Malaysian book explores the wonders of vintage tiffin carriers


Enamel, brass, stainless steel. Porcelain, bamboo, aluminium. Wooden handles, spiralled handles, wired handles.

Kettles attached to the top, fire pits and charcoal pots at the base, cleverly hidden plates and bowls.

Welcome to the old world of tiffin carriers, used back in the day to store and carry packed food. In Malaysia, the tiffins are trendy again today and the stainless steel variety commonly found now is easily recognisable – silver, round and three or four-tiered.

But in its heyday in the early 1900s, tiffin carriers came in all shapes and sizes, in lively, bright colours and with different designs for groups, individuals and families.

Tiffin: An Untold Story, a new book, delves into the diversity of these antique food containers – their purpose, specific characteristics and the unique place they have in our country’s rich history of food.

Aptly, this book project – and accompanying short film – all began in the kitchen.

In 2007, Prakash R. Jakathesan and his wife Punita Mutiah were renovating their new apartment in Datuk Keramat, Penang.

Opting for homely wooden furnishings, Punita thought of adorning the kitchen with two antique tiffin carriers.

Already an avid antique collector, particularly of Indian cultural treasures, Prakash and his wife set off to a corner antique shop on Campbell Street one weekend.

Prakash and Punita's love affair for vintage tiffin carriers started in 2007. Through the years, they have collected more than 260 tiffin carriers, many of which are featured in their book. Photo: Emily WongPrakash and Punita's love affair for vintage tiffin carriers started in 2007. Through the years, they have collected more than 260 tiffin carriers, many of which are featured in their book. Photo: Emily Wong

Drawn by the sight of vintage betel boxes at the entrance of the shop, Prakash sent Punita deep into the heart of the shop where the shop owner said several tiffin carriers were up for sale.

“I wasn’t distracted. I really wanted the tiffins! So, I went to see and there were five or six (tiffins) of different colours and sizes, ” says Punita, 40, who works as a nurse.

Punita called Prakash (or, “dragged him”, Punita recalls) in for his opinion and the couple soon settled on a 1920s four-tier Peranakan tiffin – its rich navy blue colour and colourful motifs making it stand out.

On the front, each tier was embossed with a delicate magpie nestled on a branch with a moutan peony while on the back, gilded Peranakan greetings were engraved.

“I asked the shop owner how much it was and he said RM742. Punita immediately grabbed my arm in surprise! We didn’t think it would be so expensive, ” says Prakash, 41.

They decided to go ahead, however, and Punita managed to bargain it down to RM700.

Neither could predict that the purchase would be the start of a collector’s journey that would lead to museum exhibitions, a book and the largest collection of tiffin carriers in the country.

A growing collection

The couple knew anything about antique tiffin carriers when they purchased their first collectible.

Prakash, being fond of brass, continued hunting for a metal carrier and soon began learning the characteristics and features of different vintage tiffins.

“When we bought the first tiffin, we didn’t know the significance of the wording on it.

“It is actually a Baba Nyonya tiffin and the words on the back – Slamat Angkat (Happy Carrying), Slamat Makan (Happy Eating), Slamat Pakey (Happy Carrying) and Slamat Untong (Happy Profiting) – make the tiffin unique and more valuable, ” explains Prakash.

A 1920s enamel tiffin carrier with eight tiers (two are hidden at the top) bearing Peranakan greetings. Note: manufacturing region is unknown. Photo: Umachandran RamiahA 1920s enamel tiffin carrier with eight tiers (two are hidden at the top) bearing Peranakan greetings. Note: manufacturing region is unknown. Photo: Umachandran Ramiah

Little by little, the couple’s collection grew. The oldest tiffin carrier in Prakash’s collection is from 1870.

It weighs 6kg and has a bottom compartment for charcoal to keep the food warm.

From 2012 to 2013, a tiffin-collecting frenzy hit and the couple had to battle other local collectors and from Singapore to obtain the antique treasures.

From towering 12-tier carriers to tiffins with unique side cylinder tubes to hold chopsticks or banana leaves, Prakash and Punita have amassed an impressive collection.

They teamed up with the Penang State Museum to hold two exhibitions: The Revolution Of Tiffin Carriers in 2014 and Tiffin Carrier Shop the year later.

The couple also received an accreditation from The Malaysia Book of Records in May, 2014 for the largest tiffin carrier collection in the country – 190 tiffins at the time. Now, their collection contains 260 tiffin carriers.

Asked how much they have invested into their collection to date, Prakash smiles and vaguely says “well over RM200,000” with tiffins ranging from RM300 to a rare Czechoslovakian-made 36.5cm bright orange enamel tiffin which set the pair back RM4,000 in 2012.

'Tiffin: An Untold Tiffin Story' offers a survey of tiffin carriers and their history spanning 200 years. Photo: Handout'Tiffin: An Untold Tiffin Story' offers a survey of tiffin carriers and their history spanning 200 years. Photo: Handout

Now worth double the price, this six-tiered carrier is the pride of their collection and graces the cover of Tiffin: An Untold Story.

A time to document

The idea of a book documenting their vast collection was floated by Punita for the longest time before Prakash finally warmed up to it.

Embarking upon a postgraduate master’s degree in 2018, Prakash wrote his thesis on how to apply tiffin carriers in today’s world.

Backed with over a decade of collecting and first-hand interactions with antique dealers and vintage tiffin owners, the former college lecturer took a bold step into writing and self-publishing a book.

Tiffin: An Untold Story was launched in Penang early last month and is a pictorial narrative featuring 172 tiffin carriers of old.

The hardcover book, with all 216 pages printed in colour, details the tiffins’ origins.

A 1920s tiffin manufactured by Katz Brothers made from enamel with a wooden handle and an iron locking mechanism. Both sides of this tiffin are adorned with hand-drawn floral designs. Due to its colour and design, it is one of the rarest pieces available in the market. Photo: Umachandran RamiahA 1920s tiffin manufactured by Katz Brothers made from enamel with a wooden handle and an iron locking mechanism. Both sides of this tiffin are adorned with hand-drawn floral designs. Due to its colour and design, it is one of the rarest pieces available in the market. Photo: Umachandran Ramiah

“From countries of origin to manufacturing brands to uses, sizes and materials, the book provides a fascinating insight into the different tiffin carriers used in our corner of the world. We went to Little India, Chinese shops that still use tiffin carriers to transport food and talked to old ‘aunties’ who remember how tiffin carriers were commonly used long ago, ” says Prakash, who adds that more than 50 people were interviewed for this book.

Interviews, collaborations and research visits to museums in Penang and Singapore as well as physical analysis of each tiffin carrier are the primary sources of information for Tiffin: An Untold Story, plugging the issue of a severe lack of written material on the subject matter.

In this regard, Punita is especially grateful to have contributed to a project that can be used as a resource by future generations.

“This book touches on the concepts of family and country, with tiffin carriers being used by every community in Malaysia. We are happy to be able to share our knowledge and research with everyone, ” she says.

Prakash also reveals that book launches in Petaling Jaya and Singapore will be announced once the Covid-19 situation has improved.

At the moment, he says the Tiffin: An Untold Story short film on Youtube is one of the ways for the masses to learn more about this book project.

Tiffin: An Untold Story is priced at RM75. For more information, visit the book’s Facebook page.

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