Friday, March 1, 2013

RAILWAY FOOD - Mouthwatering Nostalgic Memories

My Article on Heritage Railway Cuisine recounting my Mouthwatering Memories of Eating Experiences on the Indian Railways was published in The Times of India Crest Edition (Times Crest) on Saturday 23 Feb 2013. 

Here is the link to the article:

http://www.timescrest.com/coverstory/roast-chicken-it-must-be-se-railway-9814

My article appeared edited and abridged due to space constraints.

Here is the full unedited unabridged version of my piece on Railway Food


MEMORIES OF RAILWAY FOOD
By
VIKRAM KARVE

For most of my life I’ve lead 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 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 stations enroute, especially about the food you could anticipate, indicated by symbols.

Do you know that if a railway station had the letters “RVNSbk” suffixed it meant that it had a Restaurant (R) Vegetarian (V) and Non Vegetarian (N) Refreshment Rooms Tea Stall (S) and a Book Stall (bk) and there were symbols which indicated whether a train had a Restaurant, Dining, Buffet or 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 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, or for that matter 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 and 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 √©lan, each proudly serving its own distinctive cuisine and signature dishes.

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

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 and I have fond mouthwatering memories of delicious dining as the magnificent train sped past the plains and deserts towards Delhi.

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.

The Grand Trunk 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.

In some places like Waltair (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. 

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

And 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.

The Indian Railways took justifiable pride in their food and catering services. 

I have heard of the famous Heritage Railway Hotel of the Bengal Nagpur Railway (South Eastern Railway) at Puri and I understand that it is probably the last bastion of the Culinary Heritage of the Indian Railways. 

Yes, Railway Cuisine was distinctive and unique in taste and style, and the Indian Railways indeed had an inimitable Culinary Heritage. .

Now it is all 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.

VIKRAM KARVE
Copyright © Vikram Karve 2013
Vikram Karve has asserted his right under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 to be identified as the author of this work. 
© vikram karve., all rights reserved.

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About Vikram Karve

A creative person with a zest for life, Vikram Karve is a retired Naval Officer turned full time writer and blogger. Educated at IIT Delhi, IIT (BHU) Varanasi, The Lawrence School Lovedale and Bishops School Pune, Vikram has published two books: COCKTAIL a collection of fiction short stories about relationships (2011) and APPETITE FOR A STROLL a book of Foodie Adventures (2008) and is currently working on his novel and a book of vignettes and an anthology of short fiction. An avid blogger, he has written a number of fiction short stories and creative non-fiction articles on a variety of topics including food, travel, philosophy, academics, technology, management, health, pet parenting, teaching stories and self help in magazines and published a large number of professional  and academic research papers in journals and edited in-house journals and magazines for many years, before the advent of blogging. Vikram has taught at a University as a Professor for 15 years and now teaches as a visiting faculty and devotes most of his time to creative writing and blogging. Vikram Karve lives in Pune India with his family and muse - his pet dog Sherry with whom he takes long walks thinking creative thoughts.

Vikram Karve Academic and Creative Writing Journal: http://karvediat.blogspot.com
Professional Profile Vikram Karve: http://www.linkedin.com/in/karve
Vikram Karve Facebook Page:  https://www.facebook.com/vikramkarve
Vikram Karve Creative Writing Blog: http://vikramkarve.sulekha.com/blog/posts.htm
Email: vikramwamankarve@gmail.com
      
© vikram karve., all rights reserved.
 



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