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Railway cuisine

Roast chicken? It must be SE Railway


There was once something called the railway cuisine. But it is now an extinct idea - those foil-wrapped meals have killed the idea of hot, signature dishes.

For most of my life I've led a nomadic lifestyle, which entailed a lot of train travel. Rail journeys were exciting because you travelled twice - first in your mind and then in the real world.

First, you read a fascinating book called the railway timetable, or Bradshaw, which told you everything about the train and the stations en route, especially about the food you could anticipate, indicated by symbols. Do you know, for instance, that if a railway station was suffixed with the letters "RVNSbk", it had restaurants (R), vegetarian (V) as well as non vegetarian (N), refreshment room/tea stall (S) and a book stall (bk).

I still have vivid childhood memories of the delicious continental lunch I relished in the restaurant car of the iconic 1 Down Calcutta Mail via Nagpur. The year was 1963, and as the train chugged its way from Gondia to Dongargarh through the dense jungles of the Gondwana forests, we ate at leisure, savouring every bite, and enjoying the verdant scenery through the large open windows of the old style luxurious restaurant car. The freshly cooked food had the distinctive flavour of "railway cuisine". And the crockery and the cutlery were embossed with the symbols of the South Eastern Railway. I ate roast chicken, my father had fish and chips and my mother preferred the Indian style vegetarian thali meal.

I think the Calcutta Mail restaurant car (operated by South Eastern Railway) had the best menu - a variety of meals, snacks and the choicest a la carte dishes. It even had an impressive English-style full tea service in typical thick white crockery.

Today, if you travel by this celebrated train, or for that matter by any other train, you have to make do with cold, insipid and characterless sanitised, foil-packed, assemblyline meals in the claustrophobic environs of your berth.

Restaurant cars have disappeared and the food is now pre-cooked and packed in a pantry car or picked up at a base catering station. But in those decades, most prestigious trains - especially those running across northern India - served distinctive cuisines and signature dishes.

The Frontier Mail (now renamed Golden Temple Mail) had a deluxe restaurant car run by the Western Railway which served inimitable dishes. I have fond memories of delicious dining as the magnificent train sped past the plains and deserts towards Delhi.

The Central Railway ran a superb restaurant car on the Deccan Queen that runs between Mumbai and Pune and I still cannot forget the wholesome breakfast comprising cornflakes, eggs to order, fresh crisp buttered toast and tea. Then there were the scrumptious fish and chips or baked beans on toast that I devoured while enjoying the lights of Khopoli twinkling far down below the ghat.

The Grand Trunk Express had a dining car operated by the Southern Railway which served South Indian thali meals, but this was a run-of-the-mill dining car, as was the rather unimpressive dining car of the Kalka-Delhi-Howrah, which got detached at Mughalsarai.

Some metre gauge trains had old-world style restaurant and dining cars too, where one could enjoy a leisurely meal. I clearly remember having a fulfilling breakfast in the ancient, rickety dining car of the Viramgam-Okha Saurashtra Mail way back in the 1970s.

Guntakal on the Bombay (Mumbai)-Madras (Chennai) route was famous for its sumptuous biryani. "Meal canvassers" would enter the train well in advance to sell you "meal tickets". Generally the train conductor took your meal order which was sent ahead by railway telegram and delicious hot food in quintessential railway white cutlery was served in your compartment. I still recall the lipsmacking Southern Railway specialty - mutton Madras curry and rice.

In some places like Waltair (where there was a rake reversal) or Igatpuri (where there was an engine change) the train stopped long enough for you to have a hot meal in the refreshment room. And how can I ever forget the food memories of a quaint railway station called Rampur Hat on the Sahibganj Loop of the Eastern Railway way back in the 1960s? The railway refreshment room in Rampur Hat, in fact, was the best restaurant in the town those days.

The author is a retired naval officer.

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