All Aboard the Railway Foodie Express!
Hurry up, you have a train to catch!
Celebrated TV chef Sanjeev Kapoor has been asked by the Railway Ministry to get on board and design a new menu for the Indian Railways. And not a moment too soon, considering the last time I took a train, the food was a ghastly blend of cheaply packaged subsidised, culinary afterthoughts. Every once in a while garnished with the odd roach, photos of which invariably make their way to social media.
But train journeys have been an intrinsic part of our lives as Indians. Long before air travel became affordable, trains were the only choice for those of us being packed from boarding schools on our way to the plains for the winter vacations, for the family on their annual break, the monkey capped Bengalis en route to Kalimpong from Calcutta and the honeymooners canoodling not inconspicuously in the Raymond’s blanket.
Food was the common thread that bound us as we chugged along in those musty compartments. It sparked debates between strangers, provided much needed sustenance and now fond memories of Nani packing ‘aloo puri’, ‘kebab parantha’ rolls, even slipping in a box of ‘motichoor ladoos’. Anything that basically minimised the chances of spillage.
I remember now the train rolling into Allahabad junction and the thought of ‘Hari ke samose’ would make my mouth water. It was always at Mughal Sarai in between engine changes, that we bought steaming hot aloo bhaji served on plates made from peepal leaves.
There was always a food association with the many train stops on the Howrah-Delhi route. The ‘jhal muri’ at Howrah station, non veg thali a la Rajdhani Express and ‘col dinks’ touting pantry bearer.
If you have a serious sweet tooth, Indian railway stations have every kind of indulgence to sweeten your palate. In Lonavla, pick up the famous ‘chikkis’, ‘motichoor ladoos’ from Allahabad, ‘rabdi’ in Gorakhpur, guavas in Varanasi and oranges in Nagpur, piping hot ‘jalebis’ in Vadodara, not to forget the ‘angoori petha’ from Agra.
Remnants of the Raj still persist in the random selection of food trays served on trains today. The bread omlette, soggy toast with hard boiled egg, tea served in thermos flasks which have seen better days.
Kipling era Railway mutton curry, chicken cutlets and mulligatawny soup replaced with tomato soup and bread stick, vegetable cutlet and sauce sachets, and the ubiquitous chicken curry for those with a hankering for non vegetarian grub.
Southern railway stalwarts include Chicken 65 in Visakhapatnam, ‘pazham puri’ or fried banana fritters washed down with diabetes inducing ‘sukku’ in Kerala, egg biryani in Mangalore, ‘dosa vada’ from Kwality Caterers and Madras mutton curry in Erode, ‘dal vade’ in Chennai – enough to put you into a food coma.
Verka’s lassi, hot and cold ‘badam’ milk are a childhood favourite. Fresh pressed sugarcane juice and its accompanying sugar rush in Kolhapur and Nandini Co-operative Milk Union’s flavoured milk is a must if you’re in Karnataka.
But nothing, absolutely nothing comes close to the ‘kulhar wali chai’ in Rae Bareilly. The smell of wet earth mixed with steaming ‘chai’ was manna on a cold winter morning.
It’s a pity these days my train journeys are reduced to Shatabdis and short distances. But all this talk of railway food memories almost makes me want to buy a train ticket. Well, almost.
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