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As a defiant response to sad desk lunches, the Food52 team works to keep our midday meals both interesting and pretty.
When I was growing up in Pakistan, my father would come home from work nearly every afternoon for lunch. I have fond memories of him sitting down for his home-cooked, midday meal, a luxury that is no longer prevalent. Conventional lunchtimes have been replaced by quick deskside sandwiches. However, there is a simple way to bring the dining table to work: the South Asian tiffin box, a metal container with two to four layers that lock together to keep hot meals warm and fresh.
We speak so much of sustainable packaging in the kitchen today, and to my mind, a tiffin is the perfect sustainable lunchbox: It's reusable, hygienic, and compact. And though the traditional metal variety is not microwavable, it retains the warmth and freshness of a home-cooked meal so that reheating is unecessary. To me, a briefcase and tiffin in each hand is synonymous with heading to work with a carefully prepared meal enveloped in flavor, spice, and comfort.
In Pakistan, we traditionally store basmati rice or bread in the bottom layer, a pickle or salad in another, and a curry or lentil dish in the top. If I have a four-story tiffin, I'll sneak in a crispy vegetable fritter, as well. I use the largest lid as a plate and mop up the food with my hands. Here is some of my advice for filling a tiffin box, along with traditional Pakistani recipes my mother used to prepare for my father:
- For the bottom layer: Usually a carbohydrate, this is the foundation for the flavor-packed foods in the middle and top layer. Try a piece of bread, basmati rice, or homemade naan.
- For second layer: The second largest layer usually contains something refreshing like a pickle or salad. My mother used to make a kachumber salad, which directly translates to "a mix of tiny pieces," which is exactly what this salad includes—uniform dices of cucumber, tomato, cilantro, and red onion, tossed in a lemon-cumin dressing.
- For the third layer: This is often the bulk of the meal, a protein-rich and flavor-packed dish that is eaten over the rice or scooped up with the bread. My mother always made a moong daal for this layer, with boiled lentils and garlic tempered in ghee or butter and a strong infusion of spices.
- For the fourth and top layer: If you're lucky enough to find a towering, four-story tiffin, pack the top with something crispy to add some variety to the other dishes. Here is my mother's recipe for crispy okra covered in chaat masala, a blend of cumin, dried mango powder, and black Himalayan salt.
What do you like to fill in your own tiffin box? Tell us in the comments below!
Photo by James Ransom