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Rocket steamer - A purveyor of exquisite culinary experience

  • Published at 07:11 pm April 18th, 2019
Deshi Culinary
Photos: Courtesy

Travelling by rocket steamer in the sixties provided an exquisite feel, only those who had this experience know the feeling

Originally the steamer service operated from Narayanganj to Khulna via Barisal. The total journey would take about 30 hours. Leaving in in the evening (about 6pm) the steamer stopped at Chandpur before it anchored at Barisal next evening and then left for Khulna arriving there in the morning. (Later, the steamer would operate between Dhaka and Khulna.) I had the pleasure of riding this steamer a few times in 1970 when I was assigned to Khulna as a civil service probationer. In those days, there were two principal ways one would travel to Khulna from Dhaka. One was by train via Bahadurabad (crossing ferry) and transitioning between Meter Gauge and Broad-Gauge rail track. It was a very long and arduous journey. The other was by steamer which would take nearly 30 hours, but more comfortable. A third option was by air; from Dhaka to Jessore, and then by road to Khulna. The last option was most expensive. 

For me, travelling by steamer was a no brainer. It would take nearly 30 hours, but it was worth it. First, because the journey was scenic and peaceful. Second, and for me, it was really the main reason, the excellent food one would get in the ship. It was specially so for the first-class passengers who would delight in a variety of desi and continental (read English) preparations. The first class of rocket service was really classy. There are a few cabins on the front deck of the ship, some of which are single, others double. In front of the cabins there are a few chairs and tables in the seating room where passengers would eat their food.

Each and every meal in the rocket steamer, starting with breakfast and going through lunch, afternoon snack, and dinner, was worth waiting for as far as I remember. Following is a mouth-watering recollection of the meals, not necessarily eaten by me in one single trip, but I am describing them as though I had them in one trip.

The first time I boarded the Rocket Steamer I was overwhelmed by the number of passengers, some three hundred, trying to get on board. Most were headed toward the benches on the open deck, but many had beddings that they unfolded on the open deck. First and second-class passengers had separate entrances. I climbed up through narrow stairs to my designated first-class cabin area. The cabins were on the sides of an upper deck which were not large but very neat with beds and chair and a table. There was a spacious open place where a number of chairs and tables were laid where one could relax anytime day and night.

Immediately after the steamer lifted the anchor and started its night long journey, a bearer asked if I would like some tea to which I nodded. Within minutes, the bearer appeared with a small pot of tea in cushion, a cup and milk, and sugar in separate pots in a tray. There were some biscuits lying by the side. The tea was excellent, both in aroma and colour. I took tea seating in the porch while viewing the ghat from the departing steamer.  

The first major meal was dinner which was served promptly at 8 pm in my cabin. Before bringing the dinner to my cabin, the room bearer had shown me a menu, the items of all of which would be included in the dinner. There was nothing in the menu that I would not want, even though I was not sure if I could finish all.

The meal started with a chicken corn soup and an appetizer of smoked hilsa. I had both before in clubs and restaurants. But both the soup and the smoked hilsa were very different, tasty and unique. The next was a choice between fried fish fillet and potato chops with minced meat inside. I chose the former. It was crispy on the outside but soft inside. Item number three was a mutton roast garnished in onions and other spices. The meat was succulent. There were vegetable supplements along with the dishes. The last item was a dessert, the ubiquitous caramel custard pudding accompanied with a fruit cup. I ate so much that I had to go out and sit in the deck. But that by itself was very relaxing. I sat in the deck for nearly two hours and almost fell asleep listening to the murmur of river waters below.

I had overslept and woke up after several knocks by the bearer on the cabin door. The morning was bright and sunny. The bearer asked if I wanted to have my bed tea, but it was rather late. So, I decided to have my breakfast instead and asked that it be served on the deck. There were a few stragglers like me who were enjoying their breakfast on the deck. There were several choices for breakfast. One was the typical English breakfast of porridge, toast, eggs, and fish sticks (instead of sausage I suppose). The other was parathaaloo bhaji, and egg omelet (desi style). Of course, one could mix and match or have all of these. But that would be over the top. I had a cup of porridge, parathaaloo bhaji, and egg omelet. To say that each item was delicious will be an understatement. Each and every item was finger licking good. Then I had copious amounts of that wonderful tea. 

The steamer had passed through Chandpur on the way very early in the morning, so I missed the hustle and bustle of that river port. It was already midmorning and the sun was already quite high in the sky, making the stay on the deck uncomfortable. I went inside in the air-conditioned cabin and waited for lunch.

The lunch arrived soon thereafter. I had selected my choice earlier from the room cabin menu and had asked the bearer to serve lunch in the cabin. The lunch was no less elaborate than the dinner before, only the quantity was somewhat less. I had specifically asked for a mix of English and Bengali food. The first dish was chicken cutlets and potato fries. The main dishes were aloo dum and purishorshe ilish (hilsa in mustard) and khichuri. The shorshe ilish was so good that for a long time no place would come anywhere near this preparation. The meal ended with a custard pudding.  

We reached Barisal Ghat towards the evening. In the meantime, we were served tea, thin English sandwiches, and samosas. The steamer stopped in Barisal for about three hours, and then took off for Khulna. 

Immediately on departure, the bearer asked me if I would like my dinner fully continental or mixed. I opted for the former. An hour later my dinner arrived. I had a consommé (a clear broth), smoked hilsha once again, mutton cutlets, fried rice, and bread pudding for dessert. Needless to say, all the dishes were well cooked, and delicious.

We reached Khulna early in the morning. Before disembarking I had a final cup of tea with some buttered toasts. I travelled by rocket steamer two or three times, and I must say more for the food the service provided than for the journey itself. Had it not been for the excellent food, a 30-hour trip could be very very long.