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Gravy Trail.

Byline: Sourish Bhattacharyya

In one single train journey you can find out what titillates the different palates of India, simply because each railway station has its special treats. By Sourish Bhattacharyya

"The most objectionable feature in connection with the Indian railways," fumed Edmund Hall in The European in India in 1871, "is the extreme defectiveness of the refreshment arrangements." In the many decades that have lapsed since Mr Hall articulated his complaint against railway cuisine, it only seems to have gotten worse--the chicken curry, the definitive symbol of soul food on the railways, flows like the Ganges in the season of floods; the blink-and-you-miss paneer sinks without a trace into a watery grave.

The sights and sounds of the railway platforms are just like how Mark Channing described them back in 1936 in his delightful travelogue, India Mosaic. Even today, you just can't replicate the experience of waking up to "the piercing cry of vendors". Each railway platform greets you with a shrill cacophony of a rustic brass band and a bouquet of unique aromas that competes with the overpowering stench of urine for the attention of your nose.

In Curries and Bugles: A Cookbook of the British Raj, Jennifer Brennan calls it the "olfactory assault; the mingled smells of curries, fried puris and samosas, rose perfume from the gulab jamuns..." The everlasting beauty of the railway experience, despite the jostling, the stench, and the corruption, is in the world of flavours and tastes it opens up for you. A journey is as much about gastronomic serendipity as it is about connecting with India on the tracks of the Mahatma, Jawaharlal Nehru and more recently, Rahul Gandhi. It wasn't always so.

By the 1920s, says David Burton in The Raj at Table, every big station had three dining rooms on the platform--European, Hindu and Muslim. The panoply of food carts that crowd railway platforms today weren't part of the layout then. In those days, Burton informs us, the European restaurants would serve "horrendously overpriced" food and lukewarm beer and soda, but the Muslim dining rooms would inveigle the travellers with "the delicious aromas of kebabs and pilaus which wafted from them". These dining rooms have disappeared over time, so has the prospect of getting a beer, lukewarm or otherwise, but they've been replaced by a world of vendors who make sure that each station remains etched in our memory.

One of my early memories of train travel was waking up to the grating nasal voice of the chai vendors at the Burdwan station on the way to Kolkata. I got the feeling that they'd been coached by the railway authorities to develop voices that could awaken even the most resolutely sleepy traveller. The size of the earthen cups in which they serve their brew also was a source of great amusement for me. Couldn't they have made them smaller?

Much later did I realise that the mugs in which we were used to drinking tea in Delhi wouldn't work in places where life moved at a gentle pace, where endless cups of treacly tea pop up like persistent punctuation marks during the course of a day. In Nashik, as I went from one grape farmer's house to another, I figured out the logic of serving a guest half a cup of tea that was more like a standing invitation to diabetes. You've got to drink this tea wherever you go and you're likely to drink at least eight to ten cups during the course of a working day. Just try to calculate the sugar overload.

Another childhood memory that never seems to get flushed out of my system is the time I nearly missed the train to Udaipur, thanks to the mesmerising aroma of the delicious mawa ke kachori being fried on an early morning at the Neem Ka Thana station in Sikar district. I kept watching the kachoris emerge from the pool of oil only to be dipped into the sugar syrup, and I felt like the couple bees hovering around the treacle in the hope of some refreshment. I was so riveted by the sight and the smell that I went into a trance, which was broken by the desperate screams of my mother who thought she had lost her son. With an alacrity I'll be hard put to replicate today, I jumped on to the train, carrying with the memory of that divine smell.

There's not a railway station in our country without its special treats. I can't imagine leaving Agra without its pethas--as sweet as Shah Jahan's love for his beloved Mumtaz Mahal. I have never been to the Old Delhi Railway Station without succumbing to the temptation of digging the uniformly round pooris accompanied by the Purani Dilli favourite--watery aloo ki sabzi spiked with Bengal grams. And of course, when I am in Chandigarh waiting for my Shatabdi, I must have Verka's packaged lassi. It's as addictive as the hot and cold badam milk that's sold at Nandini Cooperative Milk Union stalls at all Karnataka stations.

Trawling the Web for references to railway station cuisine, I stumbled upon a lively travel forum on IndiaMike.com. I found it to be a riveting read, for the sheer variety of food memories that global souls take back from Indian railway platforms. In Kerala, we are told, we must try the pazham puri (sweet banana fritters) with sukku (ginger) tea. At Vadodara, you must have the piping hot jalebis with milk. For poori-bhaji, check out Mughalsarai, Asia's largest railway junction; sample the vada pav at Mumbai CST, Chicken 65 at Visakhapatnam and jhaal moori (where else?) at Howrah.

Go for the oranges at Nagpur (they don't get better anywhere else in India), have the dosa and vada from Kwality Caterers at Erode in Tamil Nadu, chikkis at Lonavla, and custard apple at Rajahmundry in Andhra Pradesh. Where else in our monochromatic world, where the golden arches of McDonald's signify the railway station dining experience, will you get so many different tastes and flavours to make you want to go on an endless train journey?

A train journey is the best way to find out what titillates the many different palates of India. It is said that the Indian kitchen alters its offerings every 50 kilometres. You don't realise it till you see the offering change from one railway station to another. From the mawa ke kachori of Neem Ka Thana to the Chicken 65 of Vizag, there's a world of food out there. Dig into as much of it as you can. It's like having India on a platter.

TEN RAILWAY STATION MUST-HAVES

Agra: Petha

Allahabad: Motichoor Laddoos

Varanasi: Guavas (in season)

Gorakhpur: Rabdi

Ahmedabad: Vadilal Ice-cream

Surat: Undhiyon (mixed vegetables)

Lonavala: Cashewnut Chikki

Kolhapur: Sugarcane Juice

Mangalore: Egg Biriyani

Ernakulam: Sweet Banana Fritters

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Publication:India Today Travel Plus
Geographic Code:9INDI
Date:Nov 1, 2009
Words:1144
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