Finding some gem of food/drink on India’s trains/station. My childhood was spent in an industrial town that once claimed to have Asia’s largest steel plant. As quaint and pristine it was in the seventies and eighties with a cosmopolitan populace from across the country, it had the smallest of railway station with hardly a few trains stopping by.
One of the trains that stopped at Bokaro Steel City was Hatia-Patna express, a night train to Patna. On our yearly sojourn to Patna my brother and I made it a point to wake past midnight. The temptation of having the sweet lai at Gaya station was very strong. Though the ancient city famous for Budhha’s enlightenment attracted people from all over the world, its famous sweets tilkut, anarsa, khaza and lai have also a big fan following. Now having lived in some ten cities of India and extensively travelling through the length and breadth of the country I still couldn’t find ‘lai’ anywhere outside Gaya. It tasted delicious and as one bit one’s teeth into it, it felt like tiny beads of thermocol, the sponginess and softness thoroughly irresistible.
Growing up as we left our cosy nests for studies in bigger cities, Neelachal Express (Puri-Delhi) became the students train from Bokaro and Jamshedpur. Boarding it at around midnight, we would wait for its stoppage at Mughalsarai station, recently named Pandit Deen Dayal Upadhyay station. What we found interesting was the roasted peanuts, broken roughly to which was added freshly cut tiny bits of onion, green chilliesd and tomatoes. To this was sprinkled some black salt and lemon juice of squeezed over it. Healthy and refreshing morning snack to look forward to on a train journey. Later at my home I have served this quick snack with cocktails and mocktails, loved by my guests. The tangy chaat also goes well with sweet and tangy lemon tea. It was a novelty to my neighbours when I lived in Maharashtra and Gujarat. I myself had this ‘chatpata’ lemon tea with the ubiquitous ‘jhalmuri’ in the Black Diamond train travelling from Dhanbad to Kolkata.
While traversing the country I had savoured the spicy, sweet. Sour street food readily available at the stations when few decades back we used to fill our water bottles from the platform taps and carried an earthen ‘surahi’ in long distance trains. Now with everything sanitized and bottled water a must have, I do miss the station type hot ‘poori-aloo’ or the quintessential Odisha favourite ‘dahi vada-aloo dum’ combination. The station vendors have also been replaced with IRCTC stalls or approved caterers still the earthen cups with a man with steaming spout of the aluminium kettle is a sight to behold in some remote stations. The filter coffee of south, the lal-chai of Assam, black Darjeeling tea in north Bengal are to name a few. I still tend to buy Mysore-pak from Madurai, lal peda from Mathura and the peanuts at Vapi station. However, some pantries in trains equally surprised me as I had one of the tastiest vegetable cutlets in Bengal and Delhi-Jaipur trains. But my vote goes to Mandovi Express from Goa to Mumbai. A light eater in train journeys I couldn’t resist the piping hot dosas and uttapams served on banana leaves. With an extensive menu card offering halwa (sheera) to chicken Manchurian, my kids drooled over the finest food they had on train. I call it the ‘Gourmet train’ with a view as the spectacular Konkan scenery rolling past the large windows gives you a moving culinary experience, literally.