Tracing The Anglo-Indian Connection Of 'South Indian Tiffin'

The British may have ruled India for more than two hundred years, but their association with India goes even further back in time. By the 17th century, many British officials were stationed in a country that was a little too hot and a little too different from their homeland, but by now, they had also adopted many Indian customs and culinary habits to suit their lifestyle while lending some of their epicurean manners in the bargain. Much has been written about the Anglo-Indian cuisine that emerged from this marriage, and you would be surprised to know that the ‘South Indian Tiffin’ may also have an Anglo-Indian connection. But before that, let’s understand what the great South Indian tiffin is? 

What Is A South Indian Tiffin? 

“When I first got married in this house, I used to find it so funny, because my idea of tiffin is what you carry to school or picnics, but in a South Indian household it has a very, very different meaning,” says Jayshree M. Sundar, the author of ‘Tambram Recipes’, a one-of-a-kind South Indian cookbook for millennials. 

In South India, ‘tiffin’ is an assortment of light snacks that you have in the late afternoon. Menu vada, Chana Vada, Set Dosa, Rava Idli, Paniyaram are some of the popular tiffin items you would find in South India. Since this ‘meal’ is supposed to be a light interlude between lunch and dinner, filling things like Uthhapam or loaded Masala dosa do not often make the cut. The Vadas and Idlis more or less dominate the fare, often relished with chutneys or sambhar. Sometimes there would be filter coffee or tea for company too. 

The British Connection Of South Indian 'Tiffin' 

Wondering why there's such a peculiar name for the ritual? Do they come in special Tiffin boxes? Not at all. You can grab it straight from the wok if you want, doing so may lead to some scornful looks though. But seriously, what’s with the unique name? The British began calling the late-afternoon snack meal of South India ‘tiffin’. 

In his book, 'Indian Food: A Historical Companion', Food Historian KT Achaya writes, “Originally, the word stood for Anglo-Indian luncheon, and surprisingly its origin is not Indian at all. The word derives from both the slang English noun tiffing, for eating or drinking out of mealtimes, and from the word to tiff, which was to eat the mid-day meal.” 

In the same book, Achaya also writes about the paradigm shift in how the Anglo-Indians consumed food. Initially, lunch was given more prominence, and it used to be a languorous affair with different types of stews, curries, bread, pickles etc. Slowly, however, dinner became the one big meal to look forward to in the whole day. “When dinner became a heavy evening meal, only a light lunch was customary, which explains why the word tiffin appears only as late as 1807 in Anglo –Indian writings,” he writes. 

Therefore, even if we mainly relish indigenous tiffin snacks, we have little credit to the British for making late afternoon snacking all the more popular. Here's our all-time favourite medu vada recipe, try it soon for your 'tiffin'.