Egg

India’s Most Nostalgic Egg Dish Is Made on a Train

The railway omelet was far from perfect. So why is it the best sandwich I’ve ever had?

December  4, 2019
Photo by Julia Gartland

About halfway through the 2014 film, The Hundred-Foot Journey, comes a defining moment. The protagonist, young Indian cook Hassan Kadam (played by Manish Dayal), wants to prove himself to the very French Madame Mallory (Helen Mirren), a Michelin-decorated chef who turns her nose up at the curry-making family who’ve moved in across the street. He decides to show her his skills by making an omelet. Except, because his own hands have been burned after his family's restaurant was torched by one of Mallory's employees, he will have to walk her through the recipe. She accepts his offering of an olive branch.

What follows is an awkward dance of cultural unraveling. First, she’s coaxed into gentle stirring instead of a practiced whisking. Then, as she haltingly adds pinches of spice, onion, chile, and coriander, she’s nudged by Hassan to drop it all in. The omelet is—despite her intransigence—eventually poured, cooked, folded, and served. Mallory takes a bite, gasps “Oh,” and bursts into tears.

Outside, the sun has broken through—and the "Indian omelet" has, it would appear, brokered a truce.

An Indian omelet is essentially a masala omelet, different from regular omelets in that it packs in both a generous amount of finely diced vegetables and considerable heat from various spices. Versions of masala omelet are conspicuously available anywhere you go in India, but for me, nowhere does it reign more supreme than in my memories of childhood—of long train journeys ventured in hot summers. The great Indian railway omelet.

If you spent any time growing up in India, and if you took pleasure in traveling its length and breadth like my family did, then this omelet was a companion to your coming of age. Train stations would shift and food vendors would change, but the “railway omelet,” or “bread omelet” as it was sometimes called, stayed bafflingly consistent.

It broke all the strictures of traditional omelet-making, but it was the kind of exception that for me became the rule: thin, flat, pale to the point of sickly, large enough that it would flop over the edge of your plate, and liberally flecked with chile powder and peppers, onions, and coriander. Oftentimes it was a sandwich filling, folded up and bursting out of two slices of white bread, usually toasted in the grease of the pan.

Despite our regular train travel, railway omelets were a treat that didn’t always come easy. My mom would pack homemade food for us to carry: a hierarchy of meals and snacks packed in order of consumption. We’d start from the top—flaky, crumbly curry puffs perhaps, and end with idli miligai podi. For reasons I cannot fathom today, I’d look longingly at kids whose less-prepared mothers would hand them crumpled notes instead, to buy from the vendors plying the train’s corridors snacks that were always greasy, always messy. To me, though, they held the appeal of contraband.

Eventually our food would run out, about midway through a 40-hour journey from the dusty heat of northern India to the tranquil green of Kerala. I’d retreat to the upper bunk for the night, waking several times to shadowy figures getting on and off the train, the calls of chai and coffee eventually announcing the morning. Then they’d arrive—the omelets—in bucketfuls from the dining car. If you’d placed an order for one ahead of time, a flat, cold, delicious omelet with buttered bread was yours.

To be clear, omelets weren’t the only food that’d emerge. But in my pile of priorities, the omelet sat right at the top, with potato cutlets a distant second. At the very bottom of the pile, the stainless-steel trays containing multiple sloshing curries, rice and "cardboard papad."

The omelets I really loved were the ones you jumped off the train for, at some obscure town in middle-India—a halt just long enough for you to leap back on board in time. (My mother was never thrilled with this idea, and lectured me about levels of hygiene, which I cared less for.) Stretching my legs, I’d take in the details of the platform, rich as a novel with its swirling universe of passengers, well-wishers, and hawkers. I’d watch the vendor throw a medley of veggies into an egg mix and pour it all into a giant pool of grease. The omelet would then be deftly folded into quarters and stuck between bread, or round-top pav, depending on the reach of machine-cut bread in the town.

“I have vivid memories of these, as happy alternatives to bony chicken curry or bland dal-chawal (lentils and rice) on long trips down to Chennai when I was a kid,” Vikram Doctor, a food writer for India’s Economic Times, writes to me via email. “In fact,” he adds, “rail journeys like that might have been the way kids encountered omelets for the first time.” For many Indian households, omelets would have been less conspicuous on daily menus—except among certain communities like, say, the Parsis—than, say, boiled eggs or egg curries.

In fact, as Tejal Rao writes in her New York Times ode to the Kejriwal—another stellar union of egg, chile, and toast—for many vegetarian Indians, “the egg occupies an interesting position. Not meaty enough to be considered meat but not vegetal enough for everyone to agree that it’s vegetarian.” A train journey was often considered as good a time as any for a vegetarian to condone an omelet’s guilty pleasure.

Later years would find me enjoying similar omelets on street corners—mostly in Mumbai, but also other Indian cities. “Nothing matches the hot, greasy, spicy delight of an omelet sandwich made in front of you out on the street with a cold wind blowing in the few weeks of what Mumbai calls winter,” writes Doctor, in a story about Mumbai's omelet-pav sandwiches. (Those late-night omelet pavs, I can testify, also served as a reliable antidote to hangovers.)

Other great egg sandwiches flourished all over the city: British-style egg butties, and finely sliced boiled egg sandwiches served in gymkhanas with Maggi sauce. But somehow, nothing ever quite matched my palate memory of those omelet sandwiches I ate years before.

I’ve recreated a version in my New York kitchen, and it’s become a Sunday self-care ritual of sorts. The veggies I choose to include vary—sometimes I’ll add tomato, other times, green pepper. Often, I’ll add grated mature cheddar. But one thing’s a constant: I always toast my bread in the same pan. (If you like your bread more evenly browned and crisped, you might prefer a toaster.)

Life appeared to come full circle when I discovered a “Railway Omelet” on the breakfast menu of Pondicheri, a pan-Indian restaurant in New York’s NoMad. Their version, rather more maximalist than the one I grew up with, arrived packed to the gills with veggies, something I popped over to ask owner Anita Jaisinghani about. “It always amazed me how the first thing you tasted in an omelet on the train were the veggies, and not the egg,” she says. “We decided to take that idea a step further and threw in even more—basically everything but the kitchen sink.”

Now that I live so far away from India, I spend a lot of time thinking about how nostalgia shapes memory—food memory, especially. And it makes me wonder about my outsized fondness for the railway omelet sandwich.

Of course I know it isn’t just about the omelet. It’s about straddling two homes as an immigrant, and wanting to preserve the past so that I can cling on to a sense of belonging. Or maybe I just miss the simplicity of travel in those days, when travel, well … took its time. We travel faster and farther now, but we rush about it, hating it all, and complaining endlessly. And whoever rhapsodizes about an airport meal?

But on those leisurely 40-hour journeys, we were armed with only a vague sense of destination. So we read voraciously, slept a great deal, woke up to exquisite dawns and stared out at unexceptional towns. And as the train trundled on, piercing through the heart of India, the spicy, greasy, often cold omelet sandwich kept us company.

What's the most nostalgic food you associate with travel? Tell us in the comments below!

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Arati Menon

Written by: Arati Menon

Arati grew up hanging off the petticoat-tails of three generations of Indian matriarchs who used food to speak their language of love—and she finds herself instinctually following suit. Her life has taken her all across the world, but she carries with her a menagerie of inherited home and kitchen objects that serve as her anchor, no matter the living situation. She's an impassioned ambassador for life in Brooklyn, and a fierce critic of the vast amounts of cream cheese on a New York bagel.

13 Comments

nykavi December 12, 2019
Thanks Arti. This is pure nostalgia for those of us that travelled the Indian rails. My favorite is the omelet sandwich on the Deccan Queen, a spicy, oily rendition. Then again lots of ‘Railway’ food is synonymous with train travel...another fav Railway Mutton. http://homeonmyrange.blogspot.com/2013/03/under-pressure.html
 
Author Comment
Arati M. December 12, 2019
Thanks for sharing! The joys of the mutton curry escaped me, sadly, because I rarely ate meat (still barely do). I did however once succumb to the chicken biryani at Shoranur junction in Kerala, and it was really quite delicious.
 
Parizaad K. December 11, 2019
What a beautiful essay, and such a lyrical retelling of the romanticism of train travel in India. You made it come alive.
 
Author Comment
Arati M. December 11, 2019
Thank you so much for reading it, and for sharing some of my nostalgia for it. I actually just re-watched BBC's Great Railway Journeys: The Deccan Railroad (made back in 1980)... and while it's definitely outside-in storytelling, it's well worth a watch (here's a link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mlZZS3h0iqs).
 
Abra B. December 7, 2019
This sounds so good - I can't wait to try it.
 
Author Comment
Arati M. December 8, 2019
I'd love for you to try it, Abra. Let me know what you think!
 
Maggie S. December 5, 2019
How have I not read this gorgeous piece until now? You are such a gifted storyteller.

(p.s. let's visit the town where that was filmed!)
 
Author Comment
Arati M. December 5, 2019
Say the words "South of France," and I reach for my valise.
 
Eric K. November 26, 2019
Ugh, that 100-Foot Journey clip made me cry when I saw it in theatres. Lovely essay, Arati.
 
Malav N. November 24, 2019
Thanks for writing this! India, trains, the food on trains, incredibly long journeys. Ah!! Just what I needed on a cold Sunday night. :)

My memory of the railway omlette is a little different though. The first thing that I'd taste is the green chilly bits generously added to the egg. Then, the crunch of the onions and finally the (slightly dubious) grease. The seasoning would be humble and the appearance very pale - but that never stopped it from being the perfect treat on a train ride with some hot masala chai.
 
Author Comment
Arati M. November 24, 2019
Glad you could relate! So true about the fact that you taste the onions and chile before the egg! Delicious. And yes, the less we thought about where the grease came from, the happier we were :)
 
Brinda A. November 24, 2019
Arati, your writing is transporting and makes me really want to hop on a train! We used to love the potato cutlets with tamarind chutney, and hot cups of chai, on the journeys between Chennai and Nagpur. I didn't know the delights of these omelets back then, but now will order nothing else!
 
Author Comment
Arati M. November 24, 2019
Ah, you lucked out with tamarind chutney; I only ever got cutlets with tomato ketchup. A friend in Australia texted me today saying she came across Indian veggie cutlets in the freezer section of her supermarket, and they was called "Railway Cutlets." So, people have nostalgic memories of cutlets akin to my memories of omelets! :)