As I stop at the railroad signal and watch the long train go by, it evokes forgotten childhood memories of train journeys that signaled the fun and romance of getting away from the routine. Just about every city, town, and village in India is connected by train. A train is one of the best modes of reaching the interiors of the country. It is relatively less expensive, and reasonably comfortable. Indian railways provide an opportunity to experience a complete picture of India; the warmth of strangers one meets on and out of trains is incomparable to anywhere else. All the passengers sit and chatter, share their meals, and become friends for the duration of the journey. The conversations you hear on board are pretty interesting. In contrast, when I traveled recently in Europe by train, the fellow passenger sitting next to me did not even smile or say “hi” throughout the journey. It was almost as if everyone was in a hurry to go somewhere.
My memories of train travel in India have probably got romanticized with the passage of time. However, the time I spent on the trains there ranks among the most memorable and enjoyable experiences of my travels. Where else would you hear the incessant “chai, garam chai” calls of the chai-vala as you look out of grimy windows of the second-class compartment, totally amazed that it is 2 a.m. and yet the smoky, smoggy train station buzzes with human activity.
At every station the train stops, there is a fascinating array of foods, beverages and fruits served by vendors. They haul their wares in wicker baskets or big trays and briskly walk up and down the platform chanting loudly, advertising their goods. Many stations feature a local specialty food like chikki (peanut brittle) in Lonavala, kunda in Belgaum, petha in Agra, and kandi pedha in Satara. Often, locally grown fruits, like the sweetest figs, juicy oranges, or crunchy guavas are sold on the station, too. Even simple tea and coffee had its characteristic regional flavor. So, a train journey is more like a culinary journey.
Peddlers with magazines—mystery and romantic novels—rush up and down the platform while a wider selection of reading matter is invariably available at the ever-present station bookstall. You just have to pop your head out of the window and holler out to the nearest hawker and munchies, fruits, beverages, literature, all are available without ever having to leave your compartment!
I recall the incessant bouts of eating and snacking that made our childhood train journeys anything but boring. When we finally arrived at our destination and asked “are we there now?” it was more with a tone of disappointment than boredom that I often hear from my children when traveling here.
I was in for a big disappointment when I first traveled in U.S. The taste of the coffee in McDonalds was the same in Los Angeles and Portland; the tacos from Taco Bell were identical in Maine and Miami. When I boarded the train from Washington, DC to New York, at every station the train stopped, my eyes were yearning to see a chai-vala, a fruit vendor or bookseller approach my window.
I don’t blame my kids when they complain “are we there yet?”
Here is the recipe for the very popular peanut brittle from Lonavala, a scenic hill station between Pune and Mumbai. Anyone who has traveled through Lonavala would have fond memories of chikki.
(Aromatic Peanut Brittle)
The sugar syrup reaches a very high temperature. Please use extreme caution when making this recipe.
1 cup white sugar
¼ cup corn syrup
1½ cup nuts
1 teaspoon butter
1 teaspoon baking soda
10-12 cardamom pods
Grease a cookie sheet and rolling pin with butter and keep aside. Peel the cardamom pods and remove seeds and discard the skin. Coarsely grind the seeds to release fragrance. Keep all ingredients handy before you start.
Combine sugar and corn syrup in a microwave bowl. Mix well and cook on high power for 6-7 minutes till you see the syrup turning slightly yellow. (The candy thermometer should read 250-260 degrees C.) Add nuts, cardamom powder, and butter and stir well to combine the syrup with nuts. Cook in microwave for another 1½ minutes. Remove from microwave, and add baking soda. Combine well. The mixture will turn foamy. Pour out the contents on a baking sheet or tray. With a rolling pin roll it out to ½ inch thickness, cool completely, and break into pieces. Great snack to have around.
Hema’s Hints: Make small pieces of the chikki and use as a topping for ice-cream.
Hema Alur-Kundargi is the producer, editor, and host of a television show “Indian Vegetarian Gourmet.”