Singapore is a country that accepts this culture. It is a special thing, and a lot of young couples and the elderly love to order such food because they would rather not cook.
But system engineer Koh Kong Siong, 57, has enjoyed an appetising spread for the past 20 years thanks to tiffin delivery service, better known as tingkat.
Thousands of other families here rely on this food service.
Tong Chiang, one of the bigger companies, delivers tingkat to over 4,000 individuals every weekday.
Another company, Select Catering, has over 500 subscribers for its tingkat service.
Customers like Mr Koh subscribe to a meal plan that arrives in steel tingkat containers that typically have four compartments filled with different dishes. The container is sealed shut with a lid that keeps the food fresh and warm.
After the meal, the customer cleans the tingkat and it is replaced with the next day's delivery.
Should nobody be in, the delivery man leaves the tingkat outside the home.
The tingkat service mirrors the Indian dabbawala system, which is believed to have started in 1890. With this system, deliverymen bring home-cooked meals to a customer's place of work.
SINCE THE 1950S
The tingkat service in Singapore is believed to have been around since the 1950s.
There are more than 30 caterers who provide the service.
The New Paper on Sunday spoke to representatives of several catering companies. They say most tingkat subscribers are families with working parents or those living with the elderly, who have no time to prepare food.
Tong Chiang has been providing tingkat service for the past 16 years. The company has won multiple awards for its service, including the Singapore Prestige Brand Award this year.
According to chief relationship officer, Mr Clement Tiang, tingkat service has always been relevant here.
He says: "Singapore is a country that accepts this culture. It is a special thing, and a lot of young couples and the elderly love to order such food because they would rather not cook."
Mr Tiang adds that Tong Chiang has seen an increase of 10 per cent each year in tingkat demand. To keep customers interested, it offers a variety of cuisines, like Nonya or Thai, when planning its meals.
A spokesman for Select Catering says tingkat service accounts for 10 per cent of its profits. The company has also seen a gradual increase in tingkat demand of about 18 per cent over the last five years.
Customers can view the monthly menus in advance and decide if they want to subscribe for that month. For Select Catering, they can also pick between an economy and deluxe menu. Subscribers are billed monthly.
Typically, a meal plan for two people is about $250, while a meal plan for four costs around $420.
Food is delivered on weekdays and not on public holidays.
Each meal will usually include one meat, one seafood and one vegetable dish.
The senior operations manager at Select Catering, Mr Ng Chee Cheng, says: "We have to get the food delivered on time. If we don't, people will not get to eat."
The cooks at Select Catering start preparing the day's dishes from 2pm. Cooking starts at this time so the food remains fresh until dinner.
Select Catering has more than 20 delivery trucks, and each truck delivers to about 30 households. Tong Chiang has more than 40 employees who deliver the meals across Singapore.
Both companies say all their dinner subscribers get their tingkat delivered by 6pm.
There are also other companies that provide variations to this service. For instance, KCK Food provides halal tingkat options.
Some companies also have the option to pack their tingkat food in plastic boxes, which can be refrigerated or heated up in a microwave oven.
Select Catering charges an additional $1 per day for the use of plastic boxes.
Mr Koh, however, prefers to have his food packed in the metal container.
"We have been using it for 20 years, and it still works for my lifestyle. It has been the same system since then and I will keep on using it," he says.
Tingkat meals serve as family time
After a hard day at work, Mr Koh Kong Siong, 57, feels happy knowing his family will be enjoying a homely meal, served in a four-tier steel tingkat.
For just about every weeknight for the past 20 years, Mr Koh, his wife, a 57-year-old administrative officer, and their two daughters in their 20s, enjoy dinner through the tingkat service offered by Select Catering.
Since his family works during the day, Mr Koh appreciates the convenience of the service.
He says: "The quality of the food is good and the pricing is reasonable. The tingkat service suits my family, that is why I have been using it for so long."
Every month, Mr Koh pays about $400 for his family's subscription. Tingkat meals are delivered every weekday, excluding public holidays, and the cost varies each month.
Another user of the tingkat service, Mr Johnny Koh, says the best thing about the service is it allows his family to have a meal together. Mr Johnny Koh, 45, has subscribed to the service for the past 10 years.
Every day after work, the businessman sits with his 46-year-old wife, an administrative assistant, and their 16-year-old son at the table to eat their tingkat dinner.
"If we just wanted to have food, we could go downstairs and buy. Everyone sits at the dinner table together, that is why we use tingkat.
After a long day at work, it is nice to end with a bit of family time," Mr Johnny Koh says.
Mr Johnny Koh prefers his food packed in the traditional steel containers and not the plastic boxes.
He says: "Those boxes containing the food are thrown away. In a month, that would be so many boxes.
"It is so wasteful especially if you multiply it by all the people using the service.
"It is a small step I take in doing my part for the environment."
This article was first published on Nov 15, 2015.
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