How South Asians Reclaimed Tiffin

The colonial term — which refers to everything from a lunch box to a teatime meal — stuck around to become a cultural touchstone.

GettyImages-79264098 tiffin
Open tiffin with various Indian food (Getty)

Aarohi Sheth


March 6, 2023


7 min

The word “tiffin” reminds me of my grandmother: her glass bangles clinking as she chops lemons for achaar; the loving way she calls my name as she lays thalisfull of rotliandbhindi shaak (okra) out for lunch; her turmeric-stained fingers tying a grocery bag around my grandfather’s metal dabba, so nothing leaks out when he rushes off to work; the quickness with which she tears curry leavesinto little pieces for a vaghaar, a tempering of spices. 

The meaning of tiffin changes from region to region, household to household. In parts of India, it refers to a light breakfast or a teatime meal. In others, a brunch or a snack. Often, a tiffin refers to a lunchbox or dabba, packed with home-cooked dishes. 

To this day, the tiffin continues to be an enduring fixture of South Asian life, and a reliable symbol of comfort. It’s a blank slate format with no set formula for the dishes it includes, arguably one of the oldest iterations of “having it your way.” In fact, so much so that, despite tiffin’s colonial origins, South Asians have definitively made it their own.

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