With various food delivery applications vying with each other to rush a “gourmet” meal to your train seat, I thought I would be spoilt for choice on my next journey. Till my ever-outspoken friend Ushnish dada, an intrepid traveller, cut me to size: “Don’t know why, but whenever I travel by train, I prefer eating the railway catering food. In honour of the memories, I can stand the bad railway food for a few meals.”
The “bad” descriptor let loose a train of thought. Train journeys at one time were all about food: large hampers packed with special home-made goodies reserved just for the ride. The best part was the sharing among passengers travelling in the same coach with no fear of anyone drugging the other. If the lady on the next berth bought ice cream for her children, she bought one for all of us. That’s how I first discovered the Rajasthani mathri and the Gujarati thepla.
Train journeys were as much about camaraderie as they were educational, an introduction to the culture of the region one was travelling through. Each station on a certain route had signature food. If it was Kanpur, it was bedmi-alu; if it was Mughalsarai, it was chhole; it was truly summer if, even before pulling into Allahabad, the heady aroma of mangoes—Dussehri, Chausa, Amrapali—piled high in baskets hit you.
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My elder sister and I would play a game on the then 4-hour journey between Kharagpur and Howrah. We would board the train with the puri-alu—generously laced with the hot curry powder mix of the Telugu vendors that Kharagpur station was famous for, and then proceed to rattle off the specialities of the next few stops. So it was hot shingaras and tea at Mecheda, spicy alu-chop at Panskura and so on till our father got a little alarmed and marched us off to the dining car.
Till the late 1970s, trains had dining cars complete with tables for four covered with faux damask and laid with embossed crockery and cutlery. Turbaned, cummerbund-ed waiters padded about silently, serving the railway delicacies of the times: mutton cutlets on the bone, petite chicken sandwiches, cream of chicken, tomato and mulligatawny soups, roast chicken with boiled vegetables or mutton stew or collar of mutton with mint sauce, vegetable cutlets and au gratins or chicken/mutton curry rice. Reminisces Chennai-based Doraiswamy Nagarajan, additional chief mechanical engineer (retired): “BNR (Bengal-Nagpur Railway, now South-Eastern Railway) had two great dishes: chicken a la bomb, a huge sphere of chicken mince and mashed potatoes, and fish and chips with tartare sauce.”
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There was also a very distinct lingo when orders were taken, created by the khansamas of the times. There was a “sitish” (side dish), “sembrice” (sandwiches), unlimited “mayeenish” and “tatar sauce” and, of course, “Bek Phis”, “Murgi Rose”, “Poodin” and “Carmole Cushtar”. A mix of Western, Anglo-Indian and regional Indian, they were simple three-course meals but worthy of a Cordon Bleu stamp.
Meals served in the coaches, too, were anything but nondescript. The dining car menu was reflected there as well with a selection of bread, rice, roti or freshly made triangular wheat parathas. Even small stations served fruit, fresh juice, eggs, toast and marmalade, on clean tablecloths, with a small vase of freshly cut flowers.
My earliest memories of railway catering are of fowl curry—as free-range chicken in the pre-broiler days was called—while travelling from Madras (now Chennai) to Trivandrum (now Thiruvananthapuram) in 1970, heightening the romance of quaint coaches and steam engines. The train stopped at a one-horse station and our lunch arrived on white china embossed with the railway insignia: rice and a red, angry-looking chicken curry. The gravy was redolent with the flavours of good, old Madras curry powder that was still much in vogue in old kitchens with long colonial memories. My infant sister was fed fresh curd-rice bought from a local platform vendor and it came wrapped in clean, brilliant green banana leaves—as did the regional biryanis and flavoured rice preparations of the south that have become so famous now.
How, then, can one not talk about the fabled railway mutton curry that has taken the restaurant industry by storm? Was there one recipe for it? When I look back today, I realize that many a classic dish is born out of necessity, culture, lifestyle, ethnicity and ingredients available locally. Senior officers in those times had their own saloons, an entire railway coach converted to house a sitting-cum-dining room, bedrooms, bathrooms, kitchen, pantry and staff quarters. The staff, comprising a bearer and a cook, travelled with the officers on this little palace on wheels, cooking fresh meals in a kitchen fitted with tall coal-fired Agas as the steam engine criss-crossed the country. Recipes of dishes, therefore, changed from track to track, line to line and railway division to division. What the different versions shared in common was the Raj legacy, a sleight of hand, and simple ingredients, sourced locally.
Some station refreshment rooms were famous for their food and the sophistication of service. As fellow nostalgia digger and railways enthusiast Partho Dutta says: “My earliest memories are of the dining room at the Kurseong station, halfway up the hill to Darjeeling. It was run then, in 1955, by Sorabji & Co. The cutlery came from Sheffield and the crockery from some suitable potters in the Midlands. The waiters were turbaned, the service would make any five-star establishment run for cover and the food was standard Anglo-Indian. My next memory is of lunch on the Toofan Express, served at Mughalsarai. I dug into a bowl of what looked like a thick dal and encountered a surprise. It was custard made fresh.”
The ultimate testimony to the Indian Railways’ legacy of hospitality was the iconic BNR Hotel in Puri. Its valued clientele on the newly opened Howrah-Puri line needed luxury accommodation. So, a two-storeyed building, Ashworth Villa, belonging to an Englishman, was acquired for the princely sum of Rs50,000 and converted into a gracious hotel for a sum of Rs1.5 lakh in 1922. The visitor’s book itself is a collector’s item, recording the visits of luminaries from Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi, to US ambassador to India and celebrated economist J.K. Galbraith, former Odisha chief minister Biju Patnaik, music director and composer S.D. Burman and film-maker Satyajit Ray.
My father was in the BNR and I grew up in the railways. The BNR Hotel was an annual pilgrimage for all of us railway kids—we looked forward eagerly to this fun-filled holiday of sun, sea and sand and, of course, fairy-tale meals. It was the whole ambience—that beautiful building, the deep shaded verandas, the grand staircase, the huge rooms (and bathrooms), the bar, the pool room, the library—and the care and unfailing old-world grace and courtesy. Everyone made friends with everyone there! What stood out were the soufflés, puddings and desserts, a forgotten legacy of culinary art the khansamas of yore were skilled at, such as the sweet and savoury corn-on-the cob with green leaves made of marzipan, a guitar cake with the strings made of sugar craft or an aeroplane. Its old-world charm harboured whispers of ghosts as well. By the turn of the century though, the hotel had fallen on bad times, its days of glory well past. In 2010, it was taken over by a private company and renamed Hotel Chanakya BNR Puri.
With the march of time, platforms have been cleared of local vendors and taken over by railway catering staff selling less than mediocre fare. Train meals have been downsized to simple vegetarian and chicken meals, served sloppily in throwaway plastic containers. The romance of knowing a station by its food has disappeared with hermetically sealed air-conditioned coaches. The culture of carrying overflowing hampers enough to feed an army is gone, the bonds created over food have snapped. Train food today is about utility rather than adventure and discovery. Or as Ushnish dada says, about memories.
Railway lamb curry
Bones from a shoulder of lamb
2-inch piece of fresh ginger root
Half tsp salt
6 small red chillies, seeded and chopped
7 cloves of garlic, smashed, peeled and chopped
1 tsp cumin seeds
2 tbsp coriander seeds
Half tsp turmeric, ground
3 tbsp ghee
1 large onion, peeled and finely chopped
6 curry leaves
1lb boned shoulder of lamb, trimmed of fat and cut into 1-inch cubes
2 large potatoes, peeled and cut into 1-inch cubes
6 fl oz coconut milk
4 tbsp tamarind liquid
1 tsp salt
Make a concentrated stock from the lamb bones, half the ginger and the salt. Use enough water to cover the bones and then let the bones simmer until the stock is reduced to about 8 fl oz. Strain it and reserve.
While the stock is boiling, place the remaining ginger, the chillies and garlic in a processor or mortar and process or pound to a paste. Grind or pound the cumin and coriander seeds to a powder and add them to the paste, together with the turmeric. Add a teaspoon of water to mix the paste thoroughly.
Melt the ghee in a large saucepan over medium heat and fry the onion and curry leaves, stirring constantly, until the onion is soft. Add the spice paste, from the last step and stir and fry it for 3 minutes. Then pour in the stock from first step. Bring to the boil and then add the meat, potatoes and the coconut milk. Reduce the heat and let the curry simmer, uncovered, for at least 30 minutes, or until the lamb and potatoes are tender. The gravy should have reduced and thickened also by this time. Add the tamarind water and season with salt. Serve with plain rice and, perhaps, a dal to accompany it.
Excerpted from Curries And Bugles: A Memoir And Cookbook Of The British Raj by Jennifer Brennan. Published by Penguin Books (1992).