Many Memories, One Paper Cup


Many Memories, One Paper Cup

The only time I think about trains now, is when the traffic is gnarly, or I’m listening to Ozzy Osbourne, or writing about the secret life of the seat mafia on local trains. Otherwise it’s all Uber, Volvo, and Indigo for me. It wasn’t always like this though. About 15 years ago, trains were a great source of amazement and wonder to 10-year-old me. The last day of school before the Christmas vacations was marked by some good old rabble-rousing after the last bell, a long session of aimless wandering, followed by the midnight Mangalore Express to Goa, and the train-wallah tomato soup with a side of four croutons.

This was a time long before KRAs and content strategy meetings became my daily schedule. This was a time when the entire extended family, all 25 of us, collectively migrated south for the winter break. Once the whole posse was assembled, the adults would make observations about the tardiness of the Indian Railways, an uncle would always be mixing some amber-coloured liquid in a bottle of Pepsi, while my dad and the other men anxiously puffed away at their Rothmans and Gold Flake. My mother, grandmother, and the other women were already making dinner plans for the journey, while simultaneously managing a bunch of unruly animals aged eight to 12, who’d be swapping tall tales about new toys and old jokes.

As the mad rush to board our ride subsided, everyone settled in for the long haul. Thanks to meticulous planning, we’d always be seated in the same compartment. To my 10-year-old brain, this was an oasis of comfort, in an otherwise smelly, vermin-infested, dirty world that was Konkan Railway in the ’90s. Someone, usually one of the women, would break into song, of which there were many.

Meanwhile, the pantrymen came along asking for dinner orders, usually sub-standard Indian/Chinese fare sold in aluminium foil containers, which even my 10-year-old self wouldn’t touch with a ten-foot pole. And then, there he would be, usually an old, thin, gaunt, moustachioed man, carrying around a large insulated container full of hot water and a bag of red powder. This I knew, this I wanted, this I fought for. My mother would usually motion the man toward us, he’d stop, and with the container of hot water deftly balanced between his knees or on the edge of a seat, he’d dump two spoons of that red powder into a paper cup, fill it with scalding hot water, dunk in a few croutons, and drop off two chequered salt and pepper sachets.

A quick stir later, magic would happen. That powder mixed with hot water would yield a strangely delicious, comfortingly addictive brew, which the man repetitively called “tomto sup”. I loved this, and even though it would be scalding hot, I’d gingerly take that first sip, which would no doubt burn my tongue. Even that flimsy paper cup might disintegrate at any moment spilling the lava all over me. But hey, I was 10, zero fucks were given. I’d somehow swallow the pain that accompanied that first sip, purely because, I’d later learn, I’m a junkie. In the truest sense of the word, any act that brings me pleasure, however painful or uncomfortable, would be repeated over and over, until I tired of it and moved on to the next big rush. Anyway, during the course of the journey, as the songs became more verbose, the night air became colder and the uncles got drunker, I would cosy up to my mum and even if I’d just eaten my fill of the packed ghar ka khaana, I’d still relentlessly beg for more tomato soup.

Fast forward a few years. Family vacations became scarcer, replaced instead by mom, dad, and me vacations, to strange places that weren’t Goa. I was now a jaded 15-year-old. Life sucked, Linkin Park and Fred Durst told me so. But then there he would be – that same man, with that same brew, just sold in a different cup. I’d cautiously take the first sip; I didn’t want to burn myself. I didn’t trust the cup either. The warm, sweet-salty brew would somehow prove Fred Durst wrong. Everything wasn’t fucked up, nothing sucked. I’d finish that cup, and ask for another the next time tomato-soup man passed by. This time the croutons were replaced by a solitary breadstick.

I would later learn in culinary school, that the magic of industrial mass-produced tomato soup lies in one simple molecule – MSG, the secret addictive ingredient that holds the key to so many of my food memories. Those journeys might have faded into white noise in my head. But a single whiff of that unmistakable aroma of tomato, black pepper, and toasted bread that tangos with my olfactory organs, and I’m back at 100 km/hr, headed to a winter full of adventure, singing along to some random carol with drunken uncles and giggly cousins – all while nestled in mama’s warm embrace.

I doff my hat to those days in this recipe for a grown-up tomato soup with cheese and beer, served with a grilled cheese sandwich. Hopefully, this will stir up some memories of way back when for you too.

For Your Cookbook

Chop up some onions, carrots, celery, garlic, and tomatoes.

Melt some, okay not some, a lot of butter in a pan, wait for it to get browned and smell nutty, and put in your veggies except the tomatoes. Sauté until the vegetables are browned slightly and add in the tomatoes.

Also throw in a few torn basil leaves and some dried oregano (even the stuff that comes with a pizza will do).

Sauté until the tomatoes soften and now add in three slices of processed cheese, half a cup of chicken (or vegetable) stock, and enough beer to barely submerge the vegetables. Let the whole shebang simmer for 10 minutes, remove from the heat, and cool completely.

Meanwhile, prepare a grilled-cheese sandwich. If you don’t know how, Google it.

Now pour the cooled-down vegetables into a blender, without the cooking liquid. Puree until smooth and mix it with the liquid. Warm it through, also add a generous teaspoon of ketchup to reinforce that tomato flavor. If it’s too thick, thin it down with a good splash of beer. Serve piping hot with a grilled-cheese sandwich for dunking, and let the memories wash over you once again.