In India, many office workers still get lunch the old-fashioned way: from a tiffinwala who picks up home-cooked meals made by mothers, wives or in-home cooks every morning and delivers them piping hot to workers’ offices at lunchtime.
Here in New York, Indian immigrants have adapted tiffin services to cater to harried city dwellers, both Indian and American, who are too busy to cook meals at home. Many of them are small mom-and-pop operations run out of home kitchens, but in recent years, several large, commercial tiffin services have opened in the region.
Stirling, New Jersey-based Tiffin Blog, which launched five years ago, is one of the larger and better-known tiffin services. Owner Poonam Rai delivers tiffins—microwavable containers filled with a week’s worth of Indian meals—to about 150 customers in Manhattan, the Bronx and central and northern New Jersey each week.
With one facility in New Jersey and another in Long Island, Tiffin Foods, owned by Reena Bhatia, offers a similar service: tiffins with a day’s or a week’s worth of Indian food delivered throughout Manhattan, Queens, the Bronx, Brooklyn, Long Island and Westchester County.
Rai and Bhatia’s rotating menus offer authentic dishes not often found in New York’s Indian restaurants. Both focus exclusively on food from Punjab, a state in northern India.
Rai serves up favorites like kadhi (a tangy stew made from simmering yogurt and chickpea flour with onions, garlic, ginger and spices), maa ki daal (a hearty lentil soup made with large, black whole urad lentil beans, tomatoes, onions and spices) and paneer bhurji (crumbly, ricotta-like homemade cheese sautéed with onions, tomatoes and spices).
Bhatia’s service has some Americanized Indian dishes, like chicken tikka masala, but it also has hard-to-find dishes like kaale chole (small, dark-colored chickpeas simmered with spices) and rongi (black-eyed peas seasoned with spices), as well as specialty desserts, like mango kesar halwa (cream of wheat sweetened with sugar and mango).
“We definitely have things that people are not going to find elsewhere,” Bhatia says.
The two services also tout the healthy, home-cooked meals they provide.
“I’m sticking to the core of Indian cooking—recipes that come from generations,” says Bhatia. “It’s all natural. There’s nothing that you couldn’t find in your home kitchen.”
At Tiffin Blog, three Punjabi women—former housewives with no formal culinary training—cook the food using recipes Rai learned from her mother, who once taught in a cooking school in India.
“When I started this, my mother came [from India] for one year and trained me,” Rai says. “It’s totally home-style cooking. [Restaurants] make [food] oily, but our food is not oily at all. The oil we use is just enough for cooking.”
Both services cater mostly to expatriate Indians living in the area—single men, international students and busy working parents who don’t have time to cook. But since opening, both Rai and Bhatia say they have seen the number of American customers ordering tiffins increase.
“We have a fair number of people who just love Indian food,” Bhatia says. “They’re not from a South Asian background, but they are very open to the culture—they may have gone to India—and they order very regularly.”
It’s a demographic Rai and Bhatia are hoping to reach as they work to expand their businesses. Earlier this year, Rai’s weekly tiffin was featured on InBundles.com, an online coupon site that offers daily dining deals to New Yorkers.
Bhatia says Tiffin Foods plans to take part in a similar online coupon deal this spring. A note on her website also hints at the possibility of launching tiffin services in other cities, though she wouldn’t reveal the details of any expansion plans.
“There is something inherently appealing in [tiffins]—the convenience and the variety of food, the honesty and sincerity of the home-style cooking, the novelty of a week’s worth of food,” Bhatia says. “That whole combination of things could be attractive to a lot of people.”