Welcome to the third entry in my Remembering India series, where I share recipes, meals and adventures from my 2008 studies abroad. Today I remember a delirious overnight train ride, along with the most satisfying dish of chicken biryani I have ever eaten.
You can find the recipe for my re-creation of this biryani in the fourth installment of this series.
Have you ever woken up from a dream that is so vivid but so hard to describe? You see snapshots in your mind, but you just can’t find the words to get them out of your head?
That’s the way I feel about a very special tin of chicken biryani. I ate it from my lap on an overnight train from Mumbai to Goa.
I didn’t expect it, but this biryani comforted me. The summer I went to India was one of the most vulnerable times of my life. I was healing from a broken heart and trying to start a new life with new friends and a new purpose. So after a night of living on a train with strangers—each with their own story and energy—my overloaded senses were ready for the familiar relief of a soothing, hot meal.
It was late at night when we boarded the Konkan Kanya Express. The outside world was pitch black and quiet, but our electric-blue train cars were brightly lit and full of noises.
My seat was in a car with only two of my classmates, along with a few other couples and families. I was a little nervous at first to have a slumber party with a bunch of people I didn’t know, but there was nothing I could do besides settle in and be happy that I could still visit with friends until bedtime. Sleeping in a car full of people I knew would have been fun, but it probably would have kept me from tuning into my environment.
Every once in awhile, a food or drink vendor passed through our car, assuring me that time was actually moving forward on our 12-hour-long journey through the pitch-black night. There was the water vendor who sang, “Pani, pani, bottled pani, cold drink!” And the chai vendor who hummed, “Chai, chai, chai, chai, chai” until his voice followed him into the next car. And my favorite: the vendor whose P’s and B’s fiercely popped as he shouted, “Chicken biryani! Chicken lollipop*!” What’s a chicken lollipop*? Should I get one?
*The next day I watched my friend Ray order a chicken lollipop, which, as it turns out, isn’t a lollipop, at all. It’s a gussied-up drumette (usually fried), where the meat and skin are gathered together into one large sphere.
It was time to assemble our beds, so I put the chicken lollipop out of my mind. The backs of our train seats swung up on hinges to form temporary top bunk beds. We secured them by clipping them to the electric-blue cords that hung from the ceiling.
Bed in place, I opened my bag of linens, spread out my sheet, and hoped that I would sleep through the night.
The cabin was dark except for a few emergency lights. I listened in on the sound of metal grinding on metal as our train whizzed forward. The vendors sold bottled water, chai and chicken lollipops all night long—this time in hushed nighttime voices. I slept in spurts between each of their visits, feeling particularly startled by the vibrating drone and whistle of the chai vendor. Each encounter had the disorienting feeling equivalent to waking up on the couch at 2 am to the sound of an infomercial. Where the hell am I, and how long have I been sleeping?
I don’t know how long this lasted—at least a few handfuls of vendor visits—but the sun came out and I could finally make sense of our surroundings. I was tired and restless so I convinced myself to eat something. It was time for chicken biryani.
I opened my tin to a steaming layer of chewy white rice. It was perfectly hydrated without being mushy. I dug in and landed on tender bone-in chicken whose sauce was redder, more juicy, and a bit more sour than other biryanis I’d had. The whole dish was laced with a perfume of nutty and floral spices, and—if I’m remembering correctly—the typical garnishes of nuts and sweet, crispy fried onions. There was a single hardboiled egg—and quite possibly, a scattering of raisins.
If I seem a little fuzzy on the garnishes, it’s mainly because this happened eight years ago—and also because I was so overtaken by the subtlety and unity of the flavors in this dish. It was salty, sour, and smokey with an even layer of heat, and small jolts of warmth and sweetness. The chicken was so, so juicy, setting this dish apart from any biryani I’d ever eaten.
I looked around my cabin as I gobbled up my biryani. There was an adorable couple nearby sitting head-to-foot. The woman’s toenails were painted—a small detail I noticed as she rested her feet on her partner’s lap. They giggled and chatted and looked at each other so lovingly. I didn’t know them, nor could I understand them—was he going to meet her parents? Were they running away for a secret weekend trip?—but they warmed my heart. Or maybe the biryani just warmed my belly.
There’s a part of me that suspects that my delirium, my overloaded senses and the hope I felt from that adorable couple are what made this biryani so comforting. That same part of me suspects that I’m remembering the ingredients incorrectly. After eight years, this biryani has become a shadow of a memory. And though my re-creation might be way off from what I actually ate on the Konkan Kanya Express, it’s the only biryani that brings me close to the flavors and comfort I remember from that day.
Related Stories & Recipes
Remembering India: My First 24 Hours
Remembering India: Pramila’s Paneer Bhurji
Remembering India: Chicken Biryani
Remembering India: Ghee + Thane
Remembering India: Before We Begin
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