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What is Tiffin?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 16, 2024
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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.

DelightedCooking is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a DelightedCooking researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By seag47 — On Oct 03, 2012

I've heard the tiffin box referred to as simply a “tiffin.” The ones I've seen have been round and composed of two or three tiers.

They all lock together, so you can put different things in each one and carry them easily. I worked with a guy who used the middle tier as a cooler. He put ice in it, and since it came in contact with both the first and last tier, it kept everything cool.

By shell4life — On Oct 03, 2012

@Kristee – I believe that dinner is their biggest meal. I knew a kid from India who used to bring a tiffin to school for lunch, and it really was a lot less food than everyone else in the cafeteria was eating.

I asked him how he could get through the day on what looked like just a light snack, and he told me that he knew he would be getting plenty of food that night. I suppose that when people are used to not eating very much throughout the day, their bodies become accustomed to it, and they don't feel overwhelmed with hunger.

Personally, I make lunch just about as big as dinner. I need plenty of fuel to get through a work day, and a tiffin just would not be enough for me.

By Kristee — On Oct 02, 2012

So, is it customary in India to eat just a tiffin at lunch time? Does anyone eat a full meal around noon, or is the biggest meal of the day reserved for dinner?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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