As India marks the Army Day today, here is the inside story of how the soldiers are served up a culinary diversity day in and day out.
The trigger for this anecdotal piece is the Border Security Force (BSF) constable’s video on poor quality of food and the article by Lt Col Noel Ellis’ titled ‘Dal Tadka Maar Ke’. I am a hardcore Awadhi aficionado with a penchant for multi cuisines. However, my family has one grouse against me; over time spent in the Indian Army my culinary tastes have become more and more desi. I blame the sub-units of my battalion, most of which I commanded as a junior officer. It is the taste of my troops (all Garhwalis) and the limited resources available in field kitchens, which developed my taste buds. The reader will get an idea of the passion of my choice when he learns that I gladly avoided food of the Officers’ Mess and sneaked into langars to simply devour that dal-sabzi-raita-kachri-rice-roti fare. I ate rice and dal with my hands, just like the men and slurped the last bit from the plate by drinking it up.
During operations in Sri Lanka, I enjoyed discussing with the men what we should eat when we were self-contained for 72 hours. The Meals Ready to Eat prepared by the Defence Research and Development Organisation is good once in a while for a change, but mostly flavours that the troops like the most. My men loved to have yellow rice, watery curd carried in rum bottles and a combination of condiments ground together to powder; it was called Garhwali namak. Shakkarparas and namakparas are the most popular survival rations. Consumed with hot tea in the jungle or on a long range patrol in high altitude, they are simply marvellous, and when under preparation in the company cook house, it is always good to visit because you get them piping hot.
As a company commander, I made sure that our Junior Commissioned Officer in charge of administration ordered all the right condiments, and the management of variety in food was done by add-ons such as pickle, raita, papad and chutneys. In Kashmir, chutneys were prepared from the fallen and damaged apples, which are much cheaper. Some of the saved sugar from the cook house was used to prepare these. The government gives an allowance in cash to the unit to procure pickle, papad and copra for troops; it is called PPC. This money can be put to great use to put some zing into the food of jawans. We saved some money by making our own pickles and chutneys instead of purchasing them and using the saved money to buy extra vegetables, so that the boys had two veggies for each meal; call it illegal or whatever you wish to.
When fresh rations do not fetch up many a time due to unforeseen circumstances such as the agitation on the streets of Kashmir or due to roadblocks, there are two options – first, go for local purchase if there is availability or resort to reserves of tinned variety. You get potato, tinda, turnip, peas or carrots, which can be mixed with hard varieties such as onions and fresh potatoes. Good old egg powder is always a suitable option for making a tasty bhujiya. There is enough atta around to make a superb halwa for dessert, which anyway is a must on Sunday at the mandir, masjid, gurudwara ‘parade’; yes everything in the Army is a parade including prostrating before God.
In most field areas, food is collected in groups by jawans in the most oddly shaped containers including ghee tins. It is taken to the section bunkers, where it is given an extra treatment based on individual taste. Ghee from home in the case of Jat troops, extra tadka in the case of all troops, rotis are made karari and the vegetable may have some add-ons, if a leave party jawan has brought some radish or carrots from a local Gujjar village en route to the post.
The biggest consumers of food are the civil porters, who trudge up and down from 4,000 feet to 13,000 feet every day carrying 20 kg of supplies on their backs. This can either be a jerrican of kerosene oil or a pack full of dry ration or tinned stuff. All this is a part of the summer effort to stock the posts because once the snow starts falling, no one can move and no supplies can reach. The tired local porter is not authorised any food, but can you ever expect the ever-kind Indian Army to be eating while the porters sit and watch? Hot delicious food is served to them when they reach the posts and if their local ponies are accompanying them, they too would at least be given water, if not some food. There is enough to go around and keep everyone happy. What is needed is ‘spirit’, not the alcoholic variety, but the human one – espirite de corps.
When good men relate to each other and there is a man above who welds them together, the spirit of camaraderie produces a different taste in everything, let alone the food which is consumed together. I just cannot understand how the BSF jawan could not get the food he wanted; either he was a true bad hat, a trouble creator or there is a larger issue which prevented all I have written from permeating the culture of the sub-unit he belonged to.
Some of my cherished moments concerning any type of food is, first, the prasad at our company mandirs in Sri Lanka during Operation Pawan. Good enough to die for; it was served almost exactly as served in so many good gurudwaras, in fistfuls when troops returned from operations. The halwa party stood at the entrance gate and also did a head count of those entering, just in case a hungry Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam militant did not get tempted to join the party. Another fantastic experience was that of climbing Kala Pahar in Uri sector. We placed a 180-kg steel flag atop the Kala Pahar 13 years ago; the flag displays the dagger of the Dagger Division in all its glory. The effort made with 15 Grenadiers leading and providing the logistics, led to my consuming 18 pooris for lunch along with aloo tamatar. I have never enjoyed a meal more than that in all my life. It was one of those moments when the hunger in the mind doesn’t get satiated but the stomach cannot take any more. The 7 Dogra’s breakfast at the Kaman Aman Setu in Uri was just amazing. The lingering taste of 3 Madras South Indian breakfast at Bandipore in 2011 continues to the day. That reminds me of 4 Madras, the Wallajah Light Infantry; I was to visit them at Velu in South Kashmir and the route was stricken with improvised explosive devices. I agreed to go there even in a Mine Protected Vehicle because I did not wish to miss their famed vadas and dosas.
As a senior officer, I would look down upon units, which tried to get fruits and special stuff from far away, but always complimented a unit, which could produce things out of what was available. Invariably these turned out to be delectable. This piece won’t be complete without a mention of Tibetan troops, who are the most natural cooks you can ever find. Every soldier is a cook and if you happen to be invited to a Tibetan unit for a lunch, half the unit turns up to do the cooking. The number of dishes is usually not less than 20. I was blessed to have three Maratha units in my division at one time. Once they came to know about my fascination for Maharashtrian dal, amras and poori followed by srikhand, I was the happiest guy around.
How can one forget the Gorkhas of all varieties? The best of their food for me was sel roti, the jalebi-shaped deep fried rice dough and a radish-based vegetable. Let me be honest; I once gave preference for a Gorkha flagstaff house guard because I was tempted by the idea of having sel roti once a week.
My own Garhwali bhullas whose fare has been mentioned in snippets throughout this piece make the famous highlander dish kachmoli, half-cooked mutton with a tadka of mustard oil and green chilies, consumed with rum by the side. A common snack at all Garhwali barakhanas is butuwa, the deep fried cut pieces of goat intestine with coagulated blood. It takes an acquired taste to enjoy all this.
The veterans and even the serving officers of the Army are going berserk recalling the variety and high-quality of their culinary experience with troops’ food. Almost each one of them bemoans the food of the Officers’ Mess; very soon one should have a few officers posting videos on social media to the Supreme Commander. But honestly, as someone who has been with mess food for 63 years, I think Officers’ Mess food has improved by miles. Everything depends on the interest one takes. On leave, I would learn an odd western dish from my wife or mother and then try it out in Punjab’s field kitchens during the deployment of the Army there in 1990-91. The keema samosas, dim sums, mutton chops and salads of some good cavalry messes can be amazing.
So, why not an Indian Army Master Chef competition? Any takers for this in the different formations? At least it will get the minds off from this unnecessary negativity. The BSF can try its own too.
Have a great Army Day and may the men and their officers flourish wherever they are.