Antique Blue Enamel Tiffin Carrier (Ca. 1900)

The things you find on your vacations, huh?

I bought this at the Lorong Kulit flea-market in George Town, Penang, a few weeks ago, when I was there on holiday. The stallholder had a whole van overflowing with bric-a-brac, junk, battered antiques and nicknacks, and this was one piece hiding up the back. I ended up buying it, and two more pieces (which I may cover in a later posting), and somehow managed to get them all back home to Australia in one piece.

The carrier. In this shot, you can see the four containers, the lid, and the carrying frame. You can also see the flowery gold decals printed on the sides of each bowl, and the original owner’s name engraved into the side in Indian (probably Tamil?) script.

It’s a classic, four-tier antique tiffin carrier, of a style that was extremely common during the 1800s and early 1900s. I fell in love with the colour, condition, and quality at once. And at the price it was going for, decided that I simply couldn’t let it pass!

What’s a ‘Tiffin Carrier’?

If you haven’t read my other couple of posts about these things, I’ll summarise it really quickly here.

A tiffin-carrier is the English name given to a type of stacked-bowl or stacked-container food-carrying device which has been used in Asia for hundreds of years. Versions of these have been made from wood, bamboo, porcelain, and more recently, brass, stainless steel, enameled steel, and even plastic. They date back in countries like China, India and other countries in Southeast Asia for generations.

A side-on view, showing the frame and handle.

Each container of the carrier stacks on top of the other, with each one holding a different food, or component of a meal. Dumplings, noodles, rice, dessert, soup, etc.

Tiffin carriers started being made of punched brass and steel coated in enamel paint, in the 1800s. Although they were very popular throughout Asia (specifically India, Singapore, Malaya, Thailand, Vietnam, Burma, China, and Indonesia), a large number of them were actually manufactured in EUROPE, and exported to southeast Asia. That said, brass ones were commonly manufactured in India, where the interiors were plated in tin, to prevent the brass from corroding and tarnishing, which would affect the taste of the food stored inside them.

Where does ‘Tiffin’ come from?

‘Tiffin’ is an old English slang-word, a holdover from the Victorian era. It referred to any assortment of light snacks, nibbles, or comestibles consumed for luncheon or afternoon tea. It gained popularity among the British expats living in India at the time, and spread throughout southeast Asia, becoming virtually synonymous with lunch, afternoon tea, or a light dinner, taken anytime beween midday and the late afternoon.

Dissecting the Blue Meanie!

The blue tiffin carrier I have comprises six different components: Four stacked bowls, a lid, and a steel frame made out of one long piece of flat steel bent into a U, and a turned, wooden handle on top.

The four bowls or containers are used for storing the food. The first three are identical in size. The fourth one, at the bottom, is slightly larger. The staple food (rice or noodles) would’ve gone in the bottom bowl. Into the upper bowls would’ve gone meat, vegetables, or curry, with possibly, a dessert or snack in the uppermost bowl. The shape of the lid that goes on top of the topmost bowl means that it could be flipped over, stood up, and used as a rudimentary plate while eating.

The steel frame that holds the carrier together is shaped in such a way that the two ‘handles’ or ‘tabs’ on the sides of each bowl may slide down the inside of the frame. In this way, they may be held in place without being damaged, and without falling apart unexpectedly, which would cause food to spill everywhere.

The top of the carrier. Here you can see the lid, the turned wooden handle, the security clamp (which is hinged, so that it may be pushed out and up to open the carrier), and the holes drilled in the side of the handle and the clamp, where a padlock could be passed through, to secure the carrier even more.

At the top of the frame is a swing-down steel clamp. This serves to keep the lid and the bowls underneath it, firmly in-place. There’s also a hole drilled through the clamp, and the handle of the frame, so that it may be locked with a padlock (don’t want anybody stealing your lunch now, do you!?).

The handles at the top of tiffin carriers like this are usually turned wood. In brass models, the handles might be made of turned brass instead. The carrying handle on modern tiffin carriers are usually just flat steel, or moulded plastic.

As a decorative element, the enameled sides of the carrier were decorated in gold decals. Antique carriers were often decorated in a wide variety of ways. Some Indian ones were embossed or chased, with repousse work set into the brass. Others were engraved, or as with this case – set with gold decals on the sides. Tiffin carriers used by the Straits Chinese were often bedecked with handpainted flowers on the sides, and sometimes, gold leaf borders, decals, and words in Malay for good eating, and an enjoyable meal!

Modern Tiffin Carriers

“DUDE!! That thing is so cool…I want one! Gimme!”

No! Bugger off! Go gitcher own!

“Alright…where!?”

Actually, you can buy them pretty easily online. Modern tiffin carriers are widely available. These days, they’re usually plain stainless steel, enameled steel, and sometimes brass (although this appears to be rare). Some are even made of plastic. Typically, the design hasn’t changed much – it’s a set of bowls or containers (usually 2-6) stacked up, and held together by a frame of some description.

These have the advantage of being dishwasher-safe, and will typically withstand daily use, carrying your sandwiches, cookies, leftover spaghetti-and-meatballs, or last night’s Chinese takeout, to the office or school with you, easily. They’re also great as a conversation-piece in their own right, since most people outside of Asia have never seen them.

Do these things leak?

Honestly? Yeah, some probably do. They were never designed to be airtight, so if you do buy one, best to transport it standing UPRIGHT. If you’re only carrying dry-ish foods which don’t have a lot of sauce or soup, knocking it over or laying the carrier on its side shouldn’t be a problem, but don’t try that with anything that has a lot of liquid in it.

The interior of the carrier, and the empty frame. The inside walls of the containers are lined in white enamel whereas the outside is in blue.

“Why should I buy one instead of say…a box?”

Good question, 99! A tiffin carrier has many advantages over a box, or even a thermos-flask! (does anybody use those anymore?).

For one thing, it’s bigger. You can put more stuff in it. Yummy!

For two things, it’s compartmentalised. Your food tastes and smells won’t get mixed up. Your chocolate muffin won’t taste like last night’s beef stroganoff, and those delicious cookies that your wife baked as a treat won’t get soggy when they’re separated from your spaghetti by another one or two bowls in between, which no doubt hold the meatballs, and the shredded cheese that you want to put on top of your spaghetti.

For three things, each container in the carrier is its own individual bowl. No need to decant the contents of your thermos into something else before eating it, or to try and recreate Aesop’s fable of the fox and the stork.

Do tiffin carriers keep food warm, then?

Uh, no. Traditional ones do not. But you can buy modern ones with insulated sides, which will. Antique carriers were usually wrapped in cloth, or stored in a metal tube or casing, to keep the food warm. This had the added advantage of protecting the carrier from damage while it was being transported. The tiffin wallahs of India still use this method today when they transport lunches to office-workers in Bombay.

So, why did you buy this?

I guess because I’ve always been nonconformist and unconventional. I have never liked doing what ‘everybody else’ does, just because they’re doing it, and it’s the ‘in thing’ or whatever. And I suppose that extends to the type of antiques I like collecting. I like collecting, owning and selling things which are just…different, and weird. Or unusual. Tiffin carriers are hardly known in the western world, and the chance to buy a really good bargain was just too great to pass up. Plus, they’re a link to my own family’s culture and history, so why not?

Will you use it?

Uh, probably not. It’ll mostly be used as a photography prop, as a decorative piece, and a conversation starter, but hey, it’s still cute, yeah?

Uh, don’t you already have one of these?

Yuh-huh! Sure do! Here they are together:

So, what’s the difference? Well, there are a few differences, if you pay attention. The biggest, and most obvious one is colour, of course. The one on the left is punched steel, coated in enamel paint. The one on the right is just plain, polished brass. The interior on the left is white enamel. The interior on the right is tin-plated brass.

Size-wise they’re just about the same. The one on the right is exactly 18 inches tall, so the one on the left is a bit more, maybe 19 inches, or 18.5in.

The other thing you might notice is the slightly different design of the lids. The one on the left is a flat, plate-style lid, whereas the one on the right has yet another little compartment on top (used for storing spices, sauces, etc).

“I want an antique tiffin carrier too! Where do I get one!?”

Uh…ahem…uhm…huh.

*scratches head*

That’s a DAMN good question.

You can always try eBay. That’s a good start. But to find them in places like antiques shops or flea-markets and such, you really have to go to the ‘source’. Next time you’re on holiday, go to India, or Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia, Burma, etc. Tiffin carriers of a WIDE variety of styles were used throughout this region for a LONG time, and that’s where you’re most likely to find them ‘in the wild’, like I did.

How much do they cost?

Eh…it really depends. A simple one is probably under $100? A really fancy, or rare one (either in design, style, decorations, condition, etc), could be going for nearly $1,000.

How do you tell an antique from a modern one?

There are various ways. Usually, it’s pretty obvious, just based on size, style, colour, materials, etc.

Antique ones were meant as day-to-day food-carriers. You took your lunch to the office with them. You took it to a friend’s house for pot luck, when they ask you to bring dessert. You gave them to the kids and they took them to school. That being the case, a lot of the antique ones are actually in quite bad repair. Most of them were used day in, day out, day in, day out, for DECADES, until they literally fell apart. That’s what makes functioning antique ones quite expensive.

But, to tell the difference, look for things like genuine wear and age. A real antique one will have wear on the lid, the rims, the bottom edge or base, the sides and along the security frame that holds the whole thing together. This will be caused by years of heavy use, years of rubbing, washing, opening, closing, stacking, unstacking, and of course – eating.

Antique ones were almost entirely made from either brass, or steel (the latter was almost always enameled, to prevent rusting, which would’ve been EXTREMELY common in the South Pacific, thanks to the humidity and sea air). Modern ones are made of stainless steel and plastic.

Look for things like markings and engravings. Modern tiffin carriers are all made in China or Thailand. Antique ones were mostly made in Europe, or India (brass ones were usually Indian or Burmese). A tiffin carrier with European markings is more likely to be an antique one. A tiffin carrier with Indian script on it is more likely to have come from the subcontinent.

What do I look for?

Look for damage, basically. Remember that antique tiffin carriers were used relentlessly, day after day, after day after day for years on end. Make sure that there are no cracks, chips, big rust-spots, bent frames, dents, scratches or missing parts. Check the hinges on the security clamp, check the state of the handle, check that the brackets that hold the containers to the frame are not damaged. Make sure that the bases of the bowls are not dented or deformed – if they are, they won’t stack properly.

A bent or misshapen frame can sometimes be repaired. Careful bending and reshaping will get it back to its original shape, and everything else should just fall into place accordingly, but do this with CARE – too much bending and the frame will just snap in half. Woops…

Be very careful with cleaning your carriers. Don’t remove any decals or paintwork on the sides, as these are often what give the carriers their VALUE. People collect the carriers with fancy decorations. If you’ve gone and scrubbed them off…well…I hope you like it, because other people might not.

Can I eat out of it?

That depends. If it’s in really good condition, then yeah, probably, if you want to. But carriers with serious rust, chipping, enamel loss, or damage to the frame, should only be used as display-pieces. If you have an antique brass carrier, then if you can find one, send it to a guy who does tin-plating (this is sometimes still a service provided, because people need to get their copper cookware retinned from time to time).

A fresh, solid coating of tin inside the brass interior should be all that you need to make a brass carrier usable again.

Concluding Remarks

Anyway, that finishes off this posting. I hope you’ve enjoyed reading it and found the photos interesting! Getting this back in one piece was challenging, but at least it didn’t take up too much space in my luggage. At least, not after I stuffed the insides of the carrier with rolled socks and T-shirts! It’s always easiest to bring back antiques that you can pull apart, or fill up.

 

2 thoughts on “Antique Blue Enamel Tiffin Carrier (Ca. 1900)

  1. Terry L. Kiser says:

    A friend of mine here in California, up in the city of Corona does catering work from time to time. He was landlord to another friend of mine I’d met near me at church here in Costa Mesa. He has a number of decorative items in his somewhat large kitchen, and one of them is one of these tiffins. It’s of the steel variety coated inside of each bowl with creamy white enamel if I recall correctly, and speckled medium blue enamel on the outside of each. It’s held together with a thick black enameled wire- like frame. We all thought it was quite ingenious, and I suggested he should start including it among the decorative pieces he utilized for some of his catering work. I’m going to share this blog of yours with him. He should find it quite interesting I would have to imagine! Thanks so much for writing about these!

     
    • Scheong says:

      Hi Terry! No problem, please share away!! Most people have never heard of tiffin carriers (or dabbas as they’re called in India). To a lot of people, they’re some strange object of oriental curiosity! 😀

       

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