Old hands in the travel trade often say that everything was better in the past. There were many undiscovered destinations with exotic local foods instead of a McDonald’s everywhere. But it’s not quite true that everything was better. Just the other day, passing through Bengaluru Junction, I was struck by how the station has become something of a foodie destination.
Gone are the days when you had to be satisfied with a soggy dosa decomposing on the canteen counter. I was salivating at the new options, ranging from freshly cooked pure-veg food at Aaharam, Dakshen, and Kadamba to exclusively non-vegetarian biryanis at Neethu’s Kitchen or tandoori chicken for just ₹132 at Comesum Food Junction, which is open 24×7.
While I binged at Kadamba’s kiosk on the fluffiest idlis I had eaten in a long time, I started having flashbacks of the 20-odd years I’ve spent eating Indian railway food.
There were obvious low points, like the time when a train ride never seemed to end and there was no food left on board. With fearful gastric acidity building up, I jumped off at the a station to buy whatever edibles were available: I found only deep-fried chilli pakoras. They might have been perfect as an accompaniment to a pitcher of chilled beer but when a man is starving, super hot chilli pakoras are the last thing to eat.
But other journeys have been real food adventures. I once did an epic ride from Thiruvananthapuram to Guwahati and this is the way I recall it. For starters, out-of-this-world appams with an onion-rich coconut-milky stew, on the platform before boarding, made me upbeat about spending half a week on the train. Later in the afternoon, I snacked on those utterly delicious banana fritters that one only gets in Kerala, washed down with a cup of cardamom chai.
Sometime very early the next morning I had a spectacular cup of ginger-flavoured coffee at Salem station in Tamil Nadu, and later, feeling the first hunger pangs of the day, brunched on one of the best ghee onion rava dosas in my travelling life at Chennai Central, where the train docked after nearly 900 kilometres. A large portion of the journey was through Andhra Pradesh, the home of some of the classiest biryanis. I had one for lunch at Vijayawada and then another for dinner at Vishakapatnam.
The next morning, we had arrived in West Bengal, where hawkers came onboard to peddle mishti doi, sweet curd in cool clay pots. Then, after about 2,600 kilometres, one could stretch one’s legs for half an hour in Kolkata and eat luchis and potato curry. Shortly afterwards, as the train trudged north, vendors peddling nimbu cha, lime tea with a hint of chaat masala, boarded alongside bands of Bauls who provided teatime musical entertainment.
The final morning, the tea got even better: Assam is famous for its lal sah, sugary red without milk, bringing out the rich flavour of the brew. After a thoroughly satisfying journey of 3,582 kilometres over some 100 hours, I rounded off the trip with a rickshaw ride to Hotel Bellevue where I rewarded myself with a suitable dessert—a chilled beer, a club sandwich, and a view of the Brahmaputra River.
As far as I have counted, there are in all 6,848 railway stations in India and I’ve only visited a fraction of them, so I’m left with a nagging feeling that there’s lots of food left to be eaten.
Someone should publish an Indian Railways gourmet guide or start an eat-out-at-your-local-station-dotcom. Let me inaugurate the project by sharing a few other important food experiences that I’ve had: the unexpectedly delicious fish curry in the canteen at Jamshedpur, the robust Tamilian non-veg biryanis sold on the platform at Katpadi Junction, the crunchy-spicy, piping maddur vadas sold at a station between Bengaluru and Mysore, the flavoured, fresh milk at Anand station in Gujarat, and last but not least the vada pao at any station in Goa made with that chewy Goan pao—it beats the Mumbai version of the same dish any day. If you’ve come to the right station (such as Bengaluru Junction), today’s railway food is certainly more likely to be a hit than a miss.
Appeared in the April 2013 issue as “Meal Ticket”.
Zac O'Yeah is the author of the Bengaluru crime novel trilogy "Mr Majestic", "Hari, a Hero for Hire" and "Tropical Detective" (Pan Macmillan India) and his latest travel book is "A Walk Through Barygaza" (Amazon/Westland Books 2017).