This was the era of rail travel in a newly independent India. Steam engines with coal-fed furnaces and whistles, semaphore signals and tokens in large cane rings that engine drivers picked up at each station for a safe run to the next. The travel was slow but the travel treats were many and lasted all through the journey.
During the summer vacation, we would travel from Calicut to Ernakulam. It was a little over a hundred kilometres away – less than an hour’s travel really in a modern crossover. But the journey in those days took the best part of a day and included breakfast, lunch and tea.
The first leg of the journey was a slow-train ride from Calicut to Tirur. It was a long wait for breakfast! Every little while we asked the same question – how much time would it take to get to Tirur? At Tirur station, our coach stopped quite close to what was then called the VRR (Vegetarian Refreshment Room). There were just four items on the menu and so it was easy to pick a dosa or vada and scale up quickly to the VRR Special – vermicelli payasam. This was a hot, sweet concoction of milk and vermicelli loaded with raisins and cashew nuts and flavoured with a dash of cardamom. A payasam is normally had as a dessert, but the Tirur VRR payasam was an exception to the rule.
Once the payasam glass was returned, there was nothing left to do but wait for lunch at Shornur. In those days Shornur was an important junction on the Southern Railway. For a period of time, Spencers held the catering rights at Shornur and gave travellers a true taste of old-world railway food. They had an a la carte menu and produced everything on it while you sat in the dining room on the platform and ate what the cook made for you. Their mutton cutlets still make one hum “Memories are made of this…”
But there were other choices too at the NVRR (Non-Vegetarian Refreshment Room) at Shorunr. Two stations before the train steamed into Shornur, the waiter from the NVRR walked the length of the train and you could place your orders for the incredible mutton or chicken biriyani that the junction was famous for. It came like a fragrant pyramid of grain with a boiled egg poised on the top and caramelised onions strewn all over. Equal parts of yellow, orange and white rice with spice-coated meat hidden underneath and a simple curd and onion raita on the side. You could take your time eating it and suck every bit of flavour off the bones. The plates were collected many stops after you had licked your fingers of all the great taste.
The biriyani worked as a lullaby in the hot afternoon. When one woke up, it was time to push one’s head out of the train window once again to see if the vendors at Alwaye station were selling freshly made sugeen in their wooden cases. Sugeen was a deep-fried tea-time snack – it was shaped like a batata-wada but was filled with a green gram (moong) stuffing held together in a flavoured jaggery syrup. Adults followed this with a cup of hot tea but as children we skipped the tea and opted for a second sugeen.