Sunday, April 12, 2015

EATING ON THE INDIAN RAILWAYS - Nostalgic Mouthwatering Memories of Railway Food

From my Foodie Archives...

Foodie Memoirs of a Retired Veteran

Long ago  there was a distinctive genre of food called “Railway Cuisine”.

But now  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 Air Force – and he was posted to distant places all over India  so we had to travel all over India 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 on the Indian Railways – home and back – for my vacations.

Each railway journey entailed 5 days and 4 nights of train travel (one way).

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

Then  we had an overnight journey  from Mettupalayam to Madras (as Chennai was known then).

We then had to spend the day in Madras – and then  in the evening  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 – either “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 transfer – on duty  and while going on leave  for most of my life during my navy days too.

In fact  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.

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

Around 10 years ago  in 2004  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.

Here is link to one such article - do click the link to open in an new window to read later:

But first – do read the post below.

A few months ago  I tweeted a link to this article  and enthused by the response  I posted a complete revised version of this article.

Now – I am posting the article once more at the request of a friend...

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.

Rail journeys were exciting.

You travelled twice – first in your mind’s eye – and 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 – 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), 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.

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, and 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 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 to Dongargarh from Gondia, where we had boarded the restaurant car, and even if you did not finish your meal by then, you could always get off the next station.

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 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, vibrating 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, Mughalsarai, 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 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 – the 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.

Almost 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 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, mostly travel by air, or prefer to “drive down”, rather than travel by train.

Have you travelled by train?


Then will you be so good as to comment and recall for all of us your delightful “railway food” dining and eating experiences and tell us of 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.

Copyright © Vikram Karve 
1. If you share this post, please give due credit to the author Vikram Karve
2. Please DO NOT PLAGIARIZE. Please DO NOT Cut/Copy/Paste this post
© vikram karve., all rights reserved.

All stories in this blog are a work of fiction. Events, Places, Settings and Incidents narrated in the story 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.

Copyright Notice:
No part of this Blog may be reproduced or utilized in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical including photocopying or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the Blog Author Vikram Karve who holds the copyright.

Copyright © Vikram Karve (all rights reserved)

I wrote this foodie article more than 10 years ago, in the year 2004, and have posted it online in my blogs a number of times including at url:  and  and

No comments: