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, but some have moved across state borders to become popular in most parts of the country. 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. I could never make my maternal Grandfather understand why eating out was so desirable when he felt the best food was served at home, three times a day. For him, eating was about familiar, wholesome food that he enjoyed rather than some strange and unfamiliar stuff cooked by someone he didn’t know or trust.
his was despite the fact that he was someone who traveled from India to East Africa and back regularly for work. Of course, those were the days when flights were uncommon and so one crossed the seas by ship. His trips kept him away from home for a large part of the year.
I now see how difficult it must have been for him, as vegetarian 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 bhaji was 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 from then was that the bhaji was so spicy, it set my tongue and throat on fire which a lot of water didn’t do much to quench. It probably was because I cannot tolerate very high levels of spiciness because there was any number of people around who were thoroughly enjoying their pav bhajis, my husband included.
Apparently, the trick is to eat some of the raw onion first as this deadens the tongue to the spiciness of the bhaji! What I cannot understand is the point of this, when all one has to do is to reduce the chilli powder in the bhaji. And I do not like the taste of raw onion on its own.
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 and considered the legacy of the Portuguese) refers to small delightfully soft bread rolls that are eaten with the bhaji/ vegetable gravy. Another explanation for the name “pav” was that pav bahji was always served with a set of four rolls, which were pulled apart and eaten one at a time. In the Marathi language, “pav” means one-fourth.
A slightly weird story also doing the rounds is that the dough for the bread rolls (which were made in huge quantities) was kneaded with the feet instead of hands, to produce enough bread to meet the huge demand for it! “Pav” in Hindi means feet. The pav for pav bhaji is also called “laadi pav” which means a slab of bread rolls as the rolls are baked as one big slab and the individual rolls are pulled apart.
The “pav” is slit sideway in half and placed, cut side down, in hot butter till lightly toasted and brown before serving it with the “bhaji”.
Before you all admire me for making my own pav, let me assure you that I have never made my own pav till now, though we have pav bhaji at home quite often. I live in Goa where there is no shortage of freshly made bread, and it is also delivered to my door every morning and evening. So I do not see myself regularly making my own pav as long as I live here.
I did want to try my hand at it, and have a good recipe on hand just in case. I have no idea where to find an authentic pav recipe, so I adapted this one for soft white dinner rolls. You could choose to replace half or all of the lour with whole wheat flour, but remember that 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.