By Saugato Banerjee May. 03, 2017
On a bleak winter evening, when you’re stranded in a train, the only other lights visible are the feeble glows of the fires of the food stalls. Make sure you eat the Puri Aloo.
Table for Three was conceived over coffee by the three of us: Saugato Banerjee, Priya Barve, and Aniruddha Ganguly. On Sundays, after we’d be done discussing movies, work, and politics – we’d inevitably start talking about food. And get all misty-eyed and hungry. Then one of us suggested we take this beyond just conversations and share our experiences of our delicious meals and travels.
It’s summer. The time of the year many of us visit our favourite (and not-so-favourite) relatives. An oft-repeated saying overheard at the airline terminals is that the queues, of late, have begun resembling those at the railway stations. For those of us of an earlier vintage, we know exactly what this means. Growing up distinctly middle-class in a Socialist era with one airline carrier meant that I took my first flight at age 10. By then I had journeyed thousands of kilometres across the length and breadth of the country, courtesy the railways.
There was the annual summer 40-hour dash across central India from Pune to West Bengal, a tour of Southern India undertaken mostly by train, a few rides on the magically-named Deccan Queen, and a few the ordinarily-named Deccan Express. Nothing would give me greater pleasure than sticking my face against the window grill, trying to catch sight of the locomotive, as the snaking train approached a bridge over a mighty river.
By the time the mightiest river in the country, the Ganga, reaches the town of Allahabad, it is a swollen body of water, prayer and myth. My journey to West Bengal was always on the Howrah Mail (via Allahabad). As the train thundered over the iron bridge over the Ganga, you could hear soft metallic sounds as people threw coins from their windows as offerings. For me, a young, excited, regular train traveller, it also meant time for dinner.
The hunger, the experience of eating something other than home-cooked food, the taste of chicken curry and rice served at Allahabad railway station stand out when I reflect on my childhood. A food experience from 30 years ago still imprinted in my memory.
I remember one Table for Three experience I once had on the railways in 1996, when a couple of friends and I were at the National Youth Festival in Ranchi, representing Mumbai University. The journey back was a long two-night affair that involved a lengthy wait in Rourkela. Little did we know that Rourkela station was a treasure trove of delicious food representing the intersection of eastern, central and southern India. Fluffy white idlis, thin dosas, and masala omelettes stuffed between two slices of white bread toasted on a pan – we didn’t miss out on any of it. The three of us admitted later in life that our love for all things edible was actually bordering on obsessive. But that evening was an early marker. We had two helpings of everything, especially the puri aloo, eaten to the accompaniment of countless trains chugging their way in and out of the station.
On that bleak winter evening, the other lights visible were the feeble glows of the fires of the food stalls.
If there was ever a national dish of the platforms of India, it would have to be puri aloo. From the brown atta (wheat flour) puris of the west to the white maida (refined flour) puris in the east, the aloo with thin curry in the north to the dry mashed and lightly spiced potatoes in the south, there is no major station in India that will not have a puri-aloo stall. The puri is fried in front of you, the aloo is piping hot. Depending on your location, the dish is served to you wrapped in a newspaper, on a paper plate, a katori made of sturdy broad saal leaves, or even in a small basket.
One particularly memorable journey comes to mind. For the 44 hours and almost 2000 km between Ahmedabad to Calcutta, a friend of mine and I decided that the only thing we would eat would be puri aloo. Starting with the typically Gujarati version in Surat, we ate puri aloo every four hours or so. We tried some in dusty Akola, and are several more rounds in Nagpur. Since this epic trip followed the time we had sampled the delights of Rourkela, I managed to rally the troops for another round at said station. It’s a pity Raipur passed in the dead of the night — I would have loved to know what the Raipur puri aloo tastes like.
It was bitterly cold in the last week of December, and I was travelling sleeper class to Delhi on the Poorva Express, exposed to the freezing wind. The chaiwallas were doing brisk business as everyone tried to keep warm. When evening approached, the train arrived at Mughalsarai, a large junction in Uttar Pradesh. A thick fog hung in the air. We could barely see the indicators on the platform. Every silhouette looked like a ghost. Loud station announcements not-with-standing, the only sounds one could hear were whistles and the collective chattering of the teeth of a thousand travellers.
On that bleak winter evening, the other lights visible were the feeble glows of the fires of the food stalls. The one nearest to my compartment was selling… puri aloo. The round bloated puris were served hot, accompanied by a thin curry with simple spices and the proverbial floating green chilly. It was insurance against the cold, and a taste I remember to this day. If that wasn’t enough, he also had a steaming bowl of gulab jamuns for dessert. That meal put a smile on my face till we reached New Delhi the next day.
Depending on your location, the dish is served to you wrapped in a newspaper, on a paper plate, a katori made of sturdy broad saal leaves, or even in a small basket.
The stations of India are now trying to keep up with the times, so we have “food courts” and “fast-food counters” all over the place. But for me the magic of the railways lies in the way hawkers on the trains rustle up amazing snacks in such minimal settings. As you battle the sensations on your tongue, you stare out the window and watch the countryside. Paddy fields, rivers, thatched huts, and palm trees sway with the wind – a feast for the eyes to go with your perfect meal.
That is the magic of the railways – all that you eat, all that you share is coupled with the sights of the Indian countryside rushing past your window. You could be watching a golden sunset at a station, the fading lights turning the dark brown mountains in the distance to black, the last rays of sunlight reflecting off rails that carry the hopes and aspirations of millions of Indians every day. That would entirely depend on the location of this small station, of course. What would not change is the near certainty, that if you so desired, you would find puri aloo to accompany that view.
Pune, Goa, Kolkata, Mumbai, Ahmedabad, Delhi, Singapore, Ho Chi Minh City, Tokyo, Seoul – cities I have called as home bases. The food adventures have been numerous. When these meals, or their memories, are shared with Ani and Priya, we add chapters of taste to our enduring story.