In Southern India light meals and finger-food is always referred
to as tiffin, an Anglo-Indian word meaning
'snack'. This vegetarian fare usually includes some kind of
a spicy side dish, served with a starch like dosas
(pancakes) and idilis (dumplings). It is
commonly eaten at breakfast and lunch, but different dishes
are more appropriate depending on the time of day.
In the suburbs of Mumbai, middle-class suburban
housewives prepare 3-tiered lunch boxes known as dabbas
for their husbands, hard at work in the city's offices. The
meal, which includes a main dish, a side dish, rice or chappatis,
and pickles, is delivered direct to the workplace by one of
the city's devoted dabawallahs. These food
peddlers can't read, but use numbers and markings to distinguish
between the 10,000 dabbas they deliver on a daily basis. The
task is completed in just two hours, from midday to 2pm, and
at 2 o'clock the whole process is reversed and each box is
returned to it's rightful home, making no mistakes. It's a
miracle of organisation and efficiency.
Origins and History
Though many of the dishes that now come under the umbrella
of tiffin have long been a part of traditional southern Indian
cuisine, the tiffin delivery system began under the British
raj more than a century ago. British workers were not used
to spicy Indian flavour and asked the Parsis to provide them
with a blander lunch and dinner. The brigade of dabawallas
grew up out of this request, and although these days it's
not only the peculiar tastes of foreigners that they cater
to, it remains an upper class, quintessentially memsahib-and-servant
The trade of the dabbawallahs is passed down through generations
of families which come from the villages in the Deccan
plateau. There are no dabbawallahs anywhere else
in India (or the world), and they are extremely proud of their
work. They dress in their trademark flowing pyjamas and Ghandi
cap, which is the traditional dress of the Deccan plateau.
You don't have to have a high powered job in Mumbai and a
devoted wife to eat tiffin. There are many restaurants throughout
Southern India which serve typical light snacks throughout
Though a few kinds of tiffin may be well known to Westerners,
here's a guide to some favourites that are likely to be on
Steamed rice or lentil dumplings, served with sambhar and
chutney. They are a very popular breakfast dish and are low
fat and inexpensive.
Fried wafer-thin crepes made from rice or lentil. It can be
filled with sambhar, or potato and onion (masala), together
with a spicy cocoanut chutney.
Deep-fried savory donuts made from lentils, onion and spices.
They are delicious covered in yoghurt sauce.
Batter-coated vegetables: everything from potato to chillies,
though in the west onion bhajis are the most well known.
Triangular pastry parcels with a meat or vegetable filling.
Biryani and Pulao
These are best known in the west as varieties of rice served
on the side of a curry. They are actually a rich and flavoursome
combination of rice, spices, meat and vegetables all cooked
Most food in Southern India is eaten with the fingers. The
idea is that if it's cool enough to touch with your hands
it won't burn your mouth. If a particular dish is too messy
too eat with your hands it's perfectly acceptable to ask for
a spoon, especially if you've not yet perfected the technique.
Note also that you should never use your left hand for eating
in India: it is considered impure and should never come into
contact with food.