My first train journey, or rather the one that I can recall, because there must have been many before that, is of an over crowded Darjeeling Express or maybe Tinshukia Mail. I think it was the Darjeeling Express because if I remember correct only my Mother and I were traveling, to Dida' house in Kolkata during a winter vacation.
Ma's friend from the neighborhood P-pishi was also traveling the same day on the same train. The train was packed as I remember and faint conversations of something about a natok er dol--a drama company troupe occupying our seats in a second class compartment bubbles through memory. Those were polite times and I think my Ma and P-pishi agreed to share their reserved seats with the folks from the troupe who had last minute bookings and not enough reservations. I was all of five or maybe six and went off to sleep curled up in whatever little space we had.
And then my memory gets stronger and there is a loud voice that says "Malda eshe geche. Malda. Seddho dim khabi na ?" (We have reached Malda Station. Malda. Don't you want a boiled egg?)
I am sure there was a past history of my eating and loving the warm to touch boiled egg at Malda Station for my Mother to have woken me from a slumber in a crowded train to offer those. Those freshly boiled eggs, sliced along the length and sprinkled with coarse white salt and crushed black pepper were proffered through the iron grills of the train window by the Dimwala on the platform. I scarfed down two of them and went back to sleep. And yet again the very mention of the everyday boiled eggs brings to my mind Malda Station and I have a strong belief that no egg ever tasted that good.
Just like an omelet brings to mind the double dim er omelet or double egg omelet at the Railway canteen in Patna Junction. Once you pushed aside those swing doors, the Railway Canteen was a place with white napkins and waiters in stiff starched uniform very unlike the crowded and loud station just outside. Every year on our annual journey it was a ritual to have a plate of kadak toast with Amul butter and double dim er omelet at the canteen. I still remember that how I would be disappointed by the omelet every year, because though it was made with two eggs, it wasn't a thick omelet but a large thin one which filled the entire size of a dinner plate.And yet every year without fail I would order the same at the Railway canteen.
Next was an older me, maybe a 10 year old, a first class coupe with sliding doors and a corridor outside. I loved the first class coupe, way more than the A/C coaches we traveled in later. The coupe gave you the privacy and the wind blowing on your face through the wide open windows, one of the main reasons I loved train journeys.
The evening we boarded the train, a three stack high stainless steel tiffin carrier carried our dinner. Soon after the train had pulled out, Ma would spread newspapers on the rexine covered berths and open the latches of the tiffin carrier to reveal steel containers filled with luchi, sada alu chorchori and sondesh. But more than that I looked forward to the next day's lunch, the one we could not carry from home and had to order from the railway catering service. I would always order a chicken curry and rice, Baba would do the same and Ma would order a Veg meal. Dining cars were phased out by then and the catering service loaded trays of cooked food from designated stations. Lunch would arrive in those steel rectangular plates with compartments-- rice, pickle, a watery dal and a chicken curry with a thin layer of oil floating on a scarlet colored gravy which would inevitably have spilled onto the dal with the motion of the train. It was not an extraordinary curry and I clearly don't recall its taste.
But the experience of food in a train with the wind rustling through the open windows, the green paddy fields stretched towards the horizon, the little village boys standing by the railway lines waving their scrawny limbs to the marching beat of the iron wheels is something that makes it exemplary merely by situation.
Like the dim-seddho and the chicken curry, I am sure for many of my generation growing up in India, Food and railway journeys are closely intertwined. JhaalMuri at Kharagpur, Guavas with pink insides at Allahabad, Medu Vadas on the southern line, Puri Sabzi at Moghalsarai, Mihidana at Bardhaman -- we all have our train food favorites.
So when I first saw this recipe of Railway Mutton Curry shared by Pritha Sen at Atul Sikand's page Sikandulous Cuisne, I knew I had to try it, if only because of its name. Pritha Sen, from Gurgaon has immense knowledge about history of Indian food and her narrative on this curry made it all the more interesting. Her story about origin of this dish dates further back, when South eastern railway was called BNR and trains came with salons and dining cars.
With her permission, I am reproducing part of her article in her own words:
"Many a classic dish has been born out of necessity, culture, lifestyle, ethnicity and the ingredients available locally. Many of them are a testimony of the times. There are certain tastes that linger and many years later surface in our urban kitchens as a salute to those chefs whose ingenuity created them in the first place. So we got our seekh kebabs from the marauding Mongols who fanned out from Central Asia across the world, spreading their seed as well as their cuisine. Their spears served as the seekhs to roast pieces of meat over the campfire in the evenings. Then there are the now famous stories about Dum Pukht cuisine or the Mongolian hot pot and in more recent times, Tandoori Chicken and Chicken Butter Masala or American Chopsuey and Chicken/Gobi Manchurian!
One such form of cuisine was that which was developed by the entourage of cooks and bearers who travelled with officers serving in the administrative, forest and railway services in India in colonial times. They cooked with whatever they carried with them or was locally available at their place of halt, flavouring the dishes with a blend of sleight of hand, what the Memsahib had taught them and dollops of ethnicity. And thus was born dishes like the Railway Mutton or Chicken Curry, the Railway Aloo curry with triangular Atta Parathas, Dak Bungalow Mutton Curry, Madras Club Qorma, Dak Bungalow Roast Chicken, the Rose Custard and of course Bread Puddings and Caramel Custard.
I was fortunate enough to have grown up in this legacy of the Raj, as a child of the Railways, when there were dining cars on trains, complete with tables for four covered with white damask and set with proper crockery and silver. Think back to that scene in Satyajit Ray's 'Nayak' where Sharmila Tagore starts her interview with Uttam Kumar. Liveried waiters padded about silently, serving known railway delicacies of those times – fish fry with tartar sauce, mutton breast cutlets on the bone, perfectly fried finger chips with tomato sauce, finely cut chicken sandwiches, chicken and tomato soups, mulligatawny soups and side dishes of roast chicken and boiled vegetables or mutton stew with bread, or chicken/mutton curry rice. The menu was limited but delicious.
When my father went on tour, which was referred to as ‘going on Line’ the phrase originating from ‘line inspection’, Naresh, our old peon, a relic of the Raj himself, packed his Line Box or Line Peti as he called it. A Line Box was a 2ft by 3ft rectangular wooden box, which had a tray with partitions on top of the main unit. The bottom was packed with rice, flour, dal, spices etc. The top tray held potatoes, onions, garlic, ginger in neat compartments. Naresh then loaded it onto Baba’s saloon, an entire railway coach converted to house a sitting-cum-dining room, bedrooms, bathrooms, kitchen, pantry and staff quarters. Naresh travelled with him along with an assistant, cooking Baba fresh meals as he travelled for days from one railway junction to another.
We, as a family, also travelled with him at times living in the saloon and eating and sleeping as the steam engine chugged across India, spewing vicious black fumes. No worries. We children were well ensconced in our fairy tale moving home, revelling in wondrous delight at the shining stainless steel hand showers in the bathrooms which we had never seen before and kitchens fitted with tall coal ovens to roast the chicken to a turn and bake the perfect dessert.
The railway cuisine as I realise today was generously tempered with a South Indian flavour. The reason being that during my childhood or perhaps before that much of the Class IV railway staff were South Indians, mainly Telugus from Andhra Pradesh. The engine drivers and ticket collectors or station masters were Anglo-Indians, the last of the community left in Railway service before they all emigrated to Australia. So the dishes we were served were a blend of Anglo-Indian, Bengali and South Indian, cooked to perfection.
I leave you with one such dish which today rightly occupies pride of place on many restaurant menus that serve Anglo-Indian or Raj cuisine. I promise to come back with more."
Pritha Di shared two recipes of this mutton curry. The first one was courtesy Jennifer Brennan and apparently the more authentic one and had Curry leaves and Coconut Milk. I selected the second one which was more Bengali than South Indian.This was from Bengal in later times: Courtesy Basav Mukherjee. I adapted the recipe making small changes but sticking to the core of the wonderful masala paste that lends the curry its special flavor. Don't get intimidated by the length of the post or ingredient list. All of them can be found in your kitchen pantry and if you follow the steps, it takes no longer than a regular mutton curry.
Railway Mutton Curry
What you Need
Mutton ~ 4lb with bone, usually shoulder or back leg. After washing, mutton was marinated overnight
Onion -- 2 large chopped in slices= 4 cups of sliced onion
Tomatoes -- 1 cup pureed
Potatoes ~ 2 large potatoes chopped in quarters
Whole Garam Masala -- 2 Black cardamom, 6 green cardamom, 2" stick of cinnamon, 8 clove, 4 bay leaves, 3 strands of javetri, 8 dry red chilli
Special Masala Paste
Coriander seeds ~ 2 tsp
Cumin Seeds ~ 2 tsp
Fennel seeds or Saunf ~ 2 tsp
Whole black Peppercorns -- 15
Dry Red Chilli -- 8
Garlic -- 8 fat cloves
Ginger -- 2" piece finely chopped
Kashmiri Mirch -- 2 tsp
Sugar -- 1/2 tsp
Garlic paste -- 1 tbsp
Ginger paste -- 1 tbsp
Water ~ 1.5 cups
Garam Masala ~ 1 tsp
Green Chillies -- 3-4
Mustard Oil -- 4 tbsp
How I Did It
Marinate mutton overnight with
2 tsp ginger paste,
2tsp garlic paste,
2 tsp mustard oil,
1 tsp vinegar,
2 tsp Kashmiri Mirch
and Turmeric powder
Make the Special Masala paste:
Heat a small pan or kadhai.
dried red chillies,
peppercorns and roast till fragrant.
Once roasted, add the above spices to a blender along with
8 big cloves of garlic
2 inch of ginger, roughly chopped
2 tsp of Kashmiri red chilli powder
1 tbsp Mustard Oil
Make a fine paste adding splash of water if necessary. Add 1/2 tsp sugar to the paste. The paste is where the magic lies.
Start Cooking :
In a pressure cooker or a fry pan, add 3 tablespoons of mustard oil.
Heat the oil till its smoking. Fry the potatoes in the oil. Once the potatoes turn golden yellow with brown spots, remove and keep aside
Now, reduce the flame and add the whole garam masala
2 Black cardamom,
6 green cardamom,
2" stick of cinnamon,
4 bay leaves,
3 strands of javetri,
8 dry red chilli
Once you get the fragrance of the whole spices add
1 tbsp garlic paste
1 tbsp ginger paste.
Fry them for about a minute.
Now add the sliced onion and fry with a sprinkle of salt. Fry the onion, stirring constantly, till they get browned and caramelized.
Next goes in the pureed tomatoes which needs to be fried for 3-4 minutes till raw smell is gone.
Next add the mutton pieces to this.Increase the flame to high and fry the mutton pieces in high heat till mutton loses its raw color. The mutton will sear and turn a light brown
Reduce the flame a bit and let the mutton release its juices.
At medium heat, continue to saute or kashao the mutton till you see a layer of oil floating. Stir continuously. This takes a good 20-25 minutes
Now add the Special Masala that you have prepared and mix it with the meat. Fry everything together for next 5-7 minutes.
Add back the potatoes to the mix and reduce flame to low.
Add about 1.5 cups of water. Add salt to taste. I added water though the original recipe did not ask for it.
Bring the gravy to a boil and then close the pressure cooker lid.Reduce the flame to the lowest and pressure cook the curry for 15 minutes. Towards the end of 15 mins, increase the heat and cook for 8 minutes at full pressure
Once you can open the cooker lid, break 3-4 green chillies and add to the curry for an awesome flavor
Also add one tsp of garam masala powder and stir.
Close the cooker lid again and let this rest for about an hour. Serve with steaming white rice.