Anatomy of a Tiffin Box

School Lunch Chennai_Elise Hanna


As the school year draws to an end and expertly designed bento box lunch-boxes turn into a granola bar and a juice box, I thought we could all use a little lunch inspiration. Have you seen this? I laughed so hard I nearly cried. I began to wonder what other culture’s first day of school to last day of school lunches look like, so I asked Mrs. Rita what the “peanut butter and jelly sandwich and potato chips” of Chennai was.

The preferred mode of lunch transport in India is a Tiffin Box and I bought one for Paul’s work lunches shortly after our arrival, but haven’t made the leap for the kids yet, they all use these, bento boxes, a sort of horizontal tiffin box, I suppose.  In Bombay an elaborate web of pickups and deliveries are coordinated by dabbawallas to deliver daily home-cooked meal from the kitchen to the office and return the boxes home in the afternoon. Tiffin boxes come as tiny as a one used for a dollhouse to as tall as a car, to feed an entire office. I just adore the idea of a neat little stacking lunch box, but never knew exactly how it was traditionally packed, which is when The Anatomy of a Tiffin was born.


Though school lunches vary here as widely as they do in the United States, this combo is a lunch staple for South Indian children. Regardless of modern refrigeration or individual families’ access to it, most things in India are purchased fresh at the market daily, cooked and enjoyed that day. Refrigeration is not needed, nor is it necessary for most cooked meals and meals are often served hot from the stove or at room temperature, like those served in tiffin boxes, and are made to travel. Tiffin boxes seal in wonderful aromas, and I’m certain, wonderful memories, like those Star Wars and Care Bear lunch-boxes of my youth.

As far as “eating the rainbow” is concerned, Sambar Rice doesn’t get much closer. While virtually any vegetable can be used in this South Indian stew, from potatoes to bell peppers, these were the items I had on hand. The following recipe is packed full of vitamins, veggies and flavor and takes only a little longer than a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and carrot sticks to make, once you get the hang of it.

Madras Lunchbox_Elise Hanna_3Madras Lunchbox_Elise Hanna_2Sambar Rice Recipe_Elise Hanna


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