In one of the brilliant sessions I attended in the university, the speaker recounted the omlettes and puri alu that used to be sold in Itarsi Railway Station. Indian Railways is synonymous with cutlets, omlettes, Railway mutton curry and tomato soup with croutons. The list is endless. Here one needs to categorise the foods available in local trains and the food in long distance express trains. Travelling by Indian railways meant not only changing landscape but changing foodscape. No South bound train will be complete with vendors selling vada, idli and other items. Friends in hostel shared several interesting anecdotes of missing train while they packed several packets of Vijaywada biryani. Similarly as Poorva express rolled into Mughal Sarai Junction vendors called out for puri alu and Rampyari ki chai. Indian railways was sympathetic to the dietary concerns and no fish lover irrespective of their political affiliation will forget the introduction of Fish Fry in the menu of Sealdah- Delhi Duronto Express. Junction stations had canteens where people could rest their backs and have a leisurely meal. The ‘canteens’ were once meant for passengers travelling in third class.
The connection between food and Indian railways is beyond canteens, refreshment rooms at stations and even pantry cars. Family vacations meant food being cooked and stocked in steel tiffin carriers with partially disposable cutlery. The whiff of the tiffin carrier would tell you about their whereabouts. What I miss in train journeys though is sitting against the window gazing outside and holding onto my cup of tea – a shot that I want to live through like Nayak. After I watched Nayak, I started to fantasize myself in the shoes of Sharmila Tagore’s character. I even made myself a thick pair of glasses. If you remember the scenes, you will find flower vases and tables laid out and the intense conversation between Sharmila and Uttam Kumar, as the hero (nayak) holds his cigarette in his signature style. Every time I watched this film I visualized what it would be to enjoy a meal in this set up. This fantasy was put to rest with time as the history books and archives reminded us that the setting of the fanstasy was accessible to the passengers who could travel in the first class compartment. Robert Maitland Brereton was assigned the herculean task of connecting 6400 kms and you will be surprised that in 1870, the Eastern Indian Railway train connecting Allahabad and Jabalpur apparently had a luxurious restaurant car with butlers, chefs and ala carte menu. In 1903 express trains and mail trains had dining cars. Madhulika Dash in her fascinating article points to four kinds of refreshment rooms available in stations – European, Muslim, Vegetarian Hindu and Vegetarian Hindu. One of the dishes from this golden era that has made its entry into the menu of fine dining restaurants is Railway mutton curry served in first class compartments. What is interesting is that these meals were cooked in the trains.
Later we have pantry cars. Railway food reflects the colonial past in the cutlets, omlettes that are sold along with an idea of continental menu. What has always puzzled me is the combination of chowmein and fried chicken along with bread and macaroni in a creamy white sauce. Yet, if you were hungry and wanted a quick meal you could walk up to the pantry and it would come to your rescue. I still remember parents of young children walking around with baby food to be heated or cooked from the scratch. Despite the runny dal, and glistening brown egg curry you knew you did not have to worry. In the recent times, pantry cars are being withdrawn. Usually you will find boys from some designated stations calling out khana khana Comesum, Comesum… If you are a smart traveler you can also order subway sandwiches, thali and other delicacies.
Though the connection between food and travel remains, our choices and preferences have shifted with the aid of technology and it remains to be seen how railway food evolves amidst multicuisine food available in every railway stations or through applications. Canteens remain a ubiquitous feature of Indian railways and time will tell how these canteens survive the test of time.
1 http://indianexpress.com/article/lifestyle/food-wine/from-railway-mutton-curry-to-bedmi-aloo-when-railway-food-was-an-affair-to-remember/; Accessed on 24 October 2016
Yesterday one of the posts from the column – guestspeak popped up on facebook timeline and P enquired if I have decided to abondon the blog. I replied I have been lazy. As I was strolling into the kitchen I spotted two momo steamers. It is no secret that I am a momo and dumpling fanatic and of late I have lost my craving for momos thanks to mayonaisation. Over the past few years momos have emerged as a street food across Delhi and there is a make shift momo stall near many a metro stations and bus stops across the capital. Nutri nuggets has infiltrated the chicken momos, we even have tandoori momos and we have started dipping momos in mayonnaise. If you think is it going to be another nostalgic trip? Yes, you are right. As I wrapped and stacked away one of the momo steamers I remembered that ten to eleven years ago I was so enamoured by momos that I gifted one of my dearest friends a momo steamer for her wedding, without removing the price sticker. To my defense, I had never bought wedding gifts and since I thought we loved momos so the most logical thing was to gift her a steamer for her new kitchen. Many years later when I recounted this incident to one of my friends he said that it speaks of a special bond.
True. A decade has passed by and today as my old fridge stopped working I received a whatsapp image of the beautiful kitchen garden she has been working on for months. She told me of the saplings that she is nurturing in egg shells to gift me. I told her that I will keep aside a planter to plant the saplings as soon as he gifts me. Over the years, I have come across people who are passionate about food and take a keen interest in my work on food. Two of the most exciting gifts I have received are two art works. One is titled Dey’s special Dilli Dekho Trips and the other a Delhi food map which has a very pointed instruction – Map to point, not to scale I would be ashamed to list down the books which I have acquired through coercion, coaxing and reciprocity. Next comes cutlery sets and kitchen utensils which friends have gifted me over the years. Finally, spice box sets and tea collections. I might be missing out few things related to food and kitchen that have not made its way into the list. Over the years I have started gifting friends interesting, quirky items and however my penchant for utilitarian items has not fizzled. Latest entry into that long list of gifts exchange is a pressure cooker bought for a friend to celebrate her 30th birthday.
Gifts come with a pressure of parting and it would be worthwhile reflecting on gifts we have found it difficult to part with. I will keep aside such confessions and turn your attention to my mother and her sister’s gift exchanges of tiffin box and a dear friend’s possession of gifts bought for her friends. My mother and her sister shared a common fondness and anxiety of possessing tiffin boxes. My mom and aunt had an eye for tiffin box of all makes and sizes to keep left over foods. They fondly gifted each other tiffin boxes and as years went by their collection increased. During one such gift exchanges my mother gifted her a tiffin box to realise that she had exactly gifted her the same tiffin box three years ago. On other hand, my aunt gifted a tiffin box to my mother. She started using it and it so happened that she ended up returning one of the same tiffin box thinking that my aunt had sent homemade goodies. I have never seen my mother buy a tiffin box ever since my aunt passed away. She has decreased her visit to the utensil market but her incessant complaints about lack of tiffin boxes has not ceased but to this date she regrets for mistaking a gift.
On the other hand, a friend of mine has a particular tendency of not being able to part with gifts she buys for others. She bought a beautiful book, wrote a sweet note for me and kept it in her bookshelf. When she realized that she was not able to part with it she decided to gift me another one. She thought its best to buy and gift a thing immediately before she develops any attachment. As I had some engagement she hung around in my neighbourhood for hours and landed up in my place mid-night so that it won’t find its way into her kitchen.
Hence it’s best to say that there are several emotions attached to gifts and gifting. Each culture has its own rules associated with gifts. As we step into the festive season and work on our checklists to buy gifts it would be worthwhile to step aside and think of moments of joy, reluctance and anger we have experienced in gift-exchange.