Tracing the origins of the city’s favourite street food–the humble pav bhaji

Words by Aritra Chakrabarty; Art by Maya Pillai

Can a dish epitomise the ethos of a city? Can a bite into it give you a taste of the dreams, sweat and toil of the many people who inhabit the city? It may not be true for all cities or for all dishes, but if there is one dish that comes to mind when you think of the crowded, bustling metropolis of Bombay–or Mumbai, as it is known now–it’s the humble pav bhaji. If you were to search for pav bhaji online, you would land on the Wikipedia page on the dish, which describes it as “…a fast food dish from Maharashtra, consisting of a thick vegetable curry (Marathi: “bhaji”), usually prepared in butter and served with a soft bread roll (Marathi: “pav”).” This description does not do any justice to the legend that the pav bhaji is. Bombay’s very own pav bhaji perfectly depicts how the city lays its arms open for every stranger who finds a home in its mad rush and boasts of a rich, colourful history.

The history of pav bhaji can be traced back to Bombay’s own evolution into an important economic centre of India. Thanks to the industrial revolution, Bombay of the 1800s was a city thriving on mill industries. These textile mills, introduced by the British, served the purpose of supplying the increasing demand for cotton in the West. The industrialisation era created a humongous class of working people who formed the mill culture–one that based its foundations strongly on an idea of humble living. Workers toiled for a minimum of 12 hours every day to earn a few hours of sleep in their chawl (small residential apartment blocks usually housing labourers). The prosperity of this city was built on the foundation of the work and toil of such mill workers.

The necessity of making sure that the man of the house kept the machines running without going hungry was what led to the birth of the pav bhaji. “Womenfolk realised that in order to provide their family nutrition within their monetary confines, a quick fix was required,” says Ishan Choudhary, former journalist and Bombay native. A mix of vegetables cooked in a spice blend, which is typical of Maharashtrian households, was packed for lunch with bhakri, an Indian bread. The pav was introduced much later. The uniquely shaped bread, that is believed to have got its name from the Portuguese word for bread–pao, was born in the Portuguese settlements of Goa, according to Lizzie Collingham’s authoritative book, Curry: A Tale of Cooks and Conquerors. Noted food writer Vir Sanghvi writes about how Collingham links the birth of the pao to the Portuguese’s longing for their crusty bread for Holy Communion as they landed on the western coast of India where the locals ate rice. As yeast was not an easily available commodity in India then, they used a few drops of local toddy to ferment the dough and created the Goan breads we know of today. “It is from Goa that bread first travelled to Bombay and became a staple among locals,” writes Sanghvi. “By the time the British arrived with their nasty white bread, the Portuguese-Goan pav had already been well-established. The pav was the food of the working class, much like how the white bread was happily adopted by the city’s elite.”

Presently in central Mumbai, the mill village called Girangaon is now spread over the Tardeo, Byculla, Mazgaon, Lalbaug, Parel, Worli, and Prabhadevi areas, and is a part-residential, part-factory complex. The mills and the economy that grew around it contributed to the growth of erstwhile Bombay, a city that was characterised by class struggle and close-knit community behaviour. While the city gradually acquired the character of an industrial metropolis, the pav bhaji became a staple meal in every mill worker’s home. Life during the late 19th century could be symbolised through this meal of pav bhaji, with every ingredient holding a unique place for itself and at the same time blending in with the others, marked by the aroma of spices to deliver a unique image of a fast-paced city with a chunk of bonhomie.

The dish moved from homes to the streets as a common snack only during the late 1970s when the mills were at the peak of economic profitability and growth. However, fortunes turned southwards in the next decade. The Great Bombay textile strike, which extended for an excruciating 18 months, witnessed the loss of livelihood for nearly 60,000 mill workers. The Girangaon culture had to disintegrate and crumble as the city looked for new avenues of economic fortune. Commercialisation was embraced and life moved out of chawls into apartments.

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Food, which is a symbol of society’s image, too, underwent change. If the early 19th century was characterised by the “common man’s meal”, championed by the humble pav bhaji and ably aided by the misal (a dish made with sprouted beans, curd and other vegetables) and batata vada (potato fritters), the onset of the 20th century brought about a culinary discourse embedded in style and representation, with dishes laced in luxury.

 

Kaumudi Marathé, veteran journalist, author of Maharashtrian Cuisine: A Family Treasury and an authoritative voice on Marathi cuisine in the West, says that she only came to know of the pav bhaji in 1982 when she returned to India from Canada at the age of 14. “I had lived in Canada for five years. Neither of my parents, who are both Maharashtrian, had heard of the pav bhaji or the vada pav as a street food till then,” she says. Marathe has documented Marathi cuisine extensively through her journeys from the western coast of Maharashtra to Los Angeles. According to her, the main snack up till then had been misal, batata vadas and onion bhajis (fritters) that were available at railway stations and public places, but people did not eat out much back then unless they really had to. “What is interesting though, are the variations of the pav bhaji that have emerged because of the large Gujarati and Jain segment of Bombay’s population,” she says on the snack’s evolution. “So you have Jain pav bhaji without onion and garlic, pav bhaji topped with cheese as a nod to the West, mushroom pav bhaji and many such varieties.”

Food blogger and critic Disha Khurana provides insight into the commercialisation of the meal in modern times. With the city turning into a cosmopolitan island of people and communities from across the country, the pav bhaji acquired a cult status, she says. Diversifications in the preparation were introduced and its elements were generously fused with food items of other regions. For example, khakra, the evergreen snack from Gujarat blended itself with pav bhaji masala flavours. Dosa, the indigenous pancake from south India, also took to the pav bhaji masala by incorporating it as a filling. Tava pulao is another offshoot from the pav bhaji palate, which uses the same ingredients and masala, but with rice. Similar is the story of the misal pav, which, too, owes its origin to the iconic dish. As the city continued to expand, a growing middle class necessitated modifications in street food. The demand for delectable, yet healthy fast food grew and the pav bhaji and its extended family rose to the occasion to feed the city’s belly affordably and went on to acquire a cult status.

The dish is also on every homemaker’s menu, but what is interesting is the multitude of variations in taste one would notice if, hypothetically, you were to taste it across homes. While a Maharashtrian home would make it spicy and mashed to near pulp, a Gujarati homemaker would retain a certain texture and tend to make it sweeter and a Jain household would not add in any onions or garlic.

According to Sanghvi, the first stalls selling pav bhaji was located near the old Cotton Exchange, because traders waited for the New York cotton prices that came in late at night and early in the morning. Soon pav bhaji stalls spread, he writes, and in the late ‘60s came Sardar Pav Bhaji, which revolutionised the cult and, almost single-handedly created a religion surrounding the dish. Located at Mumbai’s Tardeo, one of the localities constituting the erstwhile Girangaon, the outlet is nothing short of an urban legend. On any given evening, one needs to wait for at least half an hour to be served a pav bhaji, complete with a dollop of butter on top of the bhaji. Another institution that has been serving up this dish for close to four decades now is Cannon Pav Bhaji, located near Mumbai’s Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus. Although it doesn’t enjoy the cult following of Sardar, it has a history of its own and has become the regular stopover for millions of commuters who pass through this main station. Cannon will surprise you not because here there are no seats for customers and you will need to navigate through a milling crowd to even get yourself heard, but because you will be greeted warmly by an all-women waiting team at the stall.

Bombay has many such hidden gems that serve its favourite, pocket-friendly street food through its warm days and long nights. The rock-steady relationship between the city and the pav bhaji has stood the test of trying times. While the city’s streets took to newer flavours and welcomed unheard-of cuisines to its repertoire, the pav bhaji remained the untouched veteran among such newbies. Bombay, as you may have been told repeatedly, thrives on its people, who never give up and never give in. And, through this journey of theirs, the pav bhaji still remains a faithful, constant companion.