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.