They say an army marches on its stomach, but a submarine? Well food is a very important subject on a submarine. Right from the time rations are ordered prior to a voyage, to the time they are supplied, during which the chef’s perform a very stringent inspection of the quality of fruits and vegetables supplied, to the time it is loaded inside the cold and cool rooms carefully, it is considered top priority work. It is a daunting task for the Executive officer to plan a menu for six weeks of sailing in advance and try to cover cuisines from all corners of the country.
It is a well-known fact that submariners cannot eat normal food that land lubbers do because they cannot have any fried or sautéed food inside due to the fumes emanated and also more so for fear of clogging the ventilation ducts. So submariners live a life without ‘tadka’ underwater. A very black and white life, a life bereft of the colours of flavour, in my opinion. Our chef’s prepare the same curry that others eat on land, but it will not have that zing of ‘tadka’. Hence, submariners have got used to eating boiled eggs instead of fried eggs, boiled stuff instead of fried stuff, boiled onions substituted for fried onions, bread instead of chapatis or parathas as these are considered a luxury onboard. Of course, these days, they are able to eat frozen parathas available in the market, but in the days of yore, all we got were some leathery poories packed in tins supplied by nameless defence food laboratories. The present day potato boiler in the galley has been modified to make idlis to be indulged once in a while underwater.
In fact, I recall the time when sacks of onions were supplied, our chefs and a few volunteers used to peel and cut these onions on the submarine open deck itself in harbour prior to taking them below and making packets of diced onions to be used underwater. Because the onion fumes underwater would make the whole submarine cry as the recirculated air would reach all corners of the boat. It could lead to blurred vision on the periscope and endanger any mission. Of course, these days, desiccated onions are the norm. Milk was another commodity which used to finish within a few days. In earlier times, milk was supplied in large milk cans which used to be kept in the cold room (freezer) frozen solid and I still remember, the chef taking an ice pick along into the walk-in freezer to break off chunks of frozen milk to make coffee every day. The modern day tetra pack milk ensures that submariners can drink coffee for the entire duration of the sortie with this long life milk.
Another thing that has improved for the submariner is the chocolate ration given these days to compensate for the lack of sunlight and additional nutrition required for general hardship. Earlier we had to eat ‘petha’ and peanut ‘chikki’ instead of present day Amul chocolates. Tinned vegetables in earlier days were supplied in label less tins with the most uninteresting vegetables pickled in brine. The modern day ready to eat meals and frozen cut vegetables are a real luxury. I remember in the earlier days fresh eggs having a very small shelf life would finish within a week of the voyage and then the chefs would change over to egg powder supplied in abundance. But omelettes made from this concoction would look and taste like a thick rubber sheet. Earlier meat was supplied in large chunks or carcasses and the chefs had to sit and clean them but these days fresh mutton and chicken is supplied chopped and cleaned in packets.
The submarine was ready for sea except that we had been supplied only one type of vegetable namely 300 kg of pumpkin
Innovativeness in the galley or kitchen is what keeps the interest alive. Despite the menu for the week being displayed on the notice board underwater, the most favourite question asked underwater by all would be and I am sure, still is, “What’s for lunch or dinner today”? Chefs are all the time innovating and trying to keep the interest alive by cooking different dishes, or making special snacks, or baking a cake to celebrate birthdays and anniversaries underwater. Any excuse to keep the submariner happy. Rocky and Mayur of culinary fame did not have to sail on a submarine to endorse the talents of our chefs.
But the one tradition loved by all was the “entering harbour chicken”. This involved giving half a chicken to each individual on the day of entering harbour every time. Our chefs used to save chicken rations during the voyage so as to be able to give this large piece to each crewman on the day of entering harbour usually the last meal onboard. Vegetarians would get an equivalent piece of paneer to revel in the fact that the submarine was entering harbour and that the next meal would be ashore. The “entering harbour chicken” coupled with “home revolutions” was a heady concoction for the crew. “Home revs” is a term used for the phenomenon of a mysterious increase in speed on the day of entering harbour after a long voyage. The engine room department would report extra speed being achieved for the same revolutions ordered by the Captain as he steered the submarine homewards!!!
I remember that on one occasion, as I was ready to cast off at dawn and awaiting my Executive Officer’s report that the submarine was ready for sea, I noted with concern when he reported that the “submarine was ready for sea except that we had been supplied only one type of vegetable namely 300 kg of pumpkin”. I was taken aback and thought to myself as how would I face my ship’s company for forty days with the prospect of eating only pumpkin for the entire duration. I quickly made a few telephone calls to my superiors requesting to delay my departure and to supply me a variety of vegetables as this was likely to affect the morale of my ship’s company.
Some of our stewards took on magical roles when they innovated making puddings for the officers
This line “likely to affect morale” considered as taboo created a flutter within the corridors of power as they scurried around harbour and actually went around at that unearthly hour to other ships stationed on jetties nearby and collected fresh vegetables supplied to the fleet ships the previous day. This exercise took a few hours but soon I had 300 kg of assorted vegetables on deck. Quickly, I cast off and sailed off on my assigned mission. Later, upon entry to harbour, I learned that an enquiry was held and the officer responsible for supply of fresh rations to submarines was given a bottling by the Commander-in-Chief himself personally. Such is the importance that food occupies in the lives of men who risk it living in such confined spaces.
Innovativeness in making dessert for the officers is indeed an art and a science. Some of our stewards took on magical roles when they innovated making puddings for the officers. Typically at the beginning of the voyage, it would start with the standard recipes from the Naval Cookery Manual like caramel custard, fruit custard, trunk of tree, diplomat pudding, tipsy pudding etc. As the days went by this would degenerate to condensed milk based sweet concoctions like bread butter pudding, tutti-frutti bread bake and towards the end of the voyage, say the last 10 days, our standard pudding would be just crushed glucose biscuits on sweetened condensed milk.
I remember one enthusiastic steward John who inevitably came up with something most unexpected every time, particularly on the last day when the submarine was entering harbour. Whenever he sailed on my crew, I used to look forward to his innovation of “Orange Bomb”. Wherein, he would serve a whole orange with skin intact but insides scooped out and filled with orange soufflé. This used to be the most unbelievable sight to see, a fresh orange on the last day of sailing, as much as the 48th day sometimes. I asked him once as to how he managed this miracle and give us this delight, to which he replied that he used to make this on the first day itself and freeze it so as to be served on the last day of the sailing. Chefs and stewards indeed play a very important role in keeping the atmosphere within a submarine happy.
It’s now proved beyond doubt that a submarine sails on its stomach too.
An occasional “Orange Bomb” burst on our dining table underwater was ever appreciated and always accompanied with a loud cheer by the officers.
Read more from Apsi here: