Top tips for foodie travellers on trains in India

Indian train travel is, in many ways, a feast for the senses. Here’s how to make it a particularly tasty one:

Early morning at Madgaon train station, Goa, India

1. Buy your own tiffin tin

A sure fire way to ensure you eat tasty, freshly prepared food on your train journey is by taking your own packed meal onboard. We did this by buying one of the local tiffin tins, a multi-tiered metal container (basically the Indian equivalent of a lunchbox), and would then ask our hotel or favourite restaurant to fill it up with the dishes of our choice. For ease, you could just as simply buy easy to carry items, such as stuffed parathas and samosas.

2. Pack a spoon

A towel may be about the most massively useful thing an interstellar hitch hiker can carry. But if you’re on an Indian train and intending to buy or, as per tip one, bring a meal, I might rather suggest taking your own spoon. Most of the long distance trains we took offered meals for lunch and dinner, a choice of veg or non veg thalis and biryanis, and all of these meals came with the kind of plastic spoons that were about the size of a McDonalds coffee stirrer and, tragically, not half as strong.

3. Never underestimate the generosity of Indian travellers

Not once but on two occasions, Indian families tried to ply us with food from their own plate. The first time, a young woman interrupted our meal, because, she translated, her mother was worried we were eating our daal without any pickle, and wanted us to have some. The second time, we had been feeling poorly, and were asked plaintively by a young couple, who told us, we have watched you from 6.30am to 2 pm and you haven’t eaten anything; please, you must eat this biryani.

4. Take biscuits

One, because they’re delicious. Two, because they’re a good ice breaker, and easy to share with other passengers (particularly as they are probably also plotting on how best to feed you). And three, because you can’t just rely on the onboard chai wallah (serving 10-sugar tea) for the onset of your future diabetes, can you?

5. If you forget all of the above, never fear

On a single train journey, hawkers selling everything from bottled water, juices and lassis (a yoghurt drink) to cucumbers peeled in front of your eyes, crisps, Indian sweets, omelettes and daal vada (like a lentil falafel), will pass through the train. Many more than once.

For information on how to book trains in India, and what it’s like onboard, go to Man in Seat Sixty One

Elephant bath time in Hampi, India

For a lovely way to start the day in Hampi, set your alarm clock early, and head to the river by Hampi Bazaar (to the point where travellers and locals catch the ferry to the opposite bank, Virupappur Gaddi) for 7.30am.

If you’re lucky you’ll spot Lakshmi, the temple elephant, being led to the river for her daily bath.

You may even enjoy the ultimate ‘power shower’ yourself!

Elephant shower in Hampi

Elephant bath time in Hampi

Elephant in Hampi

In search of Varkala: Keralan food at Amantha

Amantha is horrible really. A 10 minute walk inland from the showier restaurants lining the Varkala cliffs, it looks a bit more like the kind of place you’d take your car to have its MOT done: dirt floor, plastic chairs, and only a small shanty kitchen to prove it’s a restaurant.

Amantha restaurant, Varkala, KeralaYet somehow we have managed to eat there two days straight.

The reason?

Well, certainly not my jubilant pronouncement the morning after day one that I hadn’t been made ill (although the avoidance of acute amoebic dysentery is a plus point not to be scoffed when travelling – and if we’re being honest, is a comforting sign that your genes and stomach are of the strong). Nor was it the road side ambience, ill-lit at night but with undeniably sweeping views of next door’s newsagents.

No, the reason we went there, and in fact the reason we ventured away from the multitudinous multi-cuisine menus (which essentially offer the same thing) of the restaurants lining the coast, was simple: we wanted to eat proper Keralan food. Not Italian, Tibetan, North Indian, Mexican. But Kerala’s lighter, coconutty, more homely cooking, preferably served on a natty banana leaf (Basically we were missing the wonderful food at Thevercad Homestay).

And Amanthas does just the thing – a fuss-free vegetarian Kerala thali – for a practically free 100 rupees (approx £1).

Thali at Amantha restaurant

For this princely sum you are presented two curries, two ‘dry’ veggie dishes, rice, a chapatti or parotta (the chapatti’s filthy, melt in your mouth, ghee-laden cousin), a poppadom and a banana. Big spenders can opt for a fish thali for an extra 25 rupees.

The dishes are by no means superlative but simple and satisfying. A good kick of tamarind peps up the sambar while the green cabbage thoran is thick with rasped coconut. Portions are generous and staff are warm and welcoming.

The verdict: not too horrible at all.

Where? Opposite Shiva Garden Homestay, North Cliff, Varkala, Kerala (can be reached from the cliffs via the in road at Kerala Bamboo House).

Cost: 240 rupees for 2 veg thalis and 2 big glasses of masala chai

Sea views in Chios: A big fat Greek bargain

Stretching out before us is possibly the beautiful beach I have ever seen. The kind with showy palm fronds, good, squidgy sand, shimmery blue sea and a long inviting bay, just begging us to walk along it. And it’s literally on our doorstep.

If we can be bothered getting out of our beds that is.

Room with a view in Chios

Room with a view...

Our apartment is right on the beach. Clean and compact with big french windows to let you swing open the doors and enjoy the fabulous views, we don’t even have to get up to feel like we’re on holiday.

And the cost of this exorbitant, credit card-shredding paradise, you big show offs, I hear you cry?

Well, here’s the thing, this little place is actually rather well priced. In fact, at £621 per week for a group of six in late June, it’s downright affordable.

No wonder Ed, myself and my lovely aussie cousin Lucy are feeing rather smug.

If not a little lazy. Our days go something like this: We wake up around 9.30am and wander out onto the terrace, being sure to step over the owner’s dog, with our most literary reads (trashy magazines). Around 11am the heat of the sun gives us that kick we need to wade into the water and swim, serene in the knowledge that all this exercise and sea air is doing us good and that in no way would a delicious 12pm cheese filo pie from the local shop be a bad thing. The afternoon snoozes dreamily by and before you know it, we’re heading out to our favourite little taverna for stuffed peppers, baked feta cheese and squid, all served with lots of drinkable wine (and some incredibly undrinkable retsina) as the sun sets.

Oh and where are we again? Just the Greek island of Chios – an idyllic find.

Stasi prison break: On tour with an ex convict….

 

‘I stayed here once,’ our red-haired guide shares matter of factly, as we follow her though the cold, lank corridors of Hohenschönhausen.

I stop and look again. Actually, I grab Ed and whisper sharply, ‘what, she was here – when?’ You can see the rest of group pause, re-gather. A ripple of disbelief runs through us.

We are on a tour through Hohenschönhausen, a large, wan-looking building in a quiet, suburban district of East Berlin. Once a Nazi prison, when the regime fell, it was taken over by the Red army, then when the Berlin wall went up, the Stasi, as a place to hold political prisoners. As far as buildings go, it should have been notorious. But actually, for many years after the wall fell, nobody knew it was there. ‘It was not on the map,’ our guide tells us, the Stasi did not want us to know it was there.

Our guide is here to tell her story. She got lucky. She was taken by the secret police in 1989; one of a group of students whose protest was so polite and well thought through you would have thought it the perfect thought-crime. All supporting a DDR rally, standing separately, holding banners stating lines from their government’s constitution: ‘freedom of speech’ ‘privacy at home’ and ‘equal rights’ like model East German citizens – and all picked up by white vans with black windows a few days later.

‘When they took you, you would be driven around the city for over an hour’. The prison was only a 15 minutes bike ride away but the idea was to make you feel completely lost.

The Stasi tactics are strangely fascinating. We stop outside a cell door, where our guide was imprisoned for only 3 months before the wall fell, and peer in. ‘You see the bed. It was tilted up at the head, because at night the guards would turn on a very bright light so it would shine in your face and you could not sleep. You would never see another prisoner. If we had to move, the guards would escort us and signal to the next guide to make sure no one else was in the corridors. One time, another prisoner was put into my cell. I later found out she was from the Stasi to see if I would confess.’

Our final stop is the torture room. Sterile with just a simple, wooden desk and chairs and bars across the windows it’s far less terrifying than I thought it would be. I glance at our guide to check her reaction. The constant questioning, the sleep deprivation, the un-human loneliness – of course she confessed, everyone did, our guide almost laughs at the very idea – but how did she handle it?

‘You know,’ our guide says smiling momentarily, as we wait expectantly, ‘the guards of this prison still live in this area.’

And I get the feeling that now she’s facing her past. And fighting it back.

We wander out of the prison doors shivering and elated in the cold Berlin sunshine. Freedom.

 

Mdaka Homestead: At home with the Zulus

As the chanting of the Zulus grew louder, we could see torches burning in the dark night, coming closer. Great suspense hung in the air. One by one, our group stood up, leaving our empty plates and stepped out into the bush. Our host clapped his hands, grandly: ‘the boys have arrived, he announced, ‘for dancing’.

Dinner and dancing. As part of my stay at fledgling eco-venture Mbonise’s Mdaka Homestead in Kwa Zulu Natal, a remote part of South Africa, the owners promised us some very traditional entertainment.

A group of boys from the nearby village were coming over to show off their moves. Better still, we heard, they might teach us a few steps too.

In a line, the boys stomped into the garden, all school age, coy, laughing, dressed in casual jeans and t shirts.

Our group -bedraggled, jet-lagged and almost entirely unsuitably dressed – shuffled into a half-circle, as one of the boys took lead. First he began to sing, lift up his knees to apallingly athletic heights and stamp his feet. All we had to do, apparently was follow suit. If you are unfamiliar with traditional Zulu dancing, let me tell you, it is raw, powerful, high spirited and bloody hard work.

And it doesn’t help if you’re wearing a skirt either.

But the energy is magnetic. The beat of your feet as you hit the earth, the rhythm of your muscles and the exposure under the jet night sky feels at once primal and homely.

And this is what the Mdaka Homestead is all about: Making you feel at home.

Dining room at Mdaka Homestead, South Africa

Dining room at Mdaka Homestead, South Africa

Certainly there are some home comforts still missing. When I arrived the three rondavel – round thatched huts – were clean and inviting enough with double and twin beds. But the doors had no locks, there was no storage space, the outdoor showers didn’t work and in order to reach the one toilet we had to go outside, where there was no lighting. Rustic, it is.

But this little place is worth remembering. Mbonise in isZulu means ‘to show’ and this is exactly what the Mdaka Homestead offers: Not just another Zulu show for tourists – but a glimpse into everyday life and what these boys do every night – so that suddenly, you too are a part of it. What you are shown is the everyday and it is this which makes a stay so special.

So if you’re ever in South Africa, passing along the Elephant Coast or driving through the game-filled grassy, hills of Hluluwe National Park, be sure to visit the wonderful people at Mbonise and be prepared to step up to dinner and dancing. Just don’t wear a skirt.

La Route du Miam: A Nice little place I know….

‘Jean Michel, the chef, he wants to quit’, is one of the first things Marie, his wife confides, as she sloshes a delightful aperitif floc de Gascogne into our glasses. ‘The reviews have been terrible. The things people say is awful. We were first and now we are seventh.’ La Route du Miam, we quickly discover, has been tripadvisored.

La Route du Miam in Nice

Quelle horreur.

Oddly, it is the gushing reviews in tripadvisor that led us to La Route du Miam in the first place.

A tiny joint, tucked away in a back street in Nice, where the only thing on the menu is duck and foie gras – we’ve been thinking about it all week. If Well Fed had a tail, it would be thumping.

I walk in a little sceptically. So far the place – no bigger than a shop with little room for a proper kitchen – is empty. But there’s no need to worry. Marie, the owner and our waitress, seats herself comfortably next to us and explains the menu.

About seven dishes long, there’s no need to concentrate. The choices are: half duck with foie gras and stuffing (which somehow accounts for about six of the choices on the list), beef, or the special, which is lamb. Vegetarians beware.

Ed goes for the top option, a larger duck that’s a favourite with the men, whilst I opt for Marie’s favourite, the more ‘petite’ option that’s half mallard, half wild duck. French lesson 1: apparently ‘petite’ in French does not mean small… Take a moment to digest my meal below.

The petite choice at La Route du Miam

Never has food been so wondrously beige.

French lesson 2: La Route du Miam means ‘the yum route’.  Or as I like to loosely translate: the way of sinful overeating and obscene scrumptiousness. Our plates teeter over with a slice of toast topped with a fat wedge of foie gras, half a roasted duck, little roast potatoes topped with fried garlic and almonds and some ridiculously tasty stuffing. Jean Michel is a genius.

Marie pours us more wine and explains why our plate is piled so high: ‘People would come in and eat so much foie gras and bread they couldn’t eat the duck. Now we serve it all at once.

Ed’s duck is larger and the meat the fattier of the two. Mine is absolutely delicious. Succulent meat, perfectly cooked and lighter. But it’s the stuffing that’s the surprise treat. We ask Jean Michel for the recipe. It’s a family secret, he tells us, from his home in Gascony. But we do glean there’s lardons, duck herbs and foie gras in it.

The restaurant is full of happy locals by now and the air is festive. Marie and Jean Michel’s work is almost done and they sit with guests, pop open more wine and pour us a glass from their own bottle. We’re very full and very drunk. It feels like Christmas and we’re beginning to feel like part of the family.

I urge you to go – and tell Jean Michel not to quit.

Nice at dusk

Nice at dusk