As I write this, I’m sweltering and suffering under the obscene heat and humidity of the South Pacific. And no, I’m not talking about a certain 1950s musical created by Messrs Rodgers & Hammerstein, but rather, the oppressive climate of Malaysia and Singapore, where I’ve been seconded to light duties – AKA – on vacation!! :p
I’m actually here visiting relatives and taking in the sights – some of which I’ve seen loads of times before, but which are always worthwhile taking in again – for any number of reasons, which I won’t elaborate on – not in this posting, anyway!!
No! No, the reason for this posting is because of what happened a few days ago. I was lucky enough in my first few days in Malaysia to visit the Amcorp Mall sunday flea-market in Kuala Lumpur. For those of you who love old nicknacks, antiques and bric-a-brac, the Amcorp Mall flea market really is a lovely place – for one thing – it’s indoors, and it’s air-conditioned – even if, as my cousin said – it’s really a place where one should look and not intend to purchase!
Whatever!! My cousins and I went there and had a thoroughly enjoyable time, perusing the antiques and bric-a-brac, toys, computer-games, DVDs, brassware, watches, and other things which the dozens of sellers had, spread over many tables over three floors of the Amcorp Mall department store. And after spending about two hours there, I came away with this:
A very friendly and well-spoken elderly Indian gentleman sold this to me. He had a table loaded with all kinds of antique brassware and enamelware, including about half a dozen antique tiffin carriers of different sizes and styles.
My eyes were jumping back and forth between a big brass one, and a rather worn-out, sky-blue enamel affair with obvious links to the Straits Chinese community of Malaysia and Singapore – a subculture which I’ve long had an interest in, because of my own family history. They say a fool’s born every minute, but apparently this guy was born between fools, because he wasn’t stupid enough to not know what it was – and how valuable it was! He had a whopping price on it which was probbly justified, given its rarty, and I knew I’d never be able to get it, despite the deepest yearnings of my heart.
Heart-yearnings aside, I decided that I had to come back down off of my cloud and face reality back here on earth. I knew I couldn’t reasonably afford the Straits Chinese one, as much as I desired it, and my heart, mind and eyes turned towards the next best thing – an enormous, four-tiered antique brass affair!
There was no denying it – this tiffin carrier was pretty awesome as a runner-up. It contained four large, stacked bowls, and a lid with a built-in cup – originally for pickles – but which could be used for any condiment – chili paste, raw chili, garlic, etc. The insides of each compartment were lined in tin, and the exterior was solid brass, as was the frame, and the handle.
Although in need of some TLC, some polishing, reshaping and dent-removal, I could see potential in this piece – as well as being a good bargain. Using my nearby relations to my advantage, I was able to weedle down the price, and the seller eventually relented, agreeing to our offer. He was very gracious about the whole affair, and thanked us for our patronage.
I’ve been after a quality, working antique tiffin carrier for many years now. The problem is that they’re very hard to find in good condition – all too often the brass ones are cracked, dented, warped, broken, missing pieces, or have MASSIVE prices on them. The enamel ones are either cracked, rusted through, broken, or – like the brass ones – have enormous prices on them! It makes it difficult to find good ones at good prices. This one however – was a good one at a good price – I simply couldn’t let it get away!
So, what is tiffin…?
‘Tiffin’ is an old Anglo-Indian word meaning ‘light snack’ or ‘nibbles’, but over time, the word ‘tiffin’ evoled to mean ‘luncheon’, whereby ‘tiffin time’ meant the time for a light, refreshing midday meal. It would consist of cakes and scones, curries, rice, noodles, and local snacks common to Malaysia, Singapore, India, and many other places in southeast Asia.
…right…so what’s a ‘tiffin carrier’?
Well, if tiffin is your midday meal, then your tiffin carrier is the container you carry it around in! But tiffin carriers are not thermoses, and they are not lunchboxes – not in the conventional way, anyway.
The modern tiffin carrier, of the kind used since the 1800s, and which is still made today – evolved from an older form of device comprised of bowls stacked up and held together with a supporting framework. The idea is that each bowl or compartment held a different component of the whole meal – rice, curry, vegetables, sauces, soup, or buns, rolls, tarts and cakes – it all depends on what the food is.
Tiffin carriers were traditioinally made of a variety of materials – wood and porcelain were popular for domestic models – but for ones designed to be carried around (as most of them are), the usual materials were tin or nickel-plated brass, or enameled steel. Plain steel would rust far too readily in the tropics, so it was coated in enamel paint and then fired in a kiln to harden it, to create a thick, protective layer over the steel to prevent damage, wear, and contamination of food.
Modern tiffin carriers are still made of enameled steel, and brass, but you can also find them in plastic, and stainless steel as well.
Where were tiffin carriers made?
Tiffin carriers are most commonly associated these days, with India, where they are definitely still made (as well as Thailand), but they were made all over Asia – and indeed, a number of them were actually made in Europe, and shipped out to Asia!
How were tiffin carriers used?
The securing clamp was released from the top or sides of the tiffin carrier. The lid was removed, and then the individual bowls were lifted out – this could be tricky, as they’re meant to be sealed really tight! Once the bowls are separated, they’re filled with their respective foods or condiments – and then they’re re-stacked in the correct order, then they’re clamped back down to hold everything in place – some carriers have holes in the securing clamps to put bolts or locks through, to stop things accidentally springing open during transport!
Usually, foods like noodles and rice go down the bottom – components like meat, veggies or curry go in the middle, and soup, sauces and condiments go up the top – this is so that during carriage, the wet components don’t slosh and slop around so much, since they’re closer to the handle and further away from the base – which will move much more significantly if the carrier sways back and forth during transport.
packing and transporting food like this has a few advantages over the lunchbox and the thermos, which is why it’s remained popular for so long – and why they’re still made today!
For one – the various food components are kept separate – rather than mixing and mingling and contaminating each other with their flavours, like in a lunchbox or thermos – this allows you to carry a wider range of foods.
For another thing, the fact that each compartment becomes its own individual bowl means that you can eat out of a tiffin carrier in a much more comfortable way than a thermos, not having to pour things out or dig down a steel pipe to get your food out!
For a third thing – having the food compartmentalised like this means that you can share food amongst family or friends (with as many bowls as your tiffin carrier has – some have as few as two, most have three or four, some of the really big ones have five and up!), without fear of cross-contamination between the servings.
I’m so thrilled to be able to add this piece to my collection. Once I get home, I can’t wait to fix it, clean it and put it on display. When that happens, I’ll surely have a follow-up posting to this one! So keep an eye out for something showing up around mid-October!