Young Cambodians line up for a taste of Indian naval cooking. "It's spicier than Cambodian food."
Deep in the bowels of a 22-year-old Russianbuilt naval destroyer lives a team of
25 professional chefs producing exquisite Indian food. Welcome to the INS Rana, a
major combat platform of the Indian Navy, where the chicken tandoori is as impressive
as the torpedoes.
"If you have good food on board, morale will be good," said Lieutenant
Kapil Verma. "An army marches on its stomach - this is why we lay so much emphasis
on preparing excellent meals."
And good food serves as a common bond for a religiously diverse crew. Hindus, Muslims
and Sikhs make up the 350 sailors and 40 officers required to run INS Rana, but the
different dietary requirements of the faiths are catered to only insofar as vegetarian
food is available.
"We don't have a menu on the ship," said Verma. "Hindu, Muslim, and
Sikh all eat together; one day we eat their food, one day they eat ours."
INS Rana left India on May 20 on a goodwill mission in the South China Sea and docked
in Sihanoukville on June 15 for a four-day visit. The Post was invited to inspect
the 146-meter-long destroyer class ship's impressive array of weaponry and sample
an excellent aloo gobi (potato-cauliflower curry).
Capable of sailing 3,000 nautical miles (5,500 km) before refuelling and fully geared
to face any nuclear, biological and chemical threats at sea, INS Rana is part of
the Indian Navy's Eastern fleet. India has two fleets - East and West - each of which
looks after half of the 7,000 km of India's coastline.
Following a tour of the ship, a mixed crowd of Indian ex-pats and Cambodian nationals
shoehorned themselves into a tiny cabin for an extravagant meal: boondi raitha, aloo
gobi charman, navratan khorma, paneer tandoori, chicken tandoori were served up with
peas pulau and rumali roti.
"You can cook anything on board and our chefs have proper training at Indian
Naval institutes to make sure there is good food," said Captain Sanjeev Ghai,
of INS Jyoti, the refuelling tanker travelling with INS Rana. "If you want to
win someone's heart go through their stomach!"
The Cambodian visitors were convinced.
"I have never eaten Indian food before; it tastes very different from Khmer
food but it is still good," said Vanny, 19. "It is spicier than Cambodian
Supplies of dried goods - rice, chapatti flour, spices - are carried on board from
India. Rice is served every lunch; the INS Rana uses approximately 50 kg of rice
per day. Fresh goods - vegetables, fish, meat - are purchased in the ports at which
the ship docks.
INS Rana first docked in Sihanoukville in 2003 as part of an earlier goodwill tour
of the region. This followed two visits to Cambodia in 2002 by the Indian prime minister
of the time, Atal Behari Vajpayee.
"The only time an Indian prime minister has ever visited a country twice in
one year was to Cambodia," said Subramanyam Ravi, First Secretary at the Indian
Embassy. "He came once for an action summit, once for a bilateral visit."
Other countries dock foreign warships in Sihanoukville as part of their own goodwill
tours, Ravy said.
"Every country - including the USA, Great Britain - send ships on goodwill visits,"
he said. "This kind of visit is just to build friendship, but it can generate
INS Rana, built in 1982 at the height of the Cold War, has undergone standard adaptations
for use by the Indian Navy - such as the installation of Indian-made operational
"As far as naval warfare goes, all navies use the same kind of weaponry,"
said Signal Communication Officer Dharmendra Suhag. "It is not so difficult
to adapt a ship made in a different country."
And even the kitchens that create the magnificent feasts are standard navy issue.
There are no special tandoori ovens - the smoke would be difficult to vent safely
- but the INS Rana is equipped with a large electrical oven to make tandoori dishes
and special hot plates for cooking chapatti bread.
"You lose the charcoal flavor," said Verma. "But you do get the overall
feel of the dish."
INS Rana does not have any women on board. Although the Indian Navy has begun introducing
female sailors and officers into the ranks, it is a process that has to be carefully
worked out to avoid running into problems, Verma said.
"There are various issues with any navy having women on board ships. You need
separate toilets, accommodation," he said. "We don't have the facilities
India's rich diversity is reflected in more than the multiple faiths. More than 18
languages are spoken on board the ship. But the primary languages of communication
- Hindi and English - are spoken by all officers and crew.