Mum has been working in the kitchen since dawn. She’s cooking a feast that we will carry with us in our long train journey from our home in Surat to our nani ’s house in Chennai.
I see doodh ka parathas (flatbread made with wheat flour and milk), saangri ki sabzi (a Marwari dish from Jaisalmer), aloo ki sabzi , and a lot more — all of which she has made single-handedly without showing any sign of fatigue. Once they cool, she packs them in used sweet boxes, fills up recycled plastic jars with homemade mango pickle and gatte ki kadhi (a dish made from buttermilk and gram flour), loads a bag with spice mixes, onions, cucumbers, raw mangoes (a must during summer vacations) and puffed rice, and we are good to go.
My favourite food of all these, however, is the namkeen puri. In a pital paraat (brass platter used to knead dough), mum heaps up wheat and gram flour, sprinkling spices and drizzling some oil. Then my father takes over to knead the dough. Those are strong biceps, I think in my head. He rolls out the thinnest round puris on a wooden chakla (round board) and fries them on medium flame. The puris puff up like pillows — dad knows the trick. The orange-red puris make me hungry, but we don’t have time to eat them.
Off we go
Soon we are rushing to the Surat railway station. I notice that the jute bag with food items is as heavy as bricks. Once at the station, which in my childhood had only two platforms, all of us gear up for the journey. I fix my Walkman with fully charged batteries; my elder brother weighs himself on the machine; my younger brother waits anxiously for the train whistle.
At around 9 a.m., the Navjeevan Express rushes in. We find our seats, the train pushes off with an abrupt jerk, and the journey begins. I stare out of the rusted windows: the shanties outside are replaced by tall trees and green fields a couple of hours later. The next thing I know is that I’m hungry. There’s something about train journeys, they give you inescapable hunger pangs as soon as you hop in. But mum will open the food bag only at the right time.
Chennai is here
Our first meal on the train is curd rice, bajra rotis, gatte ki kadhi and sangri ki loungi. For salad, dad crushes a few onions with his palm and keeps half a piece on each plate. Once lunch is over, we siblings play games and check out every food-seller who passes by, convincing dad to buy us a snack or two. In the evening, mum prepares a snack with puffed rice, which I relish. No more looking at the vendors selling chana in paper cones. Other boxes with the food she packed so carefully get opened at dinner time.
When I wake up the next day, I can get whiffs of sambar and coconut chutney and know we are closer to our destination. We reach Vijayawada station, where every passenger rushes off to get their morning meal sorted.
But Chennai won’t come till evening, giving us ample time to wade through all our food. By the time the sun sets, we are done with our games, music has been played on loop on my Walkman, the food boxes are empty, and all we want is to hit Chennai roads. After what seems like an interminable wait, the train enters the station and I see my maternal uncle waving from the platform. “Jiji,” he calls out and mum smiles.
Jaisalmer’s Namkeen Puri
Whole wheat flour – 1 cup
Gram flour – 2 tbsp
Oil – 2 tsp
Red chilli powder – 3/4th tsp
Turmeric powder, carom seeds, cumin seeds and coriander powder – 1/4 tsp each
A pinch of asafoetida and salt to taste
1. Add oil in the flour and mix well
2. Add the spices and knead a dough. We don’t need a tight dough, but preferably not too loose as well.
3. Roll out thin discs of puris; a drop of oil on the rolling board will help you make the puris (no flour needed).
4. Once the oil in your cast iron skillet is hot, slide in the puri. Make sure the flame is on medium, not low. When you drop the puri in the oil, press it with the jhari/ skimmer — this way the puri will puff up (the secret behind soft puris).
5. When making them for travel purpose, cool all the puris in a plate, then pile them up and pack. Serve with curd rice, pickle and raw onion.
The writer is a freelance journalist and food blogger.