Way back in August, I went on holiday to Southeast Asia. It seems ages ago now, but while there, I bought something at an antiques market that I’d been chasing after for several years: An antique tiffin carrier…
Food-carriers of this basic style have been used in countries like Singapore, Malaysia, India and China for centuries, and the original ones were stacked baskets, usually made of wood or rattan.
With improved manufacturing and machining processes becoming possible with the industrial revolution, tiffin carriers made out of something other than wood (which was perishable and easily broken) now became possible. Decorative stacked porcelain ones were common in Peranakan households in the Straits Settlements in British-held Singapore and Malaya, but in terms of practicality and portability – few could go past the ones which were now being made of pressed steel and brass.
Manufactured in Singapore, India, China, and even some places in Europe, they were made of sheet brass, punched and spun into bowls, and lined in tin (to prevent damage to the brass), or sheet steel, which was punched and spun into bowls, and then painted in enamel paint, which was baked hard, to provide a durable, but smooth, and easily-cleaned surface. Straits Chinese tiffin carriers were often decorated to within an inch of their lives, with patterns of flowers and birds.
The Tiffin Carrier in This Posting
The tiffin carrier which I’ll be concentrating on in this posting – the one I brought back from my holidays – is probably the most typical vintage design, and you’ll find loads of these in Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand and India, where they were made.
They consist of a single brass frame folded and riveted to a handle and a swinging clamp at the top. The bowls are cylindrical sections with bases, which slot between the frame, held in place by hooks riveted on their sides. They’re kept rigid and immovable by the swing-clamp at the top that holds everything in tension to stop it moving.
Most tiffin-carriers have guide-hooks on all the bowls, so that they slot in neatly and stack up one by one – but this one (and others of different designs) have bowls with smooth sides – the indented bases of each bowl lock together to prevent spills and leaks.
This tiffin carrier has four bowls. I have seen ones with as few as one or two, and some with as many as half a dozen or more! But for most everyday ones, between three to five (or more often, three to four) was more common.
The lid on the top of the carrier also has another compartment, which would be for storing condiments and spices with which to flavour your food, which is compartmentalised in each of the four bowls.
Polishing the Carrier
One reason why I bought a brass tiffin carrier over one made of steel is that the brass ones last longer. They don’t rust, the enamel doesn’t chip and flake off, and quite apart from anything else – they’re so much easier to clean!
As you can see in the opening photograph, the carrier I bought was heavily tarnished. It hadn’t been polished in decades! I spent about two days cleaning it up to restore it to something resembling its original shine, and I have to say, I’m very pleased with the results:
I didn’t bother trying to get it perfect – and for a number of reasons:
1). To get it this far was bloody hard work! And I didn’t want to put in excessive effort and risk damaging the brass.
2). I wanted it to look old, but without looking neglected and dirty. In this condition, it’s aged, but presentable!
3). There were some blemishes on the brass which I wasn’t able to remove, so I left it slightly aged so that everything blends in nicely.
That said, the final result is lovely, as is the interior:
This is what the tiffin carrier looks like when it’s entirely disassembled. Now I didn’t actually do anything to the interior, beyond knocking out a couple of dents, and washing the bowls with hot soapy water, to get rid of any grime and dust.
The grey appearance is because these were lined in tin when they were made (to prevent damaging the brass with food). A similar process was used with copper cookware back in the old days (and in fact, they still make copper cookware lined in tin today).
Although I doubt I would ever use this thing ‘in action’ as it were, I couldn’t resist having my own. I scoured flea-markets for years to find one, and I’m so glad that I now have one which I can honestly call my own!