What is your earliest memory of (good) train food? Mine is the hot thali that would be served to First Class passengers from the pantry, which you could visit to get warm milk, water or boil egg any time of the journey and often be rewarded with something scrumptious that the cooks (who were khandani bawarchi by the way) may have invented for the next meal. It could be a simple dal or a chicken curry. What made this slightly watered down version addictive were two things: One, the way it was served: in china white crockery with a smile. And two, the subtle flavour. The meal was made to suit your young palate. And that etched it into your mind like first love.
Over the years of course the memory has had a lard layer of rather disappointing, insipid food that did nothing to raise your stomach’s libido. But now with the pantry car soon becoming history, it is only befitting to recall the single ‘investment by the British’ that made journey the ‘food-centric’.
So where do we begin this journey? 1857, the time when the drama began. Seasoned engineer Robert Maitland Brereton was given the charge of expanding the rail roads in India. He had to create the longest most complex network of railways to connect the richest colony from end to end.
But little did Brereton, or the Empire, realise then that what his 6,400 km network would by the turn of century prove to be a milestone in not only shaping the Indian hospitality, but also the trail that created food memories of millions of Indians and their generations.
The story began with the Allahabad-Jabalpur branch line of the East Indian Railway that opened in June 1867. This was the first of Brereton’s 6,400 km rail network. Officially opened on 7 March 1870, it became the inspiration for French writer Jules Verne’s book Around the World in Eighty Days. At the opening ceremony, the Viceroy Lord Mayo concluded that “it was thought desirable that, if possible, at the earliest possible moment, the whole country should be covered with a network of lines in a uniform system”.
It was the first train to have a full fledged restaurant car replete with trained butlers, chefs, cleaners and an a la carte menu to match the grandeur of a well-stocked bar! Dining cars on Mail and Express trains appeared as early as 1903, the same year in which 8-wheeled carriages running on bogies were introduced. Prior to this, all important trains were allowed sufficient halts at appointed stations, for breakfast, lunch or dinner to be had at one of the several refreshment rooms available at the platform: Refreshment Room, European; Refreshment Room, Muslim; Refreshment Room, Hindu – Vegetarian, and Refreshment continued…