Street food is the same all across the world in some aspects. It’s made from locally available ingredients, freshly made, tasty, filling, and easy on the pocket. It isn’t much different in India. Mention street food and each state in India has its own local favourites. Some of these have moved across state borders to become popular in others. Ask an Indian what his/ her favourite street food is, and 8 times out of 10 you’ll hear the words Bhelpuri, Panipuri and Pav Bhaji.
When I was a child, eating out was considered a waste of good money. My maternal Grandfather didn’t see why eating out was so desirable. He was of the opinion, like others of that generation, that the best food was served at home. For him, eating was about familiar, wholesome food rather than something possibly unfamiliar cooked by a stranger. Maybe more especially because he travelled a lot for work especially to East Africa. Those were the days when long distance travel meant slow travel on by ships. These trips kept him away from home for months. It wouldn’t have been easy, especially as a vegetarian.
I now see how difficult it must have been for him, who didn’t even eat eggs, to have survived those journeys. After weeks of meals which would have largely consisted of bread, butter, cornflakes, milk, fruit and the like, all he must wanted was to get back home to my Grandmother’s delicious home-cooked meals. And she was an excellent cook.
My sister and I grew up outside India and looked forward to our annual vacation back home once every 2 years, with a lot of impatience. Coming to India on vacation meant fun, including eating Indian food we couldn’t get where we lived. Our mother used try and bridge this gap by cooking a lot of it at home, but it wasn’t easy as many of the ingredients we take for granted in India just weren’t available wherever we lived then.
Pav Bhajiwas one such food though we discovered it only when we were a bit older. In those days, I don’t remember it being on the menu in eateries or restaurants, and Pav Bhaji was usually sold on street corners in the evenings from food carts. I believe it has its origins as lunch eaten by the Mumabi textile mill workers, for whom it was affordable and easy to eat during a very short lunch break. Today, it has risen above its humble origins and can be found on the menu in most restaurants across the country. It also helps that this is a dish which is very easy to cook and serve up.
The “bhaji” is a very spicy red coloured vegetable preparation made of onions, tomatoes, potatoes and spices all cooked an mashed to a the consistency of thick gravy. This is served with chopped raw onion and fresh coriander, a dash of lime juice and a generous dollop of butter on top, all alongside the Pav. For authentic Pav Bhaji, the butter must be Amul butter which in those days, used to be the only brand of salted butter available in India.Some say that one hasn’t really eaten pav bhaji until one has had “bhaji on the beach”, where the beach in question is Mumbai’s Chowpatty beach. Now, I have eaten my pav bhaji on that beach. I’d definitely give that beach a miss, and I would probably give the bhaji a miss too, but for a different reason.
The one thing I remember was that the Bhaji was so spicy, it set my tongue and throat on fire. Gulping down a lot of water didn’t do much to quench the fire. I cannot tolerate very high levels of spiciness but the people around us were thoroughly enjoying their Pav Bhajis, my husband included. Apparently, the trick is to eat some of the raw onion first. This deadens the tongue a bit and more tolerant to spicy food. I would prefer to reduce the chilli powder in the Bhaji., as I do not like the taste of raw onion.
It is, however an experience not to be missed, watching the guys who make the bhaji. They have these large flat iron griddles called “tava”on which they cook the bhaji and the speed and dexterity with which they keep mashing and stirring the cooking vegetables with quick flicks of their wrists is unbelievable.
So what do you do if you don’t live near Chow patty beach? You find a pav bhaji vendor close to you, or head for the nearest eatery serving chaat. And if the urge to eat pav bhaji hits you, but you would rather not be bothered with changing and going out, you could make some of your own like me.
Home-made Laadi Pav (Soft White Indian Rolls)
The “Pav” (also Pao or Pau) is a legacy of Portuguese rule in India. Pav refers to small delightfully soft bread rolls that are eaten with the bhaji/ vegetable gravy. Pav is also eaten dipped in tea, or split and with butter. Another explanation for the name “Pav” was that Pav Bhaji was always served with a set of four rolls. In the Marathi language, the word “pav” means one-fourth.
The dough for these bread rolls are made in huge quantities. This has led to a slightly weird story that the dough for the bread rolls was kneaded with feet instead of hands. Now the word “Pav” in Hindi means feet. The Pav for Pav Bhaji is sometimes called “Laadi Pav” which means a slab of bread rolls. These rolls are baked as one big slab and the individual rolls are pulled apart.
To eat Pav Bhaji, the “Pav” is first slit sideways in half. Then it is placed, cut side down, in melted butter, on a hot griddle and lightly toasted and brown. It is then served hot with “Bhaji”. Before you all admire me for making my own Pav, let me assure you that I have never made them till now. I live in Goa where freshly made Pav is delivered to my door every morning and evening.
I wanted a good recipe on hand just in case, so I adapted this one for soft white dinner rolls. You could choose to replace half or all of the flour with whole wheat flour. It’s just not very authentic as Pav for this preparation has to be very soft.
The Bhaji that is served with the Pav.
There are many versions of this recipe but this is the one I use to make mine, which is a lot less spicy, and friendlier on the tongue and digestive system. Bhaji (pronounced ‘bhaaji”) means vegetable unlike the word which is pronounced “bhaji/ bhajji” which means fritters.
A true bhaji for pav bhaji need to be very smooth so the vegetables need to mashed very well. There are people who like to see a bit of the vegetables in their bhaji. If you belong t
o this group, you can mash the vegetables well without destroying their identities!
I have tried both, and the only real difference is in the texture. You can also use capsicum (green bell peppers) here. If you do, add it just before you add the tomatoes. You can use pav bhaji masala if you have it, but you don’t really need to buy it just for this. You can use a combination of coriander powder, cumin powder, turmeric powder and garam masala, which works just as well. Using Kashmiri chilli powder also gives you the colour without as much of the fire.
If you have never made this before, do watch this video to get a better idea of how it should look.
Pav Bhaji With Home-made Laadi Pav - Spicy Indian Vegetable Curry With Soft Bread Rolls
For Home-made Laadi Pav (Soft White Indian Rolls) :
- 3 1/2 cups to 4 cups all purpose flour
- 1 1/2 tsps active dried yeast
- 1 tsp salt
- 1 tbsp honey or sugar
- 1 1/2 cups milk
- 1 1/2 tbsps butter
- 1 to 2 tbsps melted butter for brushing on the pav
For the Bhaji (Spicy Vegetable Curry) :
- 3 cups mixed vegetables (carrot, cauliflower, beans, peas)
- 3 big potatoes
- 3 big onions chopped fine
- 3 medium tomatoes chopped
- 1 tsp garlic paste
- 1 tsp ginger paste
- 2 tbsps oil
- 1/2 tsp turmeric powder
- 1 tsp Kashmiri chilli powder (adjust to taste)
- 1 1/2 tsps coriander powder
- 1 1/2 tsps cumin powder
- 1 tsp garam masala
- to taste salt
- 2 lemons
- 3 to 4 tbsps coriander chopped fresh
- 2 to 3 tbsps salted butter , softened
- Home-made Laadi Pav (Soft White Indian Rolls): Put 3 1/2 cups of flour, the yeast, salt, sugar (not honey, if you are using it) in a big bowl and whisk together. If you're using a food processor you can do this in that, by pulsing everything a couple of times.
- Lightly warm half a cup of the milk. Add the honey or sugar to this. Mix in the yeast and set aside till it becomes frothy. Put the remaining milk and the butter in a small pan and heat it, while whisking a couple of times, till the milk is just lukewarm. Take it off the heat.
- Add the frothy yeast mixture and the lukewarm liquid to the dry ingredients and knead (by hand or in the processor) till a soft and elastic dough forms. You will have to add a bit more of flour (a tbsp at a time) while kneading, to achieve this. Do not be tempted to add more flour, or your rolls will become tough.
- Your dough must be soft and elastic, just short of sticky. Shape the dough into a ball. Place the dough in an oiled bowl, rolling the ball of dough till it is coated with oil. Cover with a towel and allow it to double in volume (should take a bout an hour)
- Lightly knead the dough and divide equally into about 15 pieces. Shape each piece into a ball and place on a greased rectangular baking tin. Place the balls of dough about 1/4" apart in 3 rows of five each.
- Cover them with a towel and allow them to rise for 30 minutes. Bake them at 220C (425F) for 10 minutes till they rolls have risen and started browning. Take them out of the oven and quickly brush them with melted butter and bake them for another 5 minutes till the tops have browned well. Take the rolls out and let them cool on a rack. This recipe makes one sheet of 15 pavs.
- Make the Bhaji : Steam cook the mixed vegetables and the potatoes till well done. Mash them very well and keep aside.
- In a largish wok, heat the oil. Add the ginger and garlic pastes and saute taking care to see it doesn't burn. Add half the onions and saute again it is soft and translucent. Add the chopped tomatoes and cook them till they're soft and mushy.
- Use your potato masher, or a wooden spoon, to mash the onion-tomato mixture further. Cook until the oil appears on the edge.
- Add the turmeric, chilli, coriander, cumin and garam masala powders. Cook over medium heat for a couple of minutes, stirring often, until the raw smell of the spices disappears. Add the mashed vegetables, salt and about half a cup of water. Cook for another 5 to 10 minutes until everything blends into a homogenous thick gravy-like consistency, adding a little more water, if necessary.
- Add the chopped coriander and a couple of tbsps of butter, mix and serve hot. This recipe should make four hefty servings.
- To Serve the Bhaji: First melt a couple of tbsps of slated butter in a pan. Slice 2 pieces of the pav sideways and place both, cut sides down, on the melted butter and allow the pav to absorb the butter and brown slightly.
- Transfer to a plate. Add a couple of ladles of the bhaji on the side and top with some of the remaining chopped onions, a dash of fresh lime juice and a dollop of slated butter. Enjoy your pav bhaji.