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Tea & Tiffin

Tea & Tiffin

Hot bajjis, coconut chutney and chai – the stuff that dreams are made of. If it is the monsoon season, then this idyllic pastime is especially compelling. 

‘Tea and tiffin’ is the South Indian’s high tea. Crumpets and scones are replaced by bajjis, bondas and paniyarams. More often than not, the personal journey for one’s ‘tea and tiffin’ goes way back. Do you remember the time you begged your paati (grandma) for just a small sip of her tea? Of course, she always refused because you weren’t old enough. Until that one time when she gave in - a moment of weakness on her part was a triumph for you. That first sip of tea. You were shocked and wondered how in heaven’s name she could drink the stuff! You grabbed your share (more than your share, perhaps?) of fresh, crisp, hot bondas and ran away to play. 

It is with great fondness that we recall our past and the part the humble tea played in it. For time immemorial, tiffin and tea have gone hand in hand. In earlier times, brunch was the first meal of the day consisting of a full course meal of rice, sambar, rasam, vegetables, curd and appalams. To follow this, around 3 or 4pm, tiffin was served as a light meal before dinner. Dosa, idly, poori, pesarettu, adai, vadai etc., were the commonly served. The important thing was to eat it hot along with a hot beverage like tea to accompany it. 

Interestingly the origin of this concept goes back to the British Raj. When India was colonised, the British had to adapt to the hot and humid weather here. This included a dietary adjustment as well. They opted for a light lunch in the heat of the day and called it tiffin. The origins of the word is arguably from the slang word ‘tiff’ (meaning diluted alcohol) and ‘tiffing’ (to take a sip of this liquor), which soon took the form of tiffin. Makes you wonder if they were on a liquid diet! Etymology aside, this became a norm for any meal between breakfast and dinner. 

Today though, tiffin has evolved into a ritual accompanied by delicious snacks and a hot cup of chai. There’s something so mouth-watering about biting into crispy paniyarams and washing it down with a sip of tea. Many small restaurants put up ‘Tiffin Ready’ signs to announce the arrival of afternoon tea. Although one might wonder, is the sign really necessary when that appetizing aroma wafting through the air is tempting enough.

Tiffin doesn’t mean the same thing in all parts of India. In Bombay, tiffin is synonymous with the dubbawallas who bring lunch. The ‘chai break’ though is a very common occurrence across India. Vada pav, samosa, channa or a mint chutney sandwich are popular accompaniments sold in tea shops across the country. Whatever the snack maybe, it is all an excuse to enjoy a hot cup of chai. After all, tea-time is a ritual for office-goers, commuters, labourers, homemakers and students alike, and tiffin is the delightful treat that makes the enjoyment of tea last longer.
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