Far from home and missing the taste of the food your mum made? Have to eat out because long work hours hardly leave you any time to cook? Enter "home-cooked" tiffin services - promising warm bites of comfort food that taste like just like home. We spoke to some tiffin providers in the UAE to find out why people opt for it and what's on the menu.
A search on Facebook is enough to see how hundreds of people working in the UAE search for home-cooked food. This gave 35-year-old Dubai expat Archana Das an idea in 2016. She told Gulf News: “I was a homemaker, with a lot of time on my hands and a passion for cooking, I came across a post on Facebook by a young Indian person who had moved to Dubai recently and was inquiring about tiffin services, and he worked close to where I lived in Bur Dubai. I replied back to him and said I could send him delicious food every working day for a nominal rate of Dh350 per month. All I had to do was cook for an extra person, and it would give me some pocket money I thought.”
Next day, Das’ reply had five more requests. “Things got serious, I realised. Out of these, three people confirmed, and I suddenly had four clients. I found a person to deliver food, bought some food containers online and was all set. I was so excited when my first order went out and they told me that the food reminded them of home.”
A year later Das had 10 regular orders and hired a person to help with the cooking. She later opened a restaurant in Bur Dubai.
You need a team
Like Das, Asma Shah (name changed upon request), also ran a tiffin service from her kitchen in Sharjah till few years ago. She said: “People love home-cooked food especially ghar ki chappatis (Indian bread made at home), so I started the service and used to send food to four people.”
Shah could not continue the service, she said: “Food licensing is important in the UAE, and I realised it was getting difficult to handle it alone. Many people have started doing this business now but it requires a team, you can't handle it alone.”
Delivery is a challenge
Delivering food is the biggest challenge that tiffin services face according to Mamta Bora who owns Ghar Ka Tiffin, licensed in Jumeirah Lake Towers. The 40-year-old from Uttarakhand said: “My passion for cooking, combined with the need to provide homely food to the working class resulted in Ghar Ka tiffin in July 2017. Finding customers wasn’t difficult at all as Dubai has a huge demand for such home-style meals. We started with 10 odd customers and currently we serve 200 plus customers on a daily basis. We have more than 10 riders who deliver the food on bikes on a daily basis. The deliveries are time-based and this is the biggest challenge that we face.”
It’s not just single people, even working couples opt for food delivery, added Bora: “I think Dubai has a huge demand for tiffin services as most people live on their own away from their families. For young working couples and single working professionals a good tiffin service is a blessing. We have many clients who are working couples who have mentioned that after work they don’t feel like cooking and prefer healthy kind of food instead of ordering from a conventional restaurant.”
Bora added: “We serve North Indian food and a few healthy continental meals for Dh420 per month for six days a week.”
A chance to be entrepreneurs
Simran K. has been living in the UAE for 19 years and she always knew she wanted to be part of a women-run business. Due to other commitments and lack of funding she could not be a traditional entrepreneur.
However, that did not stop her from starting her small scale, home-based tiffin services. In 2013, she started providing food to houses and individuals, especially executives who were too busy to make their own meals but longed for home cooked food.
“People wanted home cooked food that was not heavy and can be eaten every day, and I gave them exactly that,” the 40-year-old said.
Simran started venturing into catering services after family members and friends enjoyed her cooking. “I first started privately catering to family members and friends, then I figured that there is scope to cater to executives,” she said.
Her services were much appreciated, she learnt.
Typical tiffin meal
A typical lunchbox, if you ask people from the Indian subcontinent, would be a stacked lunchbox with rice, rotis (flattened wheat bread), dal (lentil) and vegetable, along with some salad or pickle packed in separate compartments.
In an expat populated land like the UAE, people longed for the “taste of home”. Simran started providing her meals to office workers, mostly Indians and Pakistanis in Dubai and Sharjah.
“They [expats from the Indian subcontinent] do not want to eat food from restaurants every day and it is also bad for their health. The ingredients, the oil matters,” the Sharjah resident said.
She offered two types of meals – vegetarian and non-vegetarian. Both tiffins were priced at Dh18.
A typical vegetarian meal would include roti (bread), a rice-based dish like khichdi or pulao, lentils, one vegetable curry, raita (yogurt) and salad.
A non-vegetarian meal would have chicken or mutton curry instead with the same side items.
On Thursdays she would make fusion food, as she describes it, which would have Chinese and Italian influences. Biryani, a cult favourite, was also served once a week.
A weekly menu was sent to all her clients in advance and she welcomed any changes due to taste preferences or allergies.
To prepare the food, her sister-in-law and housekeeper helped.
“It was completely a women-run business, and I wanted it to stay that way. We just had help from my husband for transport,” she said.
In order to limit expenses, Simran decided not to hire a driver and her husband offered to help with the transportation. He would pick up the food during the afternoon and deliver it to offices.
However, this soon proved to be too hectic for the couple and Simran had to halt her services.
“It was too tough to ensure the food gets to the workers on time every day. They have fixed lunch hours and if we were half an hour late, we have already not delivered as required,” Simran said.
Rush hour traffic and limited people involved in the venture affected her services, she said. According to Simran, she was not receiving enough profit either.
“I was using good quality ingredients, like basmati rice, and most of the costs would go into that,” she said.
Currently, Simran has stopped her tiffin services and is not sure whether she would continue but agrees that there is a high demand for such services in the UAE.
According to many online articles, during British colonial rule in India, the word tiffin was used to denote the British custom of afternoon tea that had been supplanted by the Indian practice of having a light meal late in the afternoon. It is said to have derived from the word "tiffing", an English slang term that referred to a little drink taken around afternoon. By 1867, the word became popular among Anglo-Indians in northern British India to mean luncheon.
As early as the 1890s, tiffin boxes were used to cater to the workforce in Mumbai. A man named Mahadeo Havaji Bachche made a unique lunch delivery service, men were employed to deliver lunches packed in tiffin boxes from home kitchens to people working in different parts of the city. Called the Dabbawala, Bachche’s system became one of Harvard’s popular case studies.
Indian writer Madhulika Dash believes that the concept was much older. In one of her articles, she narrates a story from the Jataka tales that show how the idea of tiffin was born from a traveller’s necessity. The tale is about a merchant, who after having sattu or dry flour from his bag left it open, when a snake took refuge in it and later killed the merchant.
She wrote: “Back then, animal skin or jute and cotton bags were the more preferred way to carry travel food… the first tiffin carriers, which were heavy metals made from aluminum or brass, came from the necessity to carry edible food with safety. The merchants took to it instantly.”