Catering chief rails at lack of curry standards
As a boy, Rakesh Tandon would travel by train with his parents to the hills during summer holidays, enjoying the post-colonial elegance of the dining car.
Attendants in starched white jackets served roast chicken and caramel custard on crockery embossed with the Indian Railways insignia.
Times have changed, with passengers now served at their seats from plastic trays stacked on steel trolleys.
But what disappointed Mr Tandon most was the tremendous inconsistency in the dishes and snacks served. The chicken curry served on the trains in the northern zone, for example, was often oilier and spicier, with a thicker, darker gravy than the same dish served on the eastern routes.
Now, as catering chief for the gargantuan rail network, Mr Tandon is doing something about it.
In a mammoth exercise, he hopes to standardise the million-plus meals served every day in Indian Railways trains. An official book of the recipes has been compiled and distributed to railway kitchens around the country.
'The dishes had to be standardised in terms of ingredients and method of cooking,' he said.
'So we have compiled a book of recipes that has been given to the 110 base kitchens where the meals are prepared.'
Mr Tandon, managing director of the Indian Railways Catering and Tourism Corporation, likened providing meals for just one train line to 'running a restaurant for 1,000 people'.
'It's done with military precision,' he said. 'The meals are prepared at base kitchens 20km away from the station, brought in lorries and loaded on to the train.'
His staff visited the kitchens of the private caterers to see how dishes were prepared. Back at the office, with the help of recipe books, they determined exactly which ingredients, in what proportions, should be used and collated a list.
Their decisions were incorporated in a final recipe book, which is now the cooking bible of Indian Railways.
The catering chief wants more passengers to eat his food and hopes, one day, to serve 3 million to 4 million meals per day.
'I'd like eventually to offer the kind of home-cooked food that my mother used to make. That would be a great hit,' he said.