The word “tiffin” is of Indian origin, and it is used to describe a type of meal. The precise meal under discussion varies, depending on regional dialect, but as a general rule, tiffin is a light meal eaten during the daytime. This word appears in Indian English, spoken throughout India in addition to a plethora of other languages. “Tiffin” is derived from a word meaning “to sip,” perhaps referencing the light nature of the meal by differentiating it from a “gulp.”
In the South of India, people say “tiffin” when they mean a light snack. Being offered tiffin is a routine part of hospitality in many homes, since offerings of food are considered polite. The foods offered may vary, but they tend to be easily prepared and light in nature, with people sampling a few things and leaving the rest for the household. Parents also typically pack a tiffin snack for their children, a usage which has crept into some other communities in the world, where parents may refer to a school snack as a tiffin.
While traveling in South India, it's a good idea to be aware of the fact that hospitality is taken very seriously. Refusing tiffin may be considered an insult, since it suggests that you think the host's hospitality is unfit, so make sure to leave room for a small snack when you visit a household so that you will be able to sample the offerings. Eating all of the food on offer can also be rude, as the host may feel obliged to make more, even if he or she must use foods set aside for dinner to do it.
In other parts of India, tiffin is lunch. Traditionally, tiffin is packed in stacked metal boxes which snap together to form a “tiffin box.” Workers may take a tiffin box with them to work, or family members may prepare a hot lunch and deliver it in a tiffin box during the lunch hour. Some restaurants may advertise “tiffin specials,” or assure people that a “tiffin wallah,” or “box carrier,” will stand by to take delivery orders for busy workers.
As with other English words of Indian origin, this word sometimes appears in British English as well, reflecting the fact that India is a former British colony. People who have traveled to India or people with a family history in India may use the term, as will people who live in Indian neighborhoods. In Britain, “tiffin” is generally used in the sense of a light luncheon meal.