Of Jhalmuri, Mishti & Other Staples: An Ode to Bengal’s Rail Rides

My first taste of railway food in Bengal was as a new bride and I was pleasantly surprised at the buffet presented.

5 min read
An array of ‘train delicacies’.

Bong banter in the background, warm and sweet like a nolen gur rosogulla,
Winter sun on your face, soft and golden like a luchi;
Breeze in your hair, bringing along cries of the hawkers and the aroma of freshly made shengharas…

I had never imagined that someday I would write paeans to Bengali food. But I had also not imagined that I would be travelling on a train to do it.

My first taste of railway food in Bengal was as a new bride. Accustomed to homemade puri-aloo lunches in trains until then, I was pleasantly surprised at the buffet that was presented to me. Tired and famished, I had eaten everything that had come my way while the husband had looked on indulgently. 16 years later, the husband may no longer be indulgent, but I have decided to re-live the journey for its food.

Living for one’s daily dose of <i>shenghara</i>.
Living for one’s daily dose of shenghara.
(Photo Courtesy: Anubhuti Krishna)
Food is sacred in Bengal. It is also a way of life. You could be rich or poor; living in a big city, a small town, or even a village – good food will never be too far. The poorest would not hesitate to spend their last rupee on a good meal; the richest will part with all his wealth for it, and the ones in between live only for their daily dose of mishti and shenghara. This holds true for for the region’s trains.

Bengal’s Gourmands

Chaa… chaa… the train has barely left Howrah station when the singsong cries of the chaiwallah begin serenading the coach. The cha or tea comes in multiple versions: lebu cha, rong cha, laal cha, doodh cha. There’s coffee too, for those who’d have it: Nescafe or Bru, with or without milk, sugar free or with sugar.

A packed coach ensures that all variants have takers. Instructions follow and hands reach out: “Ekta lebu cha debe to (hand me a lemon tea),” says one. “Mishti beshi debe na kintu (don’t make it too sweet)!” instructs the other, “gorom aachey ki na (is it hot)?” asks the third. In another place, the hawker may have shouted back at you (as he has done to me once), but here he responds to each patron, even as he hands them their respective cups.
<i>Moa</i> from Jayanagar.
Moa from Jayanagar.
(Photo Courtesy: Anubhuti Krishna)

You do not have to be rich to be a gourmand in Bengal. A common man has as many – and often more – choices as the wealthy. This is especially true in trains where the TTE does not let hawkers into air-conditioned coaches and all the good stuff stays in second-class compartments.

The loss, as they say, is theirs.

No sooner does the round of tea get over than a man carrying a large garland of plastic packets arrives. Strung around a thick iron wire, these packets contain roasted mixtures – chire bhaja, muri bhaja, badam bhaja – and old style potato wafers. Priced at five rupees, they require another round of tea. As if on cue, another cha vendor appears. Another round of tea follows.

Why Train Travel is Like a Feast

Train travel in Bengal is akin to being on a mobile food street. There are as many options as there are people. Everything is local, seasonal, fresh, and made with care. The menu may change slightly, depending on which part of the state you are travelling in or the time of the year, but the choices will never be limited. Jhaalmuri, vegetable chop, eggs, mixtures, samosas, luchi, sweets, coconut water… the list is endless.

The man peels the eggs swiftly, places each on a piece of paper, slices it with a thread and sprinkles some rock salt.
The man peels the eggs swiftly, places each on a piece of paper, slices it with a thread and sprinkles some rock salt.
(Photo Courtesy: Anubhuti Krishna)

In short, a train ride here is more like a multi-course feast – only, it costs a fraction.

It is now time for eggs. Boiled and stored in an aluminium bucket, they come in two varieties: haasher deem (duck eggs) and murgir deem (hen eggs). Instructions, demands and questions fly again: someone wants hard-boiled, someone needs soft boiled, some need two, others need one of each. The man, meanwhile, peels the eggs swiftly, places each on a piece of paper, slices it with a thread and sprinkles some rock salt.

Most people have opted for the duck egg; I make do with the regular. “You should try haasher deem,” chides the elderly lady next to me, “it is good for you.” I smile meekly.

It isn’t just the trains that serve delectable and fresh food in Bengal – every little station here is a treasure trove of flavours and textures. Luchi from Kharagpur, moa from Jayanagar, chomchom from Bandel, ladykeni from Howrah, pantua from Jhargram – every place has its own specialty. Stepping out and getting fresh food is customary; critiquing it is necessary.
<i>Rosogollas </i>are among the sweet treats you can expect on your journey.
Rosogollas are among the sweet treats you can expect on your journey.
(Photo Courtesy: Anubhuti Krishna)

We get luchis and rasmalai from Bandel, a small hamlet an hour outside Howrah. The freshly fried luchis are small and soft and come with a saucy, but not runny, potato curry. The rasmalais are tiny and chunky and come doused in thick rabri. The cucumber that comes along tastes fresher and better than any cucumber I have eaten. Vegetable chops follow; another round of tea ensues.

Breakfast done, it is time for some shopping and entertainment.

Myriad Forms of Entertainment

On almost every route in Bengal, you come across middle-aged men with large karaoke speakers, who hop from train to train, singing classic Kishore Kumar numbers. Elderly ladies bring you home-made boris and pickles, and balding men carry an entire variety store on them.

Handkerchiefs, safety pins, toys, books, pens, soaps, needle and thread, digestive mixes, lozenges, you can buy everything in these trains. The entertainment comes free of cost though – unless you want to tip the Kishore Kumar or the little girl who passes through an iron ring as she dances in the aisle.

The call of the <i>jhalmuri </i>seller wakes everyone up.
The call of the jhalmuri seller wakes everyone up.
(Photo Courtesy: Anubhuti Krishna)

Jhaaaaalmuri... the call of the most coveted man on the train wakes everyone out of their food-induced slumber. Paddy fields glisten in the golden sun outside; the iron containers of the jhalmuri seller clank inside. “Ektu aloo beshi debe, dada (make sure you add extra potatoes),” “jhaal kom rakhbe kintu (don’t make it too spicy)!”....

As the man starts to cater to the specifications of the eager crowd, I know another round of feasting has begun.

(Anubhuti travels in search of food, heritage, and stories. In love with small towns and hidden places, she often barters the flight for a train and the car for a bus. When not travelling, sampling new cuisines, or hopping on and off trains, she can be found hunched over her laptop writing or over her stove cooking. She tweets @anubhutikrishna)

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