Crossing over the bridge from St. Mira’s College, Pune to RSI, I saw a train chugging along, seemingly embarking on a fresh new itinerary, as it hooted away to glory. I found myself gliding through my memory lane of three and a half decades old!
My family often visited Jaipur and Chennai yearly to attend marriages, since our clan is spread out, about ninety percent in Jaipur and five percent in Chennai. Going north-west and going down south were two polar opposite experiences which taught me a lot about geography, history, architecture, culture and above all gastronomy.
Talking about travelling to Jaipur, our very own Deccan Queen would take us to Mumbai. We would then get on the Frontier Mail from Mumbai to Sawai Madhopur. Now here the adrenalin rush would start. In a matter of a couple of minutes we would have to disembark from Frontier Mail, scoot with the family and luggage, cross over via a bridge to the other platform and ensure that full family and luggage got onto the only, daily, narrow gauge, coal fuelled train! If we made it then ….bless the Lord! … if not, then we would have two bleak options of either spending the next twenty four hours in an eerie and isolated waiting room on a lonely platform having one tea shack, or then throw caution to the winds and take the local bus. In the latter case…. the Lord bless us!
From Pune, almost halfway to Mumbai, as we would approach Karjat station, we would excitedly see vendors brandishing white paper packets containing two ‘aloo vadas’ each, from afar. All you needed to do was to bite into the steamy, golden fried vada. It would jumpstart your senses and enwrap you in ecstasy as you would want for more. Mashed potatoes gently flavored with ginger and garlic and strongly flavored with green chillies, dipped in yellow gram flour batter would be fried to perfection.
You could also find the accompaniment of ‘pav’ (mini bun) with green mint chutney or dry chutney powder of red chillies, roasted peanuts and desiccated coconut along with a big fried green chilly as if the existing dose of chillies was not enough! Does it sound like I have penned down an ode to this wonder snack?!
Second in line to the gastronomical throne was the ‘saboodana vada’. Also referred to as the fasting snack, it would simply melt in the mouth. Crispy fried roundels, embedded with half crushed, roasted peanuts, white soft pearly sago, green chillies, coriander and salt was something to yearn for. Nowadays it is served with sweet yoghurt.
With such exotic local food, why would someone order omelette and toast from the train pantry… I wonder! Only an outlander will, who has not yet discovered these gems.
Crossing over the boundary of Maharastra, we would have a brief tryst with Vadodara in Gujarat in the wee hours. I remember seeing mother through my sleepy eyes buying ‘masala chai’ from the vendors who managed to get into the bogie with a steel kettle.
Later in the day on entering the realm of Rajasthan, I would begin to notice a sea change in eating habits.
Now steaming, hot, soft and puffed puris and aloo bhaji garnished with red spicy oil and coriander served in patravalis (plates made of dry leaves) took over. Ginger tea would be served in kullads (earthen pots). The pleasure of sipping piping hot tea from an earthen pot on a cold wintery morning is second to none.
Moving on from Sawai Madhopur to Jaipur, there would be no sign of food or water. Except local tribal women in black or maroon would surprise us by hanging on to some support of our bogie while the train would start moving from a platform, would try selling us ‘singhara’ (water chestnut) and ‘sev’ wrapped in newspaper pieces.
Parched, hungry and covered with soot as we would arrive at Jaipur junction, our faces would light up to see our very own ‘pani puri’ sold as ‘golguppa’, fresh coconut barfi, walnut burfi (sindhis call it ‘ughum’ and they challenge anyone to replicate the way the Jaipuris make).
The crispy kachoris of Jaipur have a special place in the hearts of the locals. But instead of spicy black gram dal stuffing as we do here, they stuff kachoris with moist, luscious, spicy, sauted onions. One has to tap a hole in it and pour sweet and sour tamarind chutney!… Gastronomers’ paradise…. Need I say more?
These were my gold nuggets of experiences I gathered while travelling to Jaipur, the Pink City….. About Chennai ….well… some other time… filter coffee, anyone?