Train journeys in India are the stuff of mystery, drama and good eats.
Mystery because you may have waited an hour in line to get your reserved seat but when you’re actually in the train there’s no guarantee that seat is going to be empty and waiting for you. And if you’re the kind that shirks from some yelling and threatening and asserting, rest assured you will be standing for however long it takes to make the journey.
Drama because chances are the bathrooms are filthy, the taps will run dry by the time you are halfway into your journey, the window won’t close, and, if you fall asleep despite all this, you will be jolted awake at 3 in the morning by someone hoping to make a buck by wailing a plaintive song in your ear.
And good eats because everyone on the train has packed an endless supply of homemade treats that they often don’t mind sharing. If you are seated next to a Gujarati, you’d no doubt get to savor at least the aromas and usually the flavors of chickpea-flour-based treats like khandvi and dhokla. A Maharashtrian might pack kande pohe or sabudana khichdi (made with sago pearls). And a Tamilian would carry, in one of those multi-storeyed steel tiffin carriers, some tamarind rice, lemon rice, curd rice and maybe a few delicious white idlis with spicy green coconut chutney.Each railway station the train pulls into is also a delightful punctuation of treats so unique, sometimes, I think, I’d look forward to traveling just so I could eat them.
I remember drinking tea early one morning in little earthen khullads at Bhopal station en route to Delhi. The khullads added their own salty flavor to the tea which took some getting used to, but wasn’t unpleasant at all. I remember wondering how anyone could eat deep-fried foods for breakfast, then nevertheless chomping down phapdas — long, deep-fried chickpea savories– at 7 a.m. on the way to Okha in Gujarat.
After Desi and I were married, we would travel at least once a year and sometimes twice to Madras in south India where his parents lived. The train journey to Madras from Bombay was a long one, stretching over 26 hours. But a great way to make the journey bearable was to line it start-to-end with food.
Soon after leaving Bombay, you could snack on batata wadas (deep-fried potato dumplings) in Karjat, or chikki (peanut brittle) in Lonavala. The next day, when you’d run out of your homemade food, you could buy some dosas for breakfast at Guntakal and tamarind rice or curd rice for lunch in Renigunta. Even the watery coffee sold by tiny boys carrying oversized kettles and yelling “kapi, kapi,” tasted amazing when you had the sliding landscape for company.
But it isn’t just the vendors weaving in and out of trains who supplied you with food. Most railway stations around the country, including Bombay’s commuter train stations like Victoria Terminus and Churchgate and all the stops along the length and breadth of the city’s railways, peddle their own treats at railway-run cafeterias.
When I worked for the Independent, a Bombay newspaper, our office in the Times of India building was across the street from the Victoria Terminus. Often, after putting the edition to bed, some of us who’d missed the last train home would find ourselves at the VT cafeteria that was open all night.
At that hour all the cafeteria offered, besides tea and coffee, was packaged foods like over-sweet, dense slices of Monginis cake, and donuts that looked or tasted nothing like, and were spelled on the large price board hanging on the wall as “do nots.”
Sometimes, if you were lucky, you might get a vegetable sandwich which was usually two slices of white bread slathered with a spicy green chutney and cradling thin slices cucumber and tomato, although chances were they were not very fresh. And. if you were really lucky, you might get a vegetable puff.
Vegetable puffs were, in fact, popular railway-station eats, although you could just as easily buy them at bakeries. These small, golden-brown packages filled with spicy vegetables and sometimes meats, were a delightful treat good for any time of day– or night.
Desi loves them, so when I decided to make some vegetable puffs this past weekend, I thought of buying puff pastry, as I usually do (the brands available in stores are usually vegan), but then I got a little adventurous and decided to do something I’d wanted to do ever since I saw Jacques show Julia how to hammer some butter and flour together into crispy deliciousness.
So I made puff pastry from scratch and although I am no Jacques Pepin, I must say it was quite amazing. In fact, I discovered it was easy as …well, puff pastry, although it did take some patience with all that rolling and folding and freezing and rolling and folding and freezing and so on. If you’re the kind that likes to get things done at a single stretch (the way I usually like to), you might be better off going with the store-bought kind.
Here it is, then, a recipe for my vegetable puffs and my vegan puff pastry. It was all quite delicious, but you don’t have to take my word for it– try it instead!
- For the Puff Pastry:
- 2 cups all-purpose flour
- 2 sticks (1 ciup or 16 tbsp) vegan butter like Earth Balance + ¼ cup of all-purpose flour
- 1 tsp salt
- Water as needed
- For the vegatable puff filling:
- 3 medium potatoes, boiled and chopped into a medium dice
- 1 cup frozen green peas
- 2 green chillies, finely minced
- 2 tsp canola oil
- 1 tsp cumin seeds
- A generous pinch of asafetida (hing)
- ½ tsp turmeric
- 1 tbsp grated ginger
- ¼ cup chopped coriander leaves
- Salt to taste
- Make the puff pastry:
- Place the two cold sticks of butter, straight out of the fridge, on a chopping board or the kitchen platform. Sprinkle the ¼ cup of all-purpose flour over it and, using a rolling pin or something heavy, beat the butter until it flattens out quite a bit but is still quite solid.
- Pat the edges of the butter to form a square. Place in a container and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes.
- In a bowl, place the 2 cups of flour, salt and, using enough water, knead into a smooth and pliable dough.
- Allow the dough to rest for a few minutes, then roll it out into a square large enough so you can wrap the square of butter in it.
- Once you have wrapped the butter, making sure it is well-sealed, then roll out the dough into a rectangle about 7 inches wide and 10 inches long. Do this preferably on a metal baking sheet so you have a cool surface and also so you can easily transfer the dough to the fridge. The rolling might take a little work because the dough can be resistant, but be patient.
- Now lift the edges of the rectangle along the long side and fold over one another so you have three layers. Place the sheet with the puff pastry in the fridge and let it stand for at least 15 minutes. Then remove and roll out again and fold again to make three more layers. Repeat four more times.
- After you've let the dough stand in the fridge for the last time, divide the puff pastry into two. Freeze half and use the rest for the vegetable puffs.
- Make the filling:
- Heat the oil and add the cumin seeds and asafetida. When the cumin sputters and crackles, add the ginger, stir-fry for a few seconds, then add the turmeric. Stir quickly to mix, stir in the chillies, then add the potatoes.
- Saute, stirring frequently, for a few minutes until the potatoes are well-coated with the turmeric and oil. Add salt, mix in the coriander leaves, and set aside to cool.
- Roll out the puff pastry into a square of about 8 inches. Cut with a pizza cutter into six pieces by making one cut down the middle and then three cuts horizontally.
- Take one of the squares and roll separately into a slightly larger square. Place a couple of heaped teaspoons of the filling in the center, moisten two sides, and fold over the puff pastry in a triangle. Press down on the edges to ensure they are sealed.
- Repeat until you have 12 puffs.
- Bake in a 350-degree oven for 45-60 minutes on an ungreased baking sheet until they are crisp and lightly golden-brown.
- Serve hot with some chutney or even ketchup.