that carrying packed food resists the separation of home and office and refutes the cold formality of office spaces. Subversive fragrances enter sanitised spaces, and the office becomes thus transformed. Stubbornly, a dabba refuses to be eaten with the speed of a working-lunch that have gained in popularity. In his words:
“The tiffin-box beams with metallic pride, three storeys of home that one carries to one’s place of work. The design of the tiffin-box recognises that lunch is a serious affair, consisting of several layers of hunger, each of which need a box to itself. The three or four boxes are clasped together firmly with a reassuring click one is packed off to one’s destination, secure in the knowledge that whatever might be the uncertainties in the world outside, food would not be one of them. The fulsomeness of the tiffin-box has little to do with the receiver’s hierarchy- a full stomach is everyone’s right, a fullness that cannot be satisfied by quantity alone but needs the decorum of completeness. The modern idea of a quick business lunch is in reality an act of making do, another one of those official affectations, like drinking black coffee, that one pretends to be comfortable with. A furtive sandwich or a slice or two of pizza eaten carefully is not lunch but a gastronomic mannerism aimed at quietening the body. The western idea of a quick working lunch sandwiches food between layers of office hours, compressing hunger into a task on a job list. The romance created around the relentlessness of work, and the sexiness of being busy is in direct contrast to the rotund and placid recognition of the centrality of food as evidenced as the tiffin-box. The tiffin-box is a plop of resistance; a squatter’s act of fat denial of the idea that work must inundate us with its pressing impatience.”
The Dabbawalas and delivery boys
So, despite all these changes, freshly prepared meals still sustain in people’s imaginations. As more and more people move around for education and jobs, there is a corresponding escalation in the need for fresh meals. In response to this, particularly in big cities, a considerable number of businesses, home-based industries as well as corporate solutions, for regular delivery have emerged. Weekend newspapers will always have a couple of new neighbourhood ventures that promise healthy and tasty meals at affordable prices that can be ordered as per requirements. Eating out has also become increasingly popular, but for regular sustenance, the first choice remains food from family, cooked as per your own tastes by a person with whom you share an affectionate relationship. Anyone who cooks for a profit, it is said, can never provide that taste or even that quality of food that you need! It is no surprise therefore, that India retains an amazing diversity of local cuisines, far more than linguistic or ethnic diversity. Furthermore, the style of cooking that is typical of a region is also a binding factor among different sections of people in terms of spices and recipes, notwithstanding the vegetarian-non-vegetarian divide. Food is an activity that binds people within intimate networks.
The dabbawalas in Mumbai are a case in point. Every day, around 5,000 dabbawalas deliver 200,000 odd meals from homes or restaurants fresh to the workplace, with only one in six million errors in delivery, the 125 year-old company claims. They mostly belong to a particular community of Maharashtrians from a village near Pune, and they suspend their work for five-days each year to return to their native place for a festival. As far as I know, schools are not part of this delivery service that thrives on the office-going population, and is expanding its clientele every year, based on the one single desire: to have freshly cooked food delivered to the workplace. The journey of the dabbawalas is a delightful example of the efficiency of Mumbai, with each box marked with four sets of symbols, abbreviations for collection points, colour for starting stations, number for destination stations and special characters for marking the area, building and floor. The system has no other parallel worldwide.
Let me say a bit more about the picture of roti-making. In my neighbourhood in Mumbai, this is a popular household-based industry and the people living in this lane (Picture to the left) cater to hundreds of offices and a film studio in the area. Chatting up with the family (two others were working outside the frame of the photo, one was pealing garlic whereas an older woman watched), they said their family had lived here ever since the settlement of this area started, around 30 years ago, and theirs is the second generation of roti-makers. They are not sure if their educated children will continue this enterprise. The fragrance of the freshly roasted rotis had an impact on my appetite and I decided to indulge in a small meal in the area. For 200/- rupees, I had dahi-chawal, bhindi and a couple of papads.
A couple of Bollywood films have also used the theme of packed food to deliver feasts to the audience in search of art in everyday experiences. Lunch-Box is a mystery woven around a rare event when a dabbawala delivery between restaurant and home goes astray and lands on the office desk of a lonely middle-aged man who has signed up with his local dhaba for regular lunch service. Living with emptiness and routine, his life becomes completely overturned by this chance mistake. Instead of the relatively uncaring routine of an uninteresting menu, he receives the unexpected shock of a tastefully prepared, elaborate home-cooked lunch. The error persists and lunch-time becomes the highlight of his days, and also his life, as an affectionate bond develops between him and the homemaker. Soon they start exchanging notes, as she too is caught in lonely place. Ila’s life also becomes transformed into by periodic exchanges with this quiet stranger whom she prefers to feed instead of her uncaring spouse. The scenes depicting the processing, delivery and consumption of the food are so evocative that the film should carry a statutory warning “Do not watch on an empty stomach”!
Another delightful film that addresses serious issues of working children, school participation, classroom dynamics and friendship is Stanley ka dabba. Verma, a Hindi teacher in school has an insatiable appetite that he relieves through stooging small bites from others, teachers as well as students. Whereas with his colleagues he waits for offers, with the children in his class, he is more assertive and demanding. The characters, especially the protagonist, Stanley, tug at the heart-strings, as we discover an underlying story about Stanley’s life. The boys all rally together to offer him food to eat from their lunch-boxes as they hide from the voracious Verma who stumbles around the school in search of the lunch party. Always without any food for himself, Verma is mildly contemptuous of Stanley especially when he discovers that he is eating from what he believes is his share! “Don’t come to school unless you get a dabba” Verma orders Stanley. The film is filled with tiny gems that reveal its authenticity and elegance in portraying a deceptively simple theme. When the final mystery of Stanley’s dabba is revealed, even Verma is remorseful. A child without a lunch-box is a child without parents, but in the end, it works out and Stanley returns to school with a daily feast of left-overs from a restaurant where he works. Yet, he needs to keep the story going that it is his mother who has cooked the food with affection every morning. Some of the funniest scenes in the movie involve Verma’s hungry hunt for the pack of kids during lunch hour, kids who are finally able to circumvent the teacher’s trail. He is driven to distraction by the thought of soft rotis and succulent sabzis, while the children make sure that Stanley (and they themselves) can eat what they bring. Stanley ka dabba is another must watch, even for a second time.
In preparing this essay, I contacted several of our friends to collect their experiences with packed, home-cooked food. Here are some extracts from them and our team.
Renu Kishore responded with her memories: “Tiffin boxes were an important part of my childhood. The word ‘tiffin’ refers to snack-time but tiffin boxes were used for main meals too. I have distinct memories of my mother bringing a tiffin-box with hot food and a fancy plate, spoon and fork every day during recess when I was in kindergarten. Since our home was 5 minutes away from the preschool, she was eager for me to be fed and pampered. Many other parents used to do the same and it was like a daily picnic on the school grounds, all of us sitting in little circles on sheets spread over green grass. Sharing food with other children was also lots of fun, as mom always got more food than required. It was simple home food, nothing fancy, but the aroma would heighten our hunger for the food as well as for the mother’s loving presence.
Tiffin boxes with pooris, dry vegetable and pickle were a very important part of long train journeys as well as family picnics. Minimum steel crockery and cutlery was taken, and even though it was often cold, the food tasted yummy. There was always generous sharing with co-passengers. Eating together and from each other would lead to the formation of friendships, some of which even endured beyond the travel-time. These stainless steel tiffin boxes were either bought from shops or received in exchange for old garments by street vendors with baskets-full of utensils they would trade in exchange for old clothes of the household. Both parties stood to gain from the bargain and in the easy afternoons, hours were spent on bargaining and ultimately deciding on the exchange. As children we loved to experience these interactions. The tiffin seems to have vanished from most homes today. Hot meals are available in schools and on trains and flights. School lunch boxes have become smaller and all kinds of insulated versions are available. The younger generation is definitely deprived of the fascinating era of tiffin boxes.”
Pooja, a partner on Masala Chai talks about her experience with Anika and Sadhika, her two fiery young daughters who keep her husband and her on their toes. Although her husband is far better at packing food and does it regularly, with extra attention to detail, this relates to her cooking.
“When Anika first started (play)school in Mumbai, I was very excited. She loved going to school and I loved preparing her for the same. She was provided ‘tiffin’ from the school and the weekly menu was shared with us and I was happy with the quality and variety of snacks cooked for the children. It was always fascinating for me to see how well she ate her food at school and how much trouble it was for us to have her sit and consume a meal at home.
Shifting to Dubai changed a lot of things for us. I never knew it would be a task sending my little girls to school. The biggest change was that I had to pack food for her every day. I was supposed to take charge of the menu and plan her school meals in addition to giving her and Sadhika a healthy breakfast. Mornings are hectic. I usually wake up in a frenzy thinking about what to cook. With little help at hand and my limited culinary skills, I had to accept the challenge. I set out as an adventurous mother trying to provide variety to my girls and make their tiffin-box look appealing. After receiving several rejected contents, I figured out what the older one liked and began to get better returns! After that, I would simply repeat her favourites. From her side, she gave me several suggestions about what to send, and it worked out okay. I happily added her requests to my master list. Another big change for us was that Anika was now enrolled in an international school where children from multiple nationalities attended. There was a huge variety of foods that she was exposed to. As the only vegetarian in class, that was another lesson she needed to learn.
I distinctly remember one episode that impacted me and made me review my master list of recipes. One evening, while having her evening snack she tasted ‘moong dal pakoras’ from her grandmother’s plate and really liked them. Instantly I was asked if this could be packed for her lunch the next day. Of course, I replied! Yet another addition, fewer repeats, and I got onto the job of preparing them with enthusiasm the next morning; these were also incredibly fast to cook! The next day the tiffin came back half eaten….and I was disappointed. This was a great option, and nourishing as well. Besides, she had liked them so much. What had happened? Did I forget the salt? Too much salt? Chillies? I tasted one pakora to see is anything was wrong. Nothing! It was perfect! Before losing my cool with her, I decided to check what had happened. We mothers are quite sensitive about food wastage, especially if one has to wake up early morning to prepare it. Her reply shook me to the core…….. “My friend said this looks like poo. How can you eat this?” she said wistfully.
I took a deep breath and remained at a loss for words for a while. Then, I reasoned with her to reassure her not to take this to heart, not to take offence, but she didn’t seem to register much. I was angry. I believed that my child was being bullied. This was no way for a child to react to food!
This experience gave me an insight into her life in the classroom. Till now, I was only thinking about the kitchen, my efforts and her acceptance. I now realized that there was a wider group of which she was a part, and I had to take that into consideration. Our food is an integral part of our identity. It’s about becoming comfortable and confident with yourself and your choices. In a multicultural set-up where Anika and Sadhika are growing up, tiffins reveal stories of children’s home, their tastes, their choices, and their culture. I never gave her moong daal pakoras again.
As a summer camp manager last year I found myself becoming curious about what children would bring as snacks, what are the healthy options that I don’t know of? I saw myself being judgmental about parents who sent ready-to-eat items like cupcakes, cheese sticks, yoghurt, pre-packed salads and commercially prepared wraps instead of prepared meals like sandwiches, rice or parathas. But as I continued my observations I realised that the parents were making healthy choices, that had been carefully selected for the purpose. Why should I judge their options? I began to see the benefit of this, especially in a group such as the one my kids were interacting with. Maybe school lunches were not the best place to assert my love for pakoras! My judgements began to morph into understanding and even appreciation, an everyday solution to the crying question – WHAT TO PACK FOR HER LUNCH TODAY?”
Reshu, also a member of the core team, wrote: “I think packing a child’s tiffin-box caringly is one of many ways of showing love for a child. I really think children do not understand the amount effort and affection that goes into packing food for school. We repeatedly teach children to respect food (Indian values) but I believe we fail to tell them that clearly about the respect they need to show towards food that their mother or father prepares for them. I never understood this until I started packing my daughter’s lunch-box. I knew food was precious, but I never realized how potent it was as a message of love. For me as a child, it was always just another day and just a lunch-box. I never went back to my mom and thanked her for her efforts, her care. I took that for granted. Nobody told us that it takes so much time to cook every morning, unfailing and early, in summer, rains, winter, a good day, bad day, healthy day or sick day. I do not remember any day at all when my mother said –“you will not be getting a lunch-box today”. She never sent us to school without food. I wonder how she managed on the days when she was sick……..I never thought about it at that time and these were not questions that would come to my mind.
I have very early memories of lunch-time at school. In fact, I was in 2nd standard, and this was our favourite time of the day at school because we could roam freely for those 20 minutes. My best friend Reshma and I used to go to a distant construction site (or so it seemed at that time) with our lunch boxes and sit on the walls of a construction site, open our tiffin boxes and eat in peace and chat, swinging our legs and sharing our stories. She would bring pickle with her food ‘gajar and gobhi ka achaar’ and I remember that I would eat it all, also, the sweet lemon pickle from her home was my favorite. Then we would run back to school, barely making it in time for the second session. I still long for the taste of that achaar. Sometimes, we would also buy food from street vendors (we were allowed to roam the streets since it was a small town) with the little pocket money we had, this too was a great source of excitement. In between, we would also find time to play games with other children.
As exciting as lunch was, sneaking a bite or two in between the periods was also fun. It was tough to keep a straight face with a stuffed mouth as a teacher walked in, but I guess all children master this trick very early. Even though I always chose to sit in the front row, sneaking bites in the classroom was a regular thing with me, I had mastered the trick of hiding the food in my mouth and slowly chewing on it. I need to shout out to the inventor of box-benches since those made my task much simpler! We also used to enjoy exchanging lunches, since somehow, things tasted much better from a friend’s lunch-box. Several love stories were also triggered off in lunch sessions in later years since ours was a coeducational school.
As a mother, I love to pack my daughter’s tiffin-box because I believe that I do not just pack food, I pack my whole lot of love in it. I never forget and am often thinking about what to prepare next, what would she like to have. I ensure that I always send a few different items so that she has a choice of things to eat, just in case she doesn’t like something. I confess that I never enjoyed cooking but I like cooking for her. I always tell her to eat the food and it breaks my heart if she doesn’t, not only because I made it but also because I feel that she would have gone hungry. I advise her to share her lunch with friends and also ask about what other children bring to add to my repertoire. Furthermore, there are several YouTube channels dedicated to lunch ideas for children that I have used to add to my list. Here are a few links that I found useful.” [See end of essay)
A ten-year old girl’s preferences. Another of our team members said that “My daughter’s school has lunch for all children, so I just pack a morning snack for her. She loves idlis, and so, that is what I give her every day. Around ten mini idlis cooked fresh every morning and an apple is what she takes with her, every single day! I get the batter from a woman in our housing complex who sells it freshly prepared. Along with the idlis, green chutney is critical. Since one fruit is non-negotiable, she takes an apple with her, but during summer, I sometimes give her mangoes or watermelon as well. Oh, in case I run out of batter, my only other option is cheese chat masala toast made from multi-grain bread :P!
She once said to me she doesn’t want to think too much about food, so I too don’t worry, especially since the lunch that is provided at school is very good. There are many foods that she has eaten for the first time at school, like Sindhi kadi, moong dal halwa, baked macaroni etc, but all vegetarian food. There is great variety and updates about meals are available on the school website. Another thing, teachers always check the children’s tiffin boxes and when they come across an interesting preparation, fitting all the criteria of health, ease and innovation, children are given a star sticker to take home as a reward. Maggi noodles, biscuits and chips are highly discouraged. There is also a canteen in the school and children are allowed to buy food once in a week. My daughter is not interested in this and prefers to take her regular tiffin. Recently, we received a note from the school asking parents to shift to steel tiffin-boxes instead of plastic or glass. Because a full lunch is provided, this has to be a small snack and so, the tiffin-box has to be real small.”
Punya and her five-year-old son, chatting about snacks
M: Did you eat your tiffin in school today C: Quiet!
M: Who ate the crackers and Mysore pak? C: Childrens (sic)
M: What did you eat? C: Mitti
M: What did Ayaansh (his friend) bring? C: Roti
M: With what sabzi? C: Red sabzi!
M: Did you try roti sabzi? C: Yes. I fell sick after that
“He recently stopped going to his daycare after school, because they serve milk, yelling with full voice and body ‘I no want milk’ repeatedly, till everyone gave in. Now he goes happily, as long as he’s not forced to have milk. Recently, he’s fascinated with a toy hamburger and tries to pick out the sesame seeds from the top. It’s very real looking. Fortunately he hasn’t tried to eat the whole thing. He also asks me almost every day on the way to school ‘What you got in my tiffin?’ And I show him. He mostly takes crackers, Veggie crisps (whole grain, organic), bourbon biscuits and mithais. He’s got bored of makhanas now. Salted cashews, cake, muffins as well. On Fridays they are allowed to take junk food so he carries a packet of chips. Other children set better standards in what they eat, poories, sabzi rolls, vegetable sandwiches….he also likes to watch eggs being whisked and sometimes eats omelettes. But chai he loves, especially Masala Chai!”
So you see, the point that we tried to make, about tiffin-boxes having a magical quality, being more than just a box of food is amply demonstrated here. We sincerely hope you all enjoyed these stories within a story. Happy tiffing, people!
 This was common practice, and mothers used to (and perhaps still do) love the idea that other children enjoy their food too.
Reshu’s youtube links: