Chef Ranveer Brar on Rediscovering India via Railway Journeys

Stories of India, one station at a time

Shraddha Varma

For chef Ranveer Brar, the train journeys on Station Master’s Tiffin was a time when a million stories came alive. He listened to them in railway coaches and stations, tasted and experienced them in pantry cars and in the lunch boxes of his co-passengers, breathed them in along with the soot and dust of life on the track. Railways, a point where India converges. Not popular tourist destinations, the real stories were hidden in quaint towns and far-flung stations. The flavours spoke to him in the soft laddus of Sandila, the fables came alive in the quaint hill stations of Himachal. As he shot for Living Foodz’s upcoming show Station Master’s Tiffin, Brar got a chance to rediscover different parts of India and relive his memories. The chef and anchor shared with us some stories that will always stay with him.

“I finally discovered how the potato wound up in the Kolkata biryani…”

I have always wondered how the aloo (potato) got into the biryani in Kolkata. The answer finally revealed itself during the Kolkata schedule of Station Master’s Tiffin shoot. The story goes, that it happened post 1856 when Nawab Wajid Ali Shah, the 10th Nawab of Oudh, was banished from his kingdom, he left Lucknow and settled on the outskirts of Kolkata. Here he tried his best to replicate his beloved capital Lucknow – from the Islamic structures to the royal kitchen. At that time, potatoes, which came to the country with the Portuguese, were considered exotic. To please their nawab, his enterprising khansamas added it to the biryani and the potato has never left this fragrant pot of rice and meat we call the Kolkata Biryani.

“The 104-year-old Pamban Bridge in Rameswaram will leave you spellbound”

The Pamban bridge is an engineering marvel and a success story of Indian Railways. For a long time, it was the only connection between Rameswaram and the mainland. It is amazing how this cantilever bridge, which is a century old, is still standing strong. Oh, and not just that, almost 18 trains cross it daily.”

“Have you heard about Barog’s Tunnel no 33?”

Of the many stories that I gathered along the way during the shoot of Station Master’s Tiffin, the story of ‘Tunnel no 33’ near the quaint station of Barog in Himachal Pradesh’s Solan district sticks out. Located on the picturesque Kalka-Shimla narrow gauge line, which is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, it is also the longest straight tunnel in this railway (1143.61m). As per railway chronicles, Colonel Barog was a British era railway engineer, who was assigned the work of tunnel no 33. To speed up the construction, he divided his team and asked them to start drilling from the opposite ends. As per his plan, both the teams would meet at the centre and complete the tunnel. However, it was later discovered that he had miscalculated, and the tunnel couldn’t be completed. This left the colonel depressed and the government only added to his misery. He was fined Re 1 for wasting resources. One day, Colonel Barog went for a walk with his dog near the tunnel. Weighed down by humiliation, he shot himself with a revolver. Locals say that his dog, terrified of the incident, ran to the village to seek help. But by the time the villagers reached the spot, the colonel was dead.

The work was later assigned to chief engineer HS Harrington. But, it is said, he couldn’t align the two ends to complete the tunnel and had to seek the help of a Baba Bhalku, a mystic from Chail in Himachal Pradesh. It was he who showed them the correct course to drill and the tunnel was finally completed in 1903. The people of Barog and around believe that Baba Bhalku possessed natural engineering skills. If it hadn’t been him, the tunnel wouldn’t have been completed. In Shimla there is a museum after his name to commemorate his contribution to the Kalka-Shimla Railway.  

“Sandila Laddu was my favourite”

A train journey is incomplete without food. I found the story of the Sandila laddus, a country cousin of the glamourous boondi laddu, quite fascinating. When the British ruled India, the present-day Uttar Pradesh was known as United Provinces, made of a bunch of talukas and soobas. Each of these talukas and soobas had a signature dish and Sandila was famous for its laddu. I got the opportunity to try my hands at making these laddus with a local halwai and his son, and boy, was it fun! What is unique about these laddus is that they don’t spoil as quickly as your regular boondi ones. That’s because they are rolled in shakkar ka boora, (raw powdered sugar) which acts as a preservative. Shakkar ka boora is basically porous sugar, which is prepared by melting sugar in water to reach a state of crystallization. 

For more such stories, watch Station Master’s Tiffin on Living Foodz.

Image: Najeeb Aziz


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