Registered with the Registrar of Newspapers for India under R.N.I 53640/91

Vol. XXVIII No. 15, November 16-30, 2018

Tiffin, curry, congee…

- Vijaysree Venkatraman

Earlier this year, a short New York Times article declared, “Tiffins are the stacked boxes with a carrying handle used in India mostly for delivered lunches or snacks, though the word can also mean the food itself.” That is not how we define the word “tiffin” in southern India, do we? The flat, or stacked box, used to deliver food is the “tiffin box” or “tiffin carrier”. And any old meal sent in this utensil doesn’t automatically earn the name “tiffin”. What is the definition of “tiffin” anyway?

I decided to dust up the old “Hobson-Jobson” A glossary of colloquial Anglo-Indian words and phrases, and of kindred terms, etymological, historical, geographical and discursive to get to the bottom of this. Tiffing, it said, was slang English for eating or drinking out of meal-times. It used to be the Anglo-Indian word for a light luncheon. Dinner was the heaviest meal of the day, and a light snack was served as lunch apparently. So, “tiffin” refers to a variety of snacks and foods, except for anything stodgy or substantial like rice-based dishes.

Stodgy reminded me of “congee”, the starch the isthrikaaran, our roadside “iron man,” uses to stiffen cotton clothes. Essentially, “congee” is water in which rice has been boiled. But to some, it is also a breakfast beverage. It is what matinee idol MGR ate with great gusto, right out of an earthen pot, when he played a rustic hero. “Congee” is Tamil food, I was certain, till I chanced upon this item on upscale breakfast menus in Hong Kong and Singapore. Wait a minute, I thought. Surely, those rice-eating Chinese didn’t need to borrow a name for such a basic dish from us rice-eating Tamil? Do we just have same-sounding names for this food? Or, horror of horrors, did we get the word from Mandarin? To my relief, Hobson-Jobson reassured me that the word does indeed come from the Tamil kanji, “boilings”, adding that the word is in use all over India especially by the laundrymen. So, it is likely that Anglophile Chinese borrowed the word for this breakfast item from the British.

As far “curry”, that ubiquitous term applied to several Indian dishes the world over, even in India, “curry” can mean different things to different people. My family use the term “curry” for all mildly-spiced dry vegetable dishes. A friend’s family uses the word “curry” as a synonym for meat. Yet another family uses the word for both veggie and meat dishes, but they must involve gravy. Good old “Hobson-Jobson” comes to the rescue again with this definition: “…it consists of meat, fish, fruit, or vegetables, cooked with a quantity of bruised spices and turmeric; and a little of this gives a flavor to a large mess of rice.” It is from Tam. kari, i.e. “sauce”; [kari, v. “to eat by biting”], it says. This sauce has bitable ingredients in it, is that what they mean?

Speaking of liquid foods with bite, there is little confusion about “Mulligatawny” which “Hobson-Jobson” says is a corruption of the Tamil milagu-tanneer, “pepper-water,” a term used for a fiery soup. Members of the armed services belonging to the Madras Presidency must have liked the soup quite a bit because it earned them the nickname “Mulls.”

Before going down this rabbit hole some more, I scurried back to look up the “tiffin box”. Hobson-Jobson has no entry for this, probably because such a box did not even exist two centuries ago. Best to go to a contemporary source. I hit “Samosapedia”, “the definitive guide to South Asian lingo.” The tiffin box, “Samosapedia” says, is a small flat box in stainless steel, aluminium, or even plastic for carrying packed snacks and a small meal to school and work. Much more modest than the “lunch box” of the well-to-do, lacking as it does handles, hinges, and divided sections, not to mention decals of cartoon characters in vibrant colours. Not to forget the insulation that keeps your food hot for you till you are ready to eat.

What matters ultimately is the food in the box, the “tiffin” itself, we can all agree. I leave you with an instance of the word’s usage from “Hobson-Jobson”, which puts the spotlight right back on this excellent in-between meal. “Reader! I, as well as Pliny, had an uncle, an East Indian Uncle . . . everybody has an Indian Uncle. . . He is not always so orientally rich as he is reputed; but he is always orientally munificent. Call upon him at any hour from two till five, he insists on your taking tiffin; and such a tiffin! The English corresponding term is luncheon: but how meagre a shadow is the European meal to its glowing Asiatic cousin.”


  1. Sobana Sundar says:

    I always felt it came from tea, bun which was a light snack, written in Tamil as tiban, anglicised to tifan, Tiffin and now indicates any light meal. Just look at any name board that says tiban ready. It is ti bun!!

    • tris says:


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