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Bridging Cultures and Satisfying Palates: The UK Tiffin Service Revolution

The impact of tiffin services extends far beyond satisfying hunger pangs.

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South Asians
7 min read
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Komal Jani from Watford town, Hertfordshire – 24 km north of London – spotted the need for a tiffin service catered to South Asians during her pregnancy. Without any family around her, she struggled to cook healthy meals for herself.

“I knew then that if I came into the tiffin service industry, I could provide home-cooked meals, covering all different pulses and vegetables during the week,” Jani, who started her tiffin company Ambikaa in 2020, tells The Quint.

The impact of tiffin services extends far beyond satisfying hunger pangs.

Komal Jani founded Ambikaa during the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. 

(Photo: Anida Ramsamy)

Over the past two decades, an influx of South Asian professionals to the UK has ignited a demand for tiffin services to those yearning for convenience, nourishment, or even just a comforting connection to their roots.

Ubiquitous within the offices of, say, Mumbai, the humble tiffin is now commonplace on desks in London high-rises at lunchtime. Most providers like Jani offer either 'dabba-style' or 'home-cooked' or, at least, 'home-style' meals that differ starkly from the rich curry-house fare that more typically represents Indian cuisine in the UK.
The impact of tiffin services extends far beyond satisfying hunger pangs.

One of the dishes Jani features in Ambikaa tiffins.

(Photo: Anida Ramsamy)

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The Love for Home-Cooked Meals

Having to quit her job gave Jani the push to own her tiffin company during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“There are many people who provide weekly-batch food, but my concept is to cook and deliver on the same day, within a two-hour timeframe. I try to shop for ingredients on the same day as well. The menu changes weekly, and dishes are healthy vegetarian curries and lentils, largely Gujarati dishes. Sometimes I incorporate healthy street food options, too.”
Komal Jani, founder of tiffin company Ambikaa in Watford, Hertfordshire

Jani notes that the emphasis on healthy eating has triggered a soaring demand for home-cooked meal providers.

“I would say people are getting more conscious of what they’re eating. All kinds of people use tiffins, but especially working parents with younger kids. Also, the elderly who can’t eat overly spicy food and prefer mild and balanced meals.”

The impact of tiffin services extends far beyond satisfying hunger pangs.

Stacks of biodegradable pots filled with vegetables, dal, rice, and dessert ready to be packed with chapatis and delivered to Ambikaa tiffin customers.

(Photo: Anida Ramsamy)

Since the 1950s, suburban neighbourhoods of West London – like Southall, Hounslow, Hayes and Harlington – have been home to significant South Asian communities with a majority hailing from Punjab. Recent immigrants, amongst these students and other skilled professionals and labourers, have contributed to the ever-growing demand for traditional Punjabi food. To meet these demands, Punjabi Chulha, a restaurant in Hayes, began its tiffin service operations five months ago. 

The impact of tiffin services extends far beyond satisfying hunger pangs.

Punjabi Chula in Hayes, West London, advertises its tiffin service on a signboard.

(Photo: Anida Ramsamy)

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Rajvinder Kaur, the manager, explains that they cater to a large clientele of people who do not know how to cook.

"We offer people good, hygienic food for six days a week for a very inexpensive price of 140 pounds a month. We generally serve vegetarian food – one vegetable curry, one dal, and some rotis. On Fridays, we serve chicken."
Rajvinder Kaur, manager of Punjabi Chulha in Hayes

Indeed, it was an early lack of cooking skills that prompted Shrut Silikari, a first-year student at Imperial College London, who's originally from Mumbai, to use a tiffin service.

"I had never been to the UK or Europe and had never cooked fully for myself, so when I came here, I decided to avail a tiffin service. That allowed me to settle into university life. It's been six months, and I can cook for myself now. But I still get a medium tiffin package, which has one box of dal, three chapatis and vegetable curry, six times a week. It's much cheaper to get tiffin than to get takeaway."

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The impact of tiffin services extends far beyond satisfying hunger pangs.

A tiffin box prepared by TiffinWalli in East London.

(Photo: Anida Ramsamy)

Silikari uses Tiffin Planet, founded by Harmohan Pahuja in 2007. It is one of the larger providers catering to people all over the UK. 

"I started this venture after coming to the UK as an MBA student in 2005. Back then, the majority of us students did not know how to cook, as it's uncommon for Indian boys to learn cooking."
Harmohan Pahuja, founder of Tiffin Planet

"We deliver to students, old-age pensioners, and customers who live alone or don't have the time to cook. There are even Indians who use it as a stopgap for a few days while they are visiting the UK. It's the home-cooked Punjabi food that people prefer," says Pahuja.

The impact of tiffin services extends far beyond satisfying hunger pangs.

Women at work in the TiffinWalli kitchen.

(Photo: Anida Ramsamy)

The impact of tiffin services extends far beyond satisfying hunger pangs.

A sample of the lunchboxes produced by TiffinWalli.

(Photo: Anida Ramsamy)

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A Path to Financial Stability for Women

But the impact of tiffin services extends far beyond satisfying hunger pangs.

For many female entrepreneurs, particularly those from underprivileged backgrounds, these services help attain financial stability, especially in a society wherein 42 percent of Indian, Pakistani, and Bangladeshi women aged between 16 and 64 are unemployed.

The impact of tiffin services extends far beyond satisfying hunger pangs.

Gulab Jamun with Rose Rabadi, a dessert that features in Ambikaa tiffins.

(Photo: Anida Ramsamy)

Sangeeta Sengupta, based in East London, was working as an employment coordinator for the National Health Service (NHS) when she identified a group of local women who wanted to care for people but did not meet the skill and qualification requirements for a role in the NHS.

Discovering that a majority of these women enjoyed cooking, and that there was a dearth of healthy food options in the surrounding areas for the NHS staff, Sengupta decided to start TiffinWalli.

“The dishes we serve are inspired by the women who work for us – they’re asked what they can cook best and to show us a sample, and we look into how we can incorporate it into the menu. Most of our women are South Asians, so our dishes reflect the cuisines of India, Sri Lanka, and Bangladesh.”
Sangeeta Sengupta, founder of TiffinWalli
The impact of tiffin services extends far beyond satisfying hunger pangs.

One of the TiffinWalli workshops at East London.

(Photo: Anida Ramsamy)

Whilst they initially planned to supply food to NHS staff, TiffinWalli soon branched out, providing food to the elderly and people with low incomes who had lost their jobs. Earlier, they provided food in tiffin boxes, but switched to microwaveable biodegradable boxes during the pandemic as washing reusable boxes and having to make extra trips to collect them were proving to be an issue. 

“We are going back to the tiffin boxes because a lot of young people are asking for home food now because they’re either working from home or they don’t have the time to cook. We’re looking at getting an electric van due to sustainability – our women don’t want to use bikes!”

The impact of tiffin services extends far beyond satisfying hunger pangs.

Piles of TiffinWalli’s lunch boxes ready to go.

(Photo: Anida Ramsamy)

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Sengupta emphasises that TiffinWalli’s goal of empowering local women has been at the center of its operations. “Most of the women can’t work full-time hours as they have young children, so this gives them a flexible working option and regular income. Some are even happy to work ad hoc with us.”

One of TiffinWalli’s biggest successes is Atoshi Shaha, a young Bangladeshi woman who joined the organisation whilst suffering from postnatal depression during the pandemic. She is now about to become one of the partners of the organisation, Sengupta tells The Quint.

“She was alone as her parents couldn’t come and I asked her to join the training – even if just as an excuse to socialise. We asked her if she could cook, and she made this yoghurt. It blew us all away and we decided to make it an in-house product. Over the last two years, we’ve worked to bring it to the mainstream market and have launched it.”

The impact of tiffin services extends far beyond satisfying hunger pangs.

Atoshi Shaha (left) with TiffinWalli founder Sangeeta Sengupta.

(Photo: Anida Ramsamy)

Jani, like Sengupta, presents another example of the flexibility and stability that a career providing tiffin services can offer women in the South Asian community. 

“I’m a single mother who started this business so that I could spend more time with my children. It gives me flexibility and satisfaction that I wouldn’t have if I were stuck in a 9 to 5 job.”
Komal Jani, founder of tiffin company Ambikaa in Watford, Hertfordshire

The success of tiffin services is also a testament to their ability to transcend cultural boundaries and appeal to a diverse clientele. While initially catering to the South Asian diaspora, these services have begun to garner a loyal following among non-South Asians who appreciate the convenience, authenticity, and flavours they offer.

Whilst Pahuja explains that a majority of Tiffin Planet’s customers are Indians, there is a budding interest from non-Indians. “The English are not aware of the concept. Yet, they do order from us once or twice a week.”
The impact of tiffin services extends far beyond satisfying hunger pangs.

Women cooking at a TiffinWalli workshop.

(Photo: Anida Ramsamy)

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Poland-born Katarzyna Kowalczyk, who now lives in East London, uses a tiffin service specialising in pure vegetarian South Indian tiffins. 

“I actually signed up to a tiffin service during the pandemic. I discovered it thanks to my Indian flatmate. I had just turned vegetarian, and I was finding it hard to make sure I got three healthy meals in a day. I get it [tiffin] four days a week – and I know that a healthy lunch with lots of vegetables is taken care of on those days for me.”
Katarzyna Kowalczyk
The impact of tiffin services extends far beyond satisfying hunger pangs.

A sample meal from Tiffin Planet, which provides tiffin services all over the UK.

(Photo: Anida Ramsamy)

(The author is a freelance writer and Odissi dancer based in London. She is an alumnus of SOAS University of London where she studied South Asian Area Studies, focusing on the politics of culture in India and the diaspora.)

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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Topics:  UK   diaspora   Indian Diaspora 

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