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