There are two ways to truly sample the best of this country’s flavours, as overwhelming as the sheer size of the challenge seems. Either you activate the hyper-extrovert in yourself and make friends with as many people from as many different places as you can in the hopes that you’re invited over for a hearty, home-cooked meal. But that involves a fair bit more energy, not to mention the unpredictability of the outcomes. What if that friend from Calicut conveniently forgets his manners just when his mother’s cooking up a glistening beef fry with those hints of fried coconut you love? For those of you who can’t hack the risk, there is an alternative route–get on a train. To anywhere, to nowhere. Then get off at just about every station you can manage and sample whatever delicacies you can get your hands on. Satisfy your hankerings for crispy, flaky chicken cutlets at one; spicy, nimbooed-up jhal muri at another, a gluttonous glass of Rabdi at station number who-knows-what to fill the spaces in between. Always leave a little room for the next stop, you never know what treasures it may hold. Still, if you’re not sure where to begin, I have at least a portion of it all mapped out for fellow food adventurers–all the way from Saharanpur (UP) to Dimpaur in Nagaland.
As a lover of train journeys (and an avid reader of travel memoirs) it would be impossible not to quote Paul Theroux’s ‘The Great Railway Bazaar,’ here. “It is almost axiomatic that the worst trains take you through magical places,” he said, actually paying ode to the visceral train journeys India offers, despite it sounding like a snub. It held utterly and deliciously true for my 52-hour-long journey across five states: UP, Bihar, West Bengal, Assam and Nagaland. Just like the view outside my window, my palette changed too–thrust a little further out of its familiar comfort zone with each and every stop. By the time I made it to my final destination, local cultures seemed anything but unattainable. You just have to be willing to taste it.
Let the journey begin. Choo Choo!
I. Uttar Pradesh
Where: Across Stations in UP
Getting down on a railway station in Uttar Pradesh is an adventure in itself. The dense crowd may be a put-off, so is the cacophony of the bhaiyas and babuas, but trust me, the heavenly smell of hot puris frying on the humongous Tawa will give you all the strength to make it to the other side. The spiciest and the most eclectic version of this classic north Indian dish is served at various stations across Uttar Pradesh. Four oily Aloo Puris sloppily placed on a paper plate accompanied with a generous helping of Aloo Ki Sabzi that hits all the right spices. We suggest packing loads of them for your long travels ahead.
Where: Tundla Station, UP
This funny sounding, tiny station near Agra is specially known for it’s Aloo Tikki. You’ll know when you see the crowd that collects around the stall as soon as the train pulls in. Hot, crispy and extremely appetizing, the two tikkis are served with minty chutney and loads of chaat masala. You can ask for a serving of curd as well.
Where: Agra Junction
When the train pulls into Agra Junction, half your heart wants to skip the journey and go admire the splendour that is the Taj Mahal. But since most of us are spontaneous only in thought and not in action, the next sweetest thing to lose your heart to is the Petha. The cool, ice like blocks of sugary sweetness instantly melt into your mouth and take over your senses for a split second. Keep a few placed in a neatly cut newspaper or buy the entire packet. You’ll need some sort of cool dessert to give those aloo puri spices a rest.
Where: Varanasi Junction
There is probably a middle-aged man with a huge pot belly snoring away in the upper berth. How in the world are you going to get a good night’s sleep or a cozy afternoon nap? Your answer lies at Varanasi junction. Drink up a glass of the sweet, thick rabri topped with lots of dry fruits such as kesar, badam, elaichi and cardamom. It’ll first give you a milk-stache followed by a sugar rush but then all the heaviness is bound to make you sleepy. We guarantee you’ll wake up dreaming of Rabri. Too bad the train would have fared into the badlands of Bihar by then. But we’ve got you covered for a culinary adventure there as well.
Where: Patna Junction
The essence of Bihar lies in the Litti Chokha and it is perhaps served in its most rustic form on Patna junction. Dripping with desi ghee, the two dough balls stuffed with the flavourful sattu (a mix of chickpea and bengal gram) are served with the choka which is essentially a blend of potatoes, tomatoes and other spices roasted in the mustard oil. Earthy in taste, the Litti Chokha is true representation of the state, a memory you want to have in Bihar.
Dudhiya Malda Mangoes Of Bihar
Where: Across Stations in Bihar
You are perhaps the luckiest traveller in the world, if your train happens to stop at any of the stations in Bihar during the mango season. For this one, you might not have to get down for the very persuasive vendors would come in the compartment to sell you Bihar’s mighty ‘Mango King’, the Dudhiya Malda. The extremely fertile soil of the region where they grow, gives these mangoes a distinct and a very very sweet and tangy taste that you can keep sucking on for the rest of the day. Disclaimer: Keep a nib handy. These pulpy mangoes can get messy.
III. West Bengal
Where: Howrah Junction
Welcome to the busiest station in the country. With its erstwhile colonial charm and old school vibes, the Howrah junction will have you lovestruck. But even the mad sugar rush courtesy of those Bihari mangoes could be to blame for that. So steer away from the popular bengali sweets and indulge yourself in the light street snack of Jhaal Muri which translates to spices and puffed rice, cooked in mustard or tamarind oil, tossed with chopped vegetables. Many would say that Jhaal Muri is an acquired taste, but it’s definitely worth a try, especially at the Howrah Junction where it is as good as it gets.
Where: Howrah Junction
The Howrah junction is hailed for its Chicken Cutlets, no kidding. Soft, meaty and perfectly fried, they can be eaten at almost any time of the day.
Where: Across Bengal
If you’ve had enough of a culinary adventure for a train jouney and want to settle for something familiar, then treat yourself to some Puchka. (Okay, we know it’s called Pani Puri but when in Bengal, do as the Bengalis do.) Piquant, light and an all time favourite of most Indians.
Where: Guwahati Junction
As soon as the train exits West Bengal and enters the lovely state of Assam, make sure you grab a window seat for the landscape changes and verdant valleys, gushing brooks, bridges over rivers and lush pastoral lands greet the eye. You’d only want to look away when the train pulls into Guwahati junction - a gateway to the 7 sister states that are a treasure trove of rich culture and culinary traditions.
Aloo Pitka is one of the Assamese dishes you should definitely savour at the Guwahati Junction. It’s a simple side dish, essentially mashed potato mixed well with mustard oil and salt, topped with coriander, that is usually served with rice and daal. Sour and salty, it’s extremely flavoursome, tasty and light on the stomach. It won’t be available at every stall, so make sure you have the required time before you go seeking it, at the station.
Baanhgajor Lagot Kukura
Where: Guwahati and Digboi Railway Station
While all the wise men in your train would advise you to restrain from having non vegetarian food on the station, you may find it a little hard to keep your hands away from this one. But, this temptation is justified. An Assamese delicacy, the Baanhgajor Lagot Kukura comprises of soft, meaty pieces of chicken, bamboo shoots and lentils served with rice. With a distinctive pungent taste that may take some time getting used to, it’s representative of the unique culture of Assam that’s uniquely beautiful and relatively unexplored.
Where: Dimapur Station
Dimapur maybe the final frontier of your trip before you get down and go away for an adventure of your own. While the Naga cuisine is extremely elaborate and eclectic, we would suggest you try them in the markets of Dimapur and Kohima rather than at the station. But do grab a plate of some steamed momos before you exit the station. These finely prepared, perfectly-shaped, fresh, flavoursome momos are complemented by the tangy tamarind chutney and hot mustard sauce. Tender chicken cooked to such perfection that you will savour every little bite, and want more!
Have more suggestions on the best station food? Write in to [email protected]
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