Travel special 2014: A culinary adventure eating around India in 80 trains

 

It would be at least two and a half hours before the Himalayan Queen reached Kalka and my stomach had begun to growl to the point that it had now become embarrassing.

"Have some ma'am," said the boy sitting opposite me. He held out a paper packet that had soaked his palms with oil. It appeared to contain battered triangles of deep-fried bread. I shook my head and he balled it up and flipped it out of the window. Bread pakoras are a typical Punjabi snack served at various kiosks along the route, but are best eaten fresh with a swig of tea to mask the oil.

Fishing around in his backpack the boy produced a bag of pistachios. Grateful, I helped myself as he chattered and pointed out of the window. "Look ma'am that's the Barog tunnel," he said, flicking the shells out one by one, and began to explain the legend of a British engineer named Colonel Barog who had been hired in 1903 to dig the longest tunnel between the hill station of Shimla and the town of Kalka, but had found when he finished that the two ends did not meet in the middle. He was subsequently fined one rupee by the government for wasting its time.

"What happened to him?" I asked. "Did he ever complete it?"

"No," said the boy. "He was so humiliated that he committed suicide and his ghost still lives in the tunnel." He peered out of the window, "We're stopping, come, let's get some samosas".

Among Indians, food is synonymous with celebration and wellbeing, but in addition to that and the basic need for sustenance, it is also the fastest ice-breaker, and a wonderful alleviation from boredom – as I quickly discovered on my journey around India in 80 trains.

The night I boarded the first train, my parents' friend, with whom I had been staying, handed me a container of home-cooked macaroni cheese, along with a stiff warning: "Don't eat the train food. You'll get sick." I nodded, promised, and then flung the bag in the nearest bin. Eyeing fellow passengers devouring crispy dosa (wafer-thin rice flour pancakes) filled with gooey, canary-yellow potato, idlis (fluffy rice cakes) covered in coconut chutney, and kachoris (lentil-filled dumplings) fizzing in karahis on the platform, there was no way that I was going to poke at a paper plate of congealed pasta.

My stomach and I were braced for an awfully big adventure, so armed with a plastic fork and a strip of Imodium, I sampled the first of many finger-licking delights on the Mandovi Express from Madgaon to Mumbai. Rather than choosing the faster Shatabdi train, I had deliberately selected this service along the Konkan coast as I had heard that their chicken biryani and spring rolls were some of the best on the Indian Railways. While perched in the doorway I heard a croak of "chiggenlollipop-chiggenlollipop" and turned around out of curiosity.

 

"Ma'am, chiggenlollipop?"

An elderly man carrying a washing-up bowl full of foil-wrapped chicken legs stopped and placed his load on the floor. As he shifted the pile around, steam rose from the centre and the smell of summer barbecues floated up. I bought a couple of the sweetly sticky, peppery legs and the vendor squatted behind me, counting his notes.

"Liking non-veg?" he asked, smiling with a set of teeth that looked as though he had just brushed them with beetroot.

"Love it," I replied, gnawing off the gristle and guiltily tossing the bones out of the door into the Arabian Sea shifting below.

"Sarvi kebab, very good," he said.

"Sorry?"

"Sarvi Mumbai. Kebab. Sarvi."

This was the beauty of train travel, everyone had a morsel of information to share, literally, in this case. It turned out that Sarvi, just off Mohammed Ali Road in Mumbai, was a 90-year-old spot, home to the most tender beef kebabs. Mohammed Ali Road is the benchmark for skewered kebabs, which hang like sizzling curtains, but once I had veered off on to Dimtimkar Road, I found Sarvi. The kebabs were crisp on the outside, melting on the inside and sold out by 6pm.

Since 1853, when the first passenger train ran in India, railway cuisine has undergone an incredible journey of its own, shifting and shaping to cater to ever-changing needs, financial restraints and customer demand. In the 1950s, considered by some as the golden age of Indian train travel, the dining cars were renowned for their glamour, and meals were the journey's highlight. Conductors would take orders and send them ahead by telegram, and passengers could be served everything from fish and chips with tartare sauce, to mutton biryani on elegant crockery brought to their compartments. Depending on the route, some trains would halt long enough for sit-down meals at stations – nigh-on impossible in this day and age when there is barely time to dash out for a bag of crisps and a bottle of Thums Up cola.

A woman sells socks, hats and handkerchiefs in a second class train carriage (Getty Images) A woman sells socks, hats and handkerchiefs in a second class train carriage (Getty Images)
On a journey from Pune to New Delhi, I was joined by my friend Ed. "I'm just going off to the pantry car to have a little read of my book," he had said, smiling with the virgin-fresh naivety of someone who had never been to India, let alone boarded an Indian train. And with a gleam in my eye, I let him go. Traditional dining cars have all but disappeared, as I had discovered myself when I stumbled across a 'pantry car' en route through Assam. At one end, a man wearing a T-shirt filled with holes tossed > smoking cauliflower in a karahi the size of a satellite dish, while at the other, a pair of boots attached to a sleeping policeman stuck out over a berth, his AK-47 propped up against the wall. It was a far cry from Hello! magazine, packets of Quavers and the balloon-red blazers of a Virgin Pendolino. Ed soon came back.

Now, if a train even contains a pantry car, it is used as a hub by the check-shirted employees of the IRCTC (Indian Railway Catering and Tourism Corporation), who take orders at compartments with stubby pencils and tiny pads. The choice is normally "veg or non-veg" – the latter of which often means eggs rather than meat – and meals can feature anything from biryani with boiled eggs, straddled by an angry-looking green chilli, and vegetable curry with steaming chapattis tightly rolled in foil, to simple dal and white rice with a wispy bit of salad wilting on the side.

However, on the smarter, faster and more upmarket services – Rajdhani, Shatabdi and Duronto – the Meals on Wheels service includes a hot omelette sandwich in springy bread for breakfast, or, if travelling in executive class, a nice colonial overhang of cornflakes and hot milk with a newspaper. Lunch and dinner begin with tomato soup and breadsticks, followed by a combination of rich mutton curry, fried cauliflower and potato, dal and rice, with a tub of ice-cream for dessert. Teatime is little more than a soggy coleslaw sandwich, a samosa, fun-size packets of namkeen (over-salted puffed rice or Bombay Mix) and a vacuum flask of hot water with powdered milk and a teabag on a string.

A street vendor outside Old Delhi station (Getty Images) A street vendor outside Old Delhi station (Getty Images)
After a while I began to wonder whether the freelance vendors who passed by with random goodies travelled the entire train journey. Did they get off at a later station and catch the train back? Or did they jump off just before the train departed? I soon found out when I arrived at a town named Londa in Karnataka. With a few hours to kill until my connecting train to Goa, and with the waiting room deserted and gloomy, I sought refuge inside what turned out to be the main hub for the station's food and drink vendors.

The crackle of deep-frying vadas (spongy spiced fritters) and billows of steam filled the tiny kitchen at the back – the sting of chilli and mustard seeds catching in my throat. Hiding behind a notebook, I sat at a corner table and observed the counting, packing, sorting and stacking: bottles of Pepsi bobbed around in buckets of ice water; samosas were secured in twists of newspaper; and tea vats filled with boiling water. Like a school bell, the horn of an approaching train galvanised the vendors into action with the speed and precision of a Formula 1 pit crew. Squatting down on wide flat feet, they hoisted up their wares on to their shoulders and filed out on to the platform, boarding the train like lemmings.

There was no one left but me and the bookkeeper. He sat behind a small desk, his stomach holding closed the little drawer where he kept his notebooks. In just under 10 minutes, the horn blared and the vendors returned, their shirts sticking to their chests, their foreheads gleaming with sweat. One by one they lowered to the ground half-empty baskets and gathered around the desk. The bookkeeper eyed each vendor over a pair of half-moon glasses as they fished out rolls of withering rupees from their breast pockets and handed over their takings. Once the train had pulled out, the hot oil began to hiss again and the vendors set to work restocking for the next train.

Not long after embarking upon my 40,000km journey, I soon realised that, like a homeless person, it was best to eat when there was food. Regulated mealtimes were futile as it was anybody's guess as to when vendors would turn up or when the next stop would prove long enough for me to jump down and forage for treats. When it came to biscuits, I tended to rely on Hide & Seek Bourbons and Marie Lights – which were the closest cousins to Rich Tea. But every so often I'd turn reckless. Curious about the glass jars filled with cookies that seemed to have sat on most platforms since the dawn of time, I requested one and watched the vendor wipe his fingers on his shirt, then bury his hand into the jar, pawing the load before bringing out a dusty disc. It was like chewing on a brick. Spotting a skinny puppy licking himself under a bench, I crushed the biscuit with a fist, poured water over the mess and left him to work through the mulch. Marie Lights it was.

Passengers grab breakfast before departure from Old Delhi train station (Getty Images) Passengers grab breakfast before departure from Old Delhi train station (Getty Images)
As a rule I never boarded a train without a couple of apples and a stale bag of banana chips as my faithful friends, but after a while, hot meals became the point on which my day hinged and they would lift my mood with the intensity of injecting heroin, and it was for this reason that I fell in love with the Deccan Queen. Her Royal Highness, or the 'Blue-eyed Babe' as she is lovingly known by her fans, was one of the first trains to contain a dining car, which in the 1950s was decked out in silver oak with panels carved from zebra wood, and fitted with glass-topped tables. Although this luxury is long gone, the gourmet hangover remains and the Deccan Queen proved to be more of a mobile tuck shop than a train. The sudden traffic jam of vendors carrying boxes of unknown treats was like Christmas: cheese toast, scrambled eggs and baked beans, "finger-chips", and steaming patties passed through the aisles before I eventually settled on a hot vegetable-cutlet sandwich and a squirt of chilli ketchup washed down with a treacle-sweet cup of tea.

But the beauty of the Indian Railways lies in its extremes, and from cardboard boxes to snow-white china, I eventually found myself on board the luxury Indian Maharaja-Deccan Odyssey. For seven days and nights I journeyed from Mumbai up to Delhi surrounded by white-gloved waiters twirling around a dining car serving king prawns and smoked salmon. Breakfast ranged from eggs – "Poachedfriedscrambledboiled madam?" – and chicken sausages, to usal pav and chana puri. It was a far cry from oily paper and a leaking vacuum flask. Catered for by the Taj Group, the food on board the luxury train was on a par with some of London's finest gastropubs, featuring rare lamb, strips of steak and whorls of potato purée gleaming with butter.

Indian food was served in a tray-sized thali rimmed with little silver bowls of different dals, prawns, and desserts so varied that it appeared like a painter's palette, with steaming naan to dip in each pot. On the final night I lay under my duvet, rocking from side to side. Leaving the train was going to be hard; the next morning heralded five-rupee tea, samosas, and bedding in brown paper bags, but somehow it felt like I was going home.

'Around India in 80 Trains' by Monisha Rajesh is published by Nicholas Brealey at £10.99

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