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A 4 Tier Tiffin Carrier In The Baba Nyonya Style
Tiffin Carriers have an interesting history and recall a tradition that the British adopted from India and brought with them to Malaya in the mid 1800’s. By the turn of the century they were in common use throughout the peninsula, particularly in the Straits Settlements. With two, three, four or five tiers, the early ones were decorated with enamel paint and used to carry food from kitchens to workplaces or on long journeys, keeping it fresh and free from flies on the way. As the habit grew, many plain, enameled carriers were produced for the working class to use, but the ‘Baba Nyonya’ community continued with their highly decorated carriers as love of ornate decoration was their forte. Tiffin carrying was popular in Malaya until the 1960’s and today they are still used by a few families, mainly to buy back food for home consumption, but these are modern stainless steel rather than the coloured enamels of old.
By the mid to late 19th century the word ‘tiffin’ had come to mean lunch, usually curry - served about midday and that tradition remains with us today. Tiffin carriers are still common in India, but that is another story.
The Baba Nyonya
The late Datin Seri Endon Mahmood, in her book, ‘The Nonya Kebaya’ explains the term Baba (man) Nyonya (woman) as describing the descendants of Chinese traders who came to Malaya from China and started new families here building new homes and adapting to the way of life, produced a cultural fusion that led to the Baba Nyonya culture of today. She believed it is likely that their wives were not just Malays as the popular legend has it, but a mix of women from the Malay Peninsula, Java, Burma and Thailand although it is possible that the original Nyonyas were Malay women, but this remains a contentious issue.
Choong Kwee Kim tells the unique story of the tiffin carrier, of how the rich in Penang started the chin chuey post-wedding practice for poor sons-in-law to live in with the bride’s family until the couple achieved financial independence. For one month after the wedding, he said, the son-in-law must leave the house for the workplace before the cock crowed and the wife would get the servant or driver to deliver lunch and dinner using the tiffin carrier. A face towel would be placed on top of the tiffin carrier and if the groom liked the food, he should dirty the towel and put it back in a state of disarray. "If he did not like the food, he should put it back neatly as a message for the next menu to be changed,” he said, adding the groom would be invited to return to his bride come evening but he was to decline twice before consenting.
To view a 3 Tier Green & Red Enamel Tiffin Carrier, click here.
To view a 4 Tier Cream Enamel Tiffin Carrier, click here.
To view a 5 Tier Brass Tiffin Carrier, click here.