Saturday, May 20, 2017

Railway Food – Nostalgic Memories

Recently – I met a young Naval Officer. 

He told me that – nowadays – all officers are entitled to travel by air from the moment they are commissioned (I am sure this is the case with Civil Service Officers as well). 

Also – I see that most youngsters travel by air – IT Nerds – and even students – and hardly anyone travels by train on long journeys. 

And – even those who travel by train have to eat the standardised food – and they are not aware of the distinctive “Railway Cuisine” of yesteryear.

This reminded me of an article I wrote around 14 years ago in the year 2003 on my eating experiences on the Indian Railways  (various abridged versions of my article have been carried by journals, magazines, ezines and on my blogs)

Dear Reader: Here is the article – updated and abridged...

MOUTHWATERING MEMORIES OF RAILWAY FOOD
Foodie Memoirs of a Retired Veteran
By
VIKRAM KARVE 

PROLOGUE 

Many people say that the Indian Railways have improved tremendously due to the initiatives of the present Railway Minister. 

Most of these changes are welcome and much appreciated by all. 

However – one change which I feel sad about is the disappearance of traditional “Railway Cuisine” – the unique Railway Food.

Here is a revised, updated and abridged version of an article I wrote around 14 years ago in the year 2003 on the subject (various abridged versions of my article have been carried by journals, magazines, ezines and on my blogs).

TRAVELLING ON THE INDIAN RAILWAYS

Long ago  there was once something called “Railway Cuisine”

But now  the Indian Railways serves Standardised Food – and – with the advent of “standardized” foil-wrapped meals served on trains  those signature dishes of railway cuisine are a thing of the distant past.

Since my childhood – I have travelled extensively by train on the Indian Railways.

My father was in the Indian Air Force  and he was posted to distant remote places all over India.

So  we had to travel all over by train.

Later  in 1966  I was put in a boarding school near Ooty  in the Nilgiris – and twice a year  I had to make long journeys – home and back – for my vacations.

Each railway journey entailed 5 days and 4 nights of train travel.

First  there was a day’s travel down the hills  by the Nilgiri Mountain Railway (NMR).

Then  we had an overnight journey  from Mettupalayam to Madras (as Chennai was known then) – by the prestigious Blue Mountain Express (Nilgiri Express).

We then had to spend the day in Madras – and then  in the evening – we had to catch the Grand Trunk (GT) Express to New Delhi – or the Madras Howrah Mail to Calcutta (as Kolkata was known then) – both involving a journey of two nights in the train.

Finally  there was another overnight train journey to the remote station where my Dad was posted  “way up north” – or “distant north east”.

Later  I had to undergo long train journeys for vacations to and from Varanasi too  during my 5 years of engineering studies.

When I joined the Navy  in the 1970’s  most officers travelled by train  and I extensively travelled by train  on duty  and while going on leave  for most of my life during my navy days too.

In fact  those days – air travel was considered a luxury – and – in India  everyone travelled by train  except a few affluent individuals who travelled by air to and fro between big cities. 

There were just a few Indian Airlines flights to the handful of destinations within India – till the advent of the “Airlines Boom” – which changed everything  and now air travel has become quite common.

Around 15 years ago  I think after the 5th Pay Commission  all officers  civilian and military  were entitled to travel by air from the very moment they joined service  and the charm of train travel became a thing of the past. 


RAILWAY CUISINE

Around 14 years ago  in 2003  I had written an article on my Nostalgic Memories of Railway Food which I posted later on my Foodie Blogs and Creative Writing Blogs.

This blog post was appreciated by many Foodies and Railway Fans  and later an abridged version of this article was carried by newspaper supplements.

A few days ago  I tweeted a link to this article  and enthused by the response  I am posting a complete revised version of this article below for your perusal and comments.


RAILWAY FOOD – Nostalgic Memories by VIKRAM KARVE

When I was a small boy I travelled extensively all over India by trains  and one thing I looked forward to during my journeys was the delicious food  the distinctive Railway Cuisine – served in various restaurant and dining cars on prestigious trains  and  in railway refreshment rooms.

Yes  for most of my life  I have led a nomadic lifestyle  which entailed a lot of travel  mostly by train. 

The 1960’s and 1970’s were my halcyon days of travelling by the Indian Railways – first in the Third Class (long since abolished) – then by Second Class Sleeper – and – later – by First Class and Airconditioned Class Sleeper.

Rail journeys were exciting.

You travelled twice.

First – you travelled in your mind’s eye – imagining the exciting train journey.

Then – you physically performed the actual journey by train.

First  you read a fascinating book called the Railway Timetable  or Bradshaw  which told you everything about the train and the railway stations you were going to encounter enroute on your train journey.

This fascinating book and also gave you information about the food you could anticipate on your journey  indicated by symbols in the Timetable or Bradshaw.

Do you know that if a railway station had the letters “R V N S Bk” suffixed – then it meant that it had a Restaurant (R) – and  Vegetarian (V) and Non Vegetarian (N) Refreshment Rooms  a Tea Stall (S) – and  a Book Stall (Bk).

There were symbols which indicated whether a train had a Restaurant Car  a Dining Car  a Buffet Car  or a Pantry Car.

I eagerly looked forward to enjoying inimitable railway food  and for me this was the most exciting part of a train journey.

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 while travelling from Bombay (Mumbai) to Calcutta (Kolkata)

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 leisurely  savouring every bite  while enjoying the picturesque verdant scenery through the large open windows of the old style luxurious restaurant car.

The freshly cooked food was delicious  with that distinctive flavour of “railway cuisine”  and the meal was tastefully served on crockery and cutlery 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.

There were a variety of items on the menu  Indian and Continental  and the food was served fresh and piping hot.

We ate unhurriedly in relaxed ambiance.

It was a one hour run from Gondia (where we had boarded the restaurant car) to Dongargarh  where we had to get off the restaurant car and go back to our coach  but  even if you did not finish your meal by then  you could always get off the next station – which arrived after 30 minutes.

Those days most trains were not vestibuled  so suitable halts were provided for passengers to enter and leave Restaurant and Dining Cars.

I think the Calcutta Mail Restaurant Car (operated by South Eastern Railway) had the best menu – a variety of meals, snacks and the choicest of a la carte dishes  and even an impressive English Style full Tea Service albeit in typical Railway Pattern thick white crockery.

Today  if you travel by this celebrated train (renamed Mumbai Howrah Mail) – or for that matter  if you travel by any other train – you will have to eat cold insipid characterless “sanitized” foil-packed standardized “assembly line meals” in claustrophobic environs of your berth.

Restaurant Cars have disappeared.

Your bland “standardized menu” food is now pre-cooked and packed in a Pantry Car – or picked up at a “Base Catering Station”.

But  in those glorious days of yesteryear  most prestigious trains  especially in the central, western and northern parts of India  had restaurant and dining cars  run with pride and élan  each proudly serving its own distinctive cuisine 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 of a variety of cuisines – continental food being its forte – and I have fond mouthwatering memories of delicious dining as the magnificent train sped past the plains and deserts towards Delhi.

And  how can I forget those piping hot nourishing cutlets, baked beans on toast, and delicious omelettes in the Restaurant Car of the magnificent Deccan Queen  looking out of the windows at the magnificent picturesque spectacle of the lights of Khopoli twinkling far down below from the misty Western Ghats.

The Mumbai Pune Deccan Queen is still the pride of the Central Railway  but I do not know whether there still exists the Restaurant Car  or whether it has been replaced by a Pantry Car.

Yes  those days  the Central Railway ran a superb Restaurant Car on the Deccan Queen  and I still cannot forget the wholesome breakfast comprising cornflakes, eggs to order, fresh crisp buttered toast and tea which I enjoyed on my way from Poona (Pune) to Bombay (Mumbai)  and the scrumptious fish and chips or yummy baked beans on toast I hungrily devoured on my way back in the evening enjoying the magnificent picturesque spectacle of the lights of Khopoli twinkling far down below while the Deccan Queen chugged up the misty Western Ghats.

Whereas Restaurant Cars served a variety of a la carte dishes  as well as standard fixed-menu meals  Dining Cars primarily served meals.

The Grand Trunk (GT) Express had a Dining Car operated by the Southern Railway which served South Indian Thali Meals – but this was quite a run-of-the-mill dining car – as was the rather unimpressive dining car of the Kalka Delhi Howrah which got detached at Mughal Sarai.

Some Metre Gauge Trains had “Royal” old-world style restaurant and dining cars too  where one enjoyed a leisurely meal  with the restaurant car coach vibrating in Metre Gauge fashion  in the unhurried ambiance  and  I clearly remember having a fulfilling breakfast in the ancient rickety dining car of the Viramgam – Okha Saurashtra Mail way back in the 1970’s.

Down South  dining and restaurant cars were not in vogue  but there were many “legendary” refreshment rooms which were famous for their signature cuisine.

Guntakal on the Bombay (Mumbai)  Madras (Chennai) route was famous for its sumptuous Biryani  and  “Meal Canvassers” would enter the train well in advance  to sell you “meal tickets” to book your meals  as was the prevalent practice on the South Central Railway.

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 from refreshment rooms.  

You could eat the piping hot food unhurriedly as the cutlery was taken away at the next station after an hour or so.

I still recall the lip-smacking Southern Railway Specialty “Deluxe” Meal of Mutton Madras Curry and Rice.

I think it was the same was with the Northern, North-Eastern and North East Frontier (NF) Railways  where many trains did not have dining cars  but delicious food was served in running trains from the Refreshment Rooms of the big Railway Junctions.

In some places like Waltair and Kazipet (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.

Even the railway restaurants and refreshment rooms at important stations served unique railway cuisine.

At Churchgate in Mumbai  the Mezzanine Floor food stall served delicious meals and snacks  and so did the old world Refreshment Rooms at Chennai (then Madras Central), Mumbai CST (then Bombay VT), Delhi Main (Old Delhi), Howrah, Lucknow, Kalyan, Nagpur, Lucknow, Allahabad, Mughal Sarai, Guntakal and Pune  where one could relish a hearty English Breakfast with cornflakes et al.

And  there were many tiny refreshment rooms like the ones in Igatpuri, Ernakulam and Daund  where one could hop in for a quick Mutton or Chicken Biryani  while the engines were being changed.

Yes  refreshment rooms served distinctive railway cuisine – many had their own signature dishes – and  I cherish fond memories of so many eating experiences.

How can I ever forget those nostalgic food memories of a quaint railway station called Rampur Hat on the Sahibganj Loop of the Eastern Railway way back in the 1960’s.

I remember that the best thing about Rampur Hat Railway Station was its Refreshment Room.

In fact  the Railway Refreshment Room was the best restaurant in Rampur Hat town in those days – and  it was the only decent eatery where you could go with your family to relish a tasty meal.

Two important trains halted for meals at Rampur Hat – Darjeeling Mail [Sealdah to New Jalpaiguri] – and  Upper India Express [Sealdah to Delhi]  and  while the travellers enjoyed their meals in the refreshment room  the Steam Engines got topped up too.

Around 50 years have passed since – and  I wonder whether the Refreshment Room at Rampur Hat Railway Station is still as famous as it was way back then.

I remember those glorious days of delicious dining – savouring sumptuous unique railway cuisine – relished in deluxe environs in a relaxed unhurried way – sitting comfortably in restaurant cars and dining cars - while enjoying the picturesque scenery through the open windows along with your food.

The inimitable exciting dining experience sitting in restaurant cars each serving unique cuisine has disappeared – these are distant memories – a thing of the past.

Today  you have to eat insipid characterless “sanitized” foil-packed standardized food in claustrophobic environs of your berth or on your seat.

Yes  the glorious days of the “Railway Dining Experience” are long over.

“Standardization” and “Outsourcing” have killed the uniqueness and distinctiveness of Railway Cuisine.

The food you get on the railways is the same as the food you get elsewhere.

In fact  now  there is no such thing as “Railway Cuisine” – and  only mouthwatering memories remain.

And  of course  nowadays  most of my young friends  even my young “fauji” friends – they mostly travel by air  or they prefer to “drive down”  rather than travel by train.

Have you travelled by train...?

Yes...?

Then  will you be so good as to comment – and  will you please recall your delightful “railway food” dining and eating experiences  and tell us about the varied railway cuisine you enjoyed in those “good old days”

And  if you still travel by train  do tell us about your yummy railway food experiences while travelling on the Indian Railways in recent times.

The next time you travel on a train (or even while you nostalgically travel in your Mind’s Eye)  please do tell us about your mouth-watering memories of Railway Food.

Happy Eating – especially while travelling on the Indian Railways.

VIKRAM KARVE
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All stories in this blog are a work of fiction. Events, Places, Settings and Incidents narrated in the stories are a figment of my imagination. The characters do not exist and are purely imaginary. Any resemblance to persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.

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This a revised and updated version of my Article of RAILWAY CUISINE which I wrote more than 14 years ago, in the year 2003, and I have posted it online in my blogs a number of times including at url: http://creative.sulekha.com/railway-food-nostalgic-memories_383017_blog – later an revised/abridged version of my article has been published in magazines and I have posted it online many times including at url: http://karvediat.blogspot.in/2014/12/railway-food-mouthwatering-memories.html and http://karvediat.blogspot.in/2016/04/railway-cuisine-extinct-food.html etc 
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