Much like armies, train travelers in India march on their stomachs. And this was certainly true when I was a child, growing up in the 1980s, in the southern city of Chennai. My most vivid memories of summer vacations are of overnight train journeys to Hyderabad, to visit my maternal grandparents. The trips were defined by food.
As soon as the train left Chennai station, my mother would open a container of munchies for the evening – perhaps a homemade snack like murukku (a crunchy fried snack made from lentil and rice flour) or thattai (savory crisps made of lentil flour) or boiled peanuts tossed with onions, cilantro and mild spices. She would wash this down with a cup of tea bought from the passing chai wallahs (tea vendors), who hopped on and off at the small stations on the way.
While I didn’t care for chai, I waited impatiently for the calls of a different vendor, one selling carbonated beverages. His arrival would be announced by the mellifluous metal-meets-glass trrring of the metal bottle opener being dragged across lukewarm Coca-Cola bottles, followed by the singsong call of “Cooldreengs! Cooldreengs!” (his rendition of “Cold drinks! Cold drinks!”) These journeys were one of the few times my mother (my father rarely accompanied us on these trips) allowed me to indulge in a bottle of carbonated coolness.
Back then, few trains had their own kitchens or cafés and one couldn’t plan on buying meals from railway stations along the way – both because options were limited and because it was frowned upon as being unhygienic. And so, carrying your own food was the norm for most passengers traveling on India’s vast rail network (the world’s largest), which transports millions of people each day between more than 70,000 stations across the country.
And for me, the real culinary fun lay in the rarer, longer journeys to faraway cities, also to visit extended family. A trip to the capital city, New Delhi in northern India, meant at least 36 hours of being cooped up inside a coach, which in turn meant packing for various meals before the journey. The food experience on these journeys was a fine symphony, one meal following another.
Come mealtime, a multi-tier, steel tiffin box would emerge from a bag that was specially set aside for food; maybe soft rotis, with a side of dry potato and onion curry, or my favorite puliyodharai, a tart and spicy rice dish, cooked mixed with a tamarind paste and local spices.
Somehow, in that tiny space of the railway coach, food always tasted divine. Take the somewhat bland breakfast staple of south India, the idli – a steamed lentils and rice cake, often eaten with podi, a fiery, dry chutney made of lentils, spices and fragrant sesame oil. Eating idlis for breakfast, while staring out bleary-eyed at the fleeting glimpses of unknown villages, felt like tasting an exotic new dish.
Often, a distant aunt living in a city along the route would bring food to the station; catching up with family and filling our bellies in one fell swoop.
All that aside, food and the sharing of it on these train journeys also turned complete strangers into friends. To me, growing up in a conservative south Indian city with few opportunities to try other cuisines, the food of other Indian communities was a revelation, one that I embraced with wide eyes and open arms.
My first such interaction was with a Chennai-based, noisy family originally from the northwestern state of Gujarat.
Hardly an hour after the train had pulled out of Chennai, the matriarch pulled out a complicated set of steel boxes and plastic covers brimming with the basic ingredients of a dish, including crisp puffed rice, fresh vegetables and chutneys.
I watched, fascinated, as she set up a veritable kitchen for her family, chopping and mixing effortlessly. She whipped up plate after tantalizing plate of bhel puri, a popular Mumbai street snack that is – as I was soon to discover – a sublime mélange of tastes and textures.
She held out a plate to me, which I shyly refused. Go on, she urged me. “Food is never food unless you share it with others, no?” she said. I accepted and found love at first bite.
I also remember a hearty Punjabi woman we met on another trip. She sighed at my mother’s humble offering of idlis. “I can never make such soft idlis at home,” she said, as I bit into her fragrant alu paratha (a flaky, potato-stuffed Indian bread), wondering why anyone who could eat such manna every day would ever want an idli.
These food exchanges would invariably extend into detailed introductions, exchange of family histories, discovery of common acquaintances, all culminating in a boisterous game of cards or round of antakshari (contest of Hindi movie songs) and a final promise to keep in touch.
I think back fondly of these times during my rare train journeys these days; like many in India’s upwardly mobile middle class, I have mostly switched to the convenience of air travel. I was especially distressed when recently, my husband held out a box of homemade cake to a little girl on the next seat, only to be rudely ticked off by the mother, who then lectured her daughter about the dangers of accepting food from strangers.
“We live in times of fear and insecurity,” says Kurush Dalal, a chef and culinary anthropologist from Mumbai. “In my childhood days, we could walk up to any house on the street in the middle of a cricket game and demand water. Often we would get rose sherbet or lemonade instead of plain water. But that is no longer possible for kids.”
Dalal carries this forward to train travel. These days, he says, passengers hesitate to even talk to fellow passengers. “Food was an incredibly communal thing till about 20 years ago,” he says. “Plus, there were large families living and travelling together, the mothers and grandmothers taking care of the food. That has also vanished.”
Indeed, there have been several significant societal changes within a single generation. My own quick survey on social media revealed that my friends who take trains don’t carry food – they simply don’t have the time and patience for it. There are now foil packaged meals served out of train kitchens and phone apps that allow pre-ordering of food, delivered at the next station.
Interestingly, all these friends also claim to miss the days of family travel, and complain about the quality of commercial train food.
Nevertheless, “even [commercial] train food has a die-hard loyal clientele,” says Dalal.
Take for example, the chicken cutlets made by the pantry of the Gitanjali Express, a train between Mumbai and Kolkata. Even though there is a faster train between the two cities, Dalal says he knows a number of people who prefer to take the Gitanjali just to enjoy its famous chicken cutlets.
But the culture of carrying home-cooked food on trains hasn’t entirely disappeared, Dalal assures me. Despite the popularity of air travel, the number of Indians traveling by train has only grown in recent years, he says. That’s because a growing number of Indians in rural areas are traveling to other parts of the country in search of better education and work prospects. Most can’t afford to buy food on these long train journeys. “I have seen that most of them bring their food,” he adds.
As for me, I’m trying to hold onto this tradition on my occasional train journey these days, even if I can no longer share my food with fellow passengers. On a recent trip to Chennai to visit my parents, I decided to take the train back home to Bangalore, where I now live – a short journey of six hours.
“Shall I pack some food for you?” asked my mother. “Idli and podi,” I replied promptly. My mother could not, for the life of her, fathom this request – when I could have any delicacy from her kitchen, why this boring staple? What she didn’t know was that this simple dish tasted of something no other food could compete with: nostalgia.