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

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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

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

Eating Bergamo part 1: Da Mimmo

‘They never mentioned it was this steep’, I thought, gasping for breath as I hauled my way up the hot hillside. The spaghetti-narrow street was sucking us up past the sunbaked houses with their terracotta roofs and well-tended gardens towards the city gates with gusto. I paused for a moment to catch my breath and admire the view amidst the Lombardy poplars. ‘Come on, it’ll be worth it’ Well-Fed panted, pushing on, whilst enthusiastically brandishing our prized possession, our gastromic guide to Bergamo.

We had arrived in Bergamo that morning, stopping briefly to drop off our things at an apartment in the lower part of the city, before setting off in search of scenery and sustenance. Our appetite for a weekend of fabulous Italian food and fun had been whetted by the restaurant recommendations of a famous Italian food lover, the chef Carluccio.

Only on closer inspection of the map did we realise that food heaven really was in the clouds in the upper part of the old city, but we decided to forgo the funicular and ascend to the Citta Alta by foot. Our thoughts were simple: la dolce vita may be sweet but – with dishes made delicious through a triple bypass of olive oil, butter and cheese – it’s also gonna be short. The exercise would do us good.

Well-fed and I were therefore feeling rather virtuous – if not a little sweaty – when we arrived for a late lunch at Da Mimmo. Our waitress guided us through the robust, classy-looking restaurant to a table in the lovely courtyard in the back, where we sat riveted to our menus. I plumped for the ‘€18 lunch deal’ of gnocchi in a sage and butter sauce, a fish dish and a glass of wine.  Well-fed also went for a dish of the day, a polenta dish topped with beef cooked in red wine but – not wanting to be outdone on the number of courses – he also ordered an ‘anchovie pie’ to start.

The pie, we quickly realised was not really a pie at all.  More like a dense fishcake, it had a subtle warm, earthy flavour, quite different from the strong oily taste of anchovies I was used to. My gnocchi was the star of the show with a pillowy-light, soft texture that gave way to the shameless simplicity of sage and butter. Grilled white fish arrived unadorned but for a wedge of lemon and was as simple a classic, as I could have hoped for.  Beef in red wine was a far richer beast, with fat juicy strips of meat generously heaped over a mound of polenta. Dessert was sadly beyond us.

‘Well’, I sighed contentedly to Well-Fed, ‘it was definitely worth it,’ to which he replied, ‘So, where’s for dinner?’…

Berlin al fresco: Clärchens Ballhaus and Bötzow Privat

Berlin lives out on its streets in summer – whether it’s clattered out on the pavement by some well-worn caff;  putting another wurst on the barbie; or perched on the balcony, taking it all in.  Ask any Berliner for their thoughts on summer (if your German is, like mine, somewhat limited to conversations about the weather and ordering off menus) and they get a dreamy look in their eyes and say: ‘Ah, I fall in love with Berlin in summer!’.

I say this on a Saturday, when it’s actually pretty chilly outdoors.  The weekdays have been maddeningly warm in comparison, which, for a city that knows its right from its left, probably serves us capitalist 9-5ers right.  But maybe i’m just bitter.

In any case, for those of you who happen upon Berlin in a sunnier disposition, here is where I would go to fall in love…

Clärchens Ballhaus – One of those ‘hidden gems’ that’s nonetheless recommended by all the guidebooks, this slightly decrepit old ballroom can still kick up its heels and sits, rather grandly, on August strasse in Mitte. Here you’re greeted by my favourite bit, the courtyard, punctuated by a disco ball and little tables where you can order drinks from waiters in white shirts and waistcoats.

If you can tear yourself away for food (and I would, the pizzas were so-so but you can do better than that) then you’re just a waltz away from Tucholsky strasse, home to the lovely Schwarzwaldstube.  Hands up, I haven’t actually eaten at this place yet – but I can vouch for the smell (mmm) and my jealousy as I sipped a rhubarb drink outside, whilst plates loaded with flammkuchen (a type of German pizza) and spargeln (white asparagus) wafted by. Looking beyond my nose, I caught a lovely the view of the synagogue south down the street.

A short stumble across the strasse and you’ll find Bötzow Privat.  Food here is all hearty berliner fare, thoughtfully presented with a modern twist (think typisch Deutsch but lose the Lederhosen). We took Well-Fed’s parents here for dinner and tucked into excellent boulettes (Berlin burgers that were originally brought over by the French). The fat, hand-made meat patties were pure flavour, no fuss – served with a dollop of creamy sharp mustard and washed down with a delicious Rothaus wheatbeer.

Ah, I fall in love with Berlin in summer!

Bergamo part 2: La Colombina

Away from the main action of the Citta Alta along a pretty lane lacing the hillside, La Colombina sets itself apart. 

The neat trattoria with its deep honey walls,  comely wooden furniture and hot-pink potted flowers looks like an idyllic Italian family home, complete with hustle-bustle and cat. But the real treat, passing through the dining room straight ahead to the balcony, is the view. 

We arrived there late into the evening after a hard day’s lunch and afternoon doze, once more assailing the climb up to the restaurant with all the vigour of a pair promised dinner. We had booked a spot on the balcony and felt very pleased with ourselves for doing so. The vision of the lower Alps green and sloping off into the distance was interrupted only by terracotta rooftops and the grand city ramparts below. Not a bad start, I thought.

And then came the food.. 

The menu was short and we ordered almost all of it.

Cured meats came first with slithers of bresaola, prosciutto, lardo and an oddish swirly one that looked a bit like a lollipop crossed with spam.  Bresaola is smoked beef and lardo is lard – the italian ‘o’ at the end hardly adds to the romance of the dish but Well-fed was keen on a brief affair with it.  ‘It tastes like lard’, was his verdict and sadly I’d have to agree.

Then came a ‘ricotta muffin’ – not the English or American muffin I half expected – but more an Italian orb of dense souffley deliciousness. 

Then came round two: the pasta course.  There’s something a bit obscene about a country where pasta is a course casually slipped in before the main. Though when my taglitelle arrived, thick with creamy taleggio and salsiccia, I soon dismissed all thoughts of that. Well Fed’s dish wasn’t as good as mine. The casoncelli, Bergamo’s ravioli, stuffed with sausagemeat and topped with a sage and butter sauce – which sounds mouthwatering enough – was deemed not that flavoursome.. rich, yes but without a distinct taste.

I gave him some of my taleggio to help him get over it.