I decided to undertake ‘25 Days.25 Trains’ challenge to reach the last railway stations in every major direction In India. The first thing people asked was ‘Dude, what about the loo?’
The second most frequent question was ‘Dude, what about the food?’
The food on Indian trains is poor representation of a country which is blessed with a rich culinary landscape.
But then, one name made its way into conversations. Mandovi Express.
Running between Mumbai and Goa this is probably the only train where the catering enjoys a sparkling reputation.
Is it as good as people made it out to be? I decided to take this train to find out for myself.
And this is an account of how things went:
It is called Konkan Kanya when it arrives at CST railway station and turns into Mandovi by the time it leaves.
It is supposed to leave at 7.10am and arrives an hour earlier. But it is past 7.30 when the train slowly pulls into the oldest railway station in the country.
I spot the pantry car. Two men seated on stools are busy deep frying what seems like the veg cutlet.
In my head there is the excitement. The kind that anticipation brings along.
It is over an hour past schedule, but the train shows no signs of departure.
Vendors are cajoling me into buying chai and vada pavs. But the railway kid in me can spot a caterer in a long line of vendors. And I know I have to wait, the catering team is not ready with breakfast. Not yet.
A little later, the navy blue coat with the bright yellow ‘Ahuja & Care Caterers’ makes an appearance. And I announce ‘Let The Feast Begin’. Obviously, only to myself.
I ignore the bread-omlette, veg sandwich, cutlet and go for the Sheera-Upma instead. Hardly any trains serve this sweet & savoury breakfast.
I dig in to the savoury upma first and then the sweet sheera. Then the upma and to the sheera again. Like Hardwell I repeat this great routine for a while.
Immediately, I am transported to a hole in the wall eatery in Kundapura, Karnataka where I surrendered to sheera-upma for the first time. It was love at first bite.
One of the catering staff comes around for lunch orders. He looks like a man who takes his job seriously. May be a tad too seriously.
The options are chicken biriyani, egg biriyani, chicken fried rice, chicken manchurian, chicken chilly, pulao, veg fried rice and veg thali.
Damn! Had never anticipated that I would have to choose from a list where I wanted everything.
I look at the man, look out my window. Look at him again & then out of the window.
Then just when the guy is getting ready to desert at me, I ask for chicken fried rice and chicken manchurian.
Logic? Two items, so more to savour.
Tomato soup arrives. Along with soup sticks. Even thinking about skipping this would be an offence.
I stir the soup stick in the paper glass. It is clear they do not use artificial colours. The butter is perfect. It is just the right sour and the right spice.
And for 25 rupees it’s a steal.
The packing looks neater than on any other Indian train. A whiff of steam escapes as I unlid the chicken Manchurian gravy.
The rice is cooked well and there is enough chicken and egg to compliment it. The Manchurian does not disappoint either, the batter fried chicken sits well in the gravy and as I gobble the pieces of chicken, I can hear the crunch of the coriander leaves. Or maybe it was celery. Who cares?
The best part is that for about 160 rupees I got a meal that I would not in many restaurants back home in Mumbai.
I skip tea and snacks. Digestion is a pre-requisite to enjoy dinner.
I go to the pantry to find out whether dinner would be served.
While I am there I also decide to find out why this catering team is such an exception. And why doesn’t ‘Ahuja & Care’ cater to more trains in the country.
Well they were serving dinner. So yes! There is biriyani for my taste buds.
But I don’t get convincing answers to other questions. Probably I am asking the wrong guy.
But the pantry manager tells me they take pride in what they do and the idea is to serve the best possible quality to travelers.
‘Mandovi and Konkan Kanya are known for its food. That is because of us. And we don’t intend on changing that’ says Makhtoom Desai, the pantry manager.
So chicken biriyani is here.
Maybe an hour before I am really hungry. But hey what the heck? I still dig in.
There is enough masala and the chicken is coated in it, with peppercorns embedded in the tender meat. It was a treat even if I were in a serious biriyani restaurant.
I call it a day with a round of elaichi powder sprinkled gulab jamuns. They taste as nice as they look.
Finally, the train pulls into Madgaon station. But not without a three hour delay.
But you know what, I did not complain.
Thanks to the delay I was able to sample at least two more lip smacking dishes.
Like they say ‘Better Late Than Not to Savour’.
So all the foodies of the world! Unite! And attack the Mandovi Express.