Indian classic: Pav bhaji

The story of how the American Civil War led to the creation of pav bhaji, one of the most fascinating street foods of Mumbai.
Few dishes have such pan-indian appeal as pav bhaji.
Few dishes have such pan-Indian appeal as pav bhaji.

Consider pav bhaji.

It is a simple meal of mashed vegetables called bhaji that is finished on the tawa with a generous topping of butter and served along with two, buttered pav, a wedge of lime and some finely chopped onion on the side. Clearly not the vision of a culinary head turner. And yet, for at least half of its life, pav bhaji has been the indomitable show stopper for visitors, travellers and denizens alike.

Every celebrity worth his/her fame has made time for this staple meal, and every chef worth their salt has attempted to recreate this once staple of mill workers. The list includes the likes of Nigella Lawson, who famously called pav bhaji “vegetarian sloppy joe” to Australian cricketer Pat Cummins who called it simply delicious. Such has been the undeniable charm of this street staple that not only is it a part of the menu at Sea Lounge and Ziya but in 2016, it became the signature dish at the famous Goenka-Jhunjhunwala wedding as the pav bhaji fondue especially created by the ITC chefs.

One dish, many avatars

Fascinatingly, it wasn’t the first time that the street staple saw a tweaking. Over the years, many chefs have attempted to reinterpret the classic in their own style like the Pav Bhaji-Chenna Pinwheel served on a bed of Pav Bhaji Masala by Chef Vineet Bhatia who introduced it as an ode to his years in Mumbai at Ziya, The Oberoi, Mumbai way back in 2018; or the Masala Pav two ways by celebrity TV chef Ranveer Brar, who has taken the masala pav — an equally popular off-shoot of pav bhaji — and presented it first as a parcel and then as a pull-up garlic bread.

Of course, the past few years have seen quite a few interesting attempts but when it comes to food that comforts, few iterations could capture the essence of a traditional pav bhaji served warm on a plate. This is one of the reasons that when the Taj Mahal Palace Mumbai adopted the popular street food to its menu in the early 1960s and then in the 1990s when the Sea Lounge was revamped, it was verbatim, except for the plate.

According to chef amit chowdhury, sea lounge's popular pav bhaji has hardly been tweaked since its inception.
According to Chef Amit Chowdhury, Sea Lounge’s popular pav bhaji has hardly been tweaked since its inception.

At the time, recalls Executive Chef Amit Chowdhury of Taj Mahal Palace Mumbai, “Sea Lounge was famous for its rustic, traditional pav bhaji served with chopped onions, lemon wedges and hot masala pav. Over the years, of course, with the changing palates and guest demography the recipe has been tweaked further but all the changes have been in keeping with the taste and that satiating character of the dish.”

“That’s a philosophy we have followed to this day,” adds Chef Chowdhury, “Our fastidiousness towards keeping the flavours true to the original is what has kept pav bhaji at Sea Lounge one of the popular versions in town.”

Curiously, Chef Chowdhury isn’t the only one who believes in “keeping things classic” when it comes to pav bhaji. Chef Vikas Seth, Culinary Director, HopsHaus, too sees little merit in reinventing the wheel on this iconic dish, which he calls an excellent case of a “composite meal.”

A classic composition

For chef vikas seth, the bhjai in pav bhaji is a powerhouse of nutrients.
For Chef Vikas Seth, the bhjai in pav bhaji is a powerhouse of nutrients.

A plate of pav bhaji, says Chef Seth, “has all the elements of a modern-day dish along with the goodness of traditional food practices. Just think, the bhaji is like a powerhouse of nutrients thanks to the interesting combination. Even when the dish is mashed, it has enough texture to give a nice mouthfeel, which can be elevated with the lemon and finely chopped onions. The use of butter both in the pav and the bhaji, in fact, isn’t just for the taste, but also the faster digestion.” The innovators, adds Chef Seth, “have clearly left little scope for further elevation except for a few tweaks in the spice levels, the use of ingredients that can be localised to the region it is made in and the presentation of the dish.”

In the past few years, incidentally, these latter changes are what have given pav bhaji its different variants. Result, today there are as many versions of the popular street food as there are vendors and communities that adopted the meal as a quick source of nourishment. One such community that made pav bhaji famous were the Jain and Gujarati merchants who found pav bhaji a safe, effective way to a satiating meal, especially during busy times when there was little scope of having a well set thali.

Interestingly, it was a similar thought that led to the creation of pav bhaji, which curiously began its journey not so much with pav — a later entry into the food scene — but as bakhri.

Born of a need

The origins of pav bhaji are extremely interesting.
The origins of pav bhaji are extremely interesting.

The year: 1861. The American Civil War had just broken out, and the then leader Abraham Lincoln had called for a naval blockade — an act that put a stop to the cotton trade for good. Sceptical and desperate, the British looked at India, especially Bombay that was yet to become a famous port and market, to fulfil the demand. Mills were set up, people employed and work began in full force. Workers, mostly Indian, under the aegis of Gujarati traders would work two shifts to complete the demand, thus, leaving little time for a proper meal.

Homemakers tried to keep their spouses well fed by packing an extra set of bhaji and bhakri — a standard food then — but to little avail. By the time the workers could take a break, it was dead in the night — it was customary for the Gujarati traders to work the American and English work hours to get the best deal for their cotton. While good for business, the ungodly hour proved difficult for the workers who found their tiffin, a much-needed source of nourishment, often too dry and tasteless.

Food lore has it that around this time Irani and Udupi cafés were established around mill areas to provide affordable, warm and quick meals. However, they were not there for the night owls. Things, as per food lore, changed when one vendor took the cue and created a quick meal of bhaji and pav. Soft and pliable, the fresh ladi worked wonders with bhaji that was boosted with enough Polson butter to give it that rich, velvety taste and engaging mouthfeel.

Road to pav-ful

Mashing the bhaji is a hallmark of pav bhaji, says chef altamsh patel.
Mashing the bhaji is a hallmark of pav bhaji, says Chef Altamsh Patel.

The warm dish that could be eaten quickly and yet left you feeling satiated much like one served at home would prove to be a winner. Few today know how different the first iteration was from the one we love today, but like with most food around the time, pav bhaji too evolved with time in terms of not just the vegetables that were added to the mix including tomatoes and potatoes, two standard features today, but also the way the bhaji was made, and the spice level. The few things that remained constant, says Chef Altamsh Patel, Executive Chef, Sea Princess, “was the mashing and the pav.”

Many believe that the vendor who created the pav bhaji we so love today was Sardar Ahmed who finally went to establish Sardar Pav Bhaji, a five decade old institution that is said to make one of the best pav bhajis in the city. However, a few historians believe it to be the work of the earlier immigrant who travelled to Mumbai in search of work after the mills were open. This leaves the answer to who really invented such a cult dish, a mystery, However, when it came to pav bhaji itself, the dish, which was a poster boy of the working city food culture, continued to evolve with the city.

The changing of the butter used post-independence was a game changer for pav bhaji, says chef pradeep tejwani.
The changing of the butter used post-Independence was a game changer for pav bhaji, says Chef Pradeep Tejwani.

And the first change to come post-Independence was the butter, says Chef Pradeep Tejwani, Founder, Young Turks, “that was changed from Polson to Amul. This brought a different palate appeal to the dish that now had a twang thanks to the salted butter that Amul produced. The other change was the way the bhaji was made, from the spice level to the addition of new ingredients like paneer, cheese among others. These different takes on the popular mill workers’ food helped pav bhaji to not only have a wider audience but also cross boundaries into other cities where it soon took a prime spot as the working population’s favourite nosh and a street food special. The expanse, fortunately, says Chef Tejwani, who grew up on the street food staple, “wasn’t limited to Maharashtra but in Gujarat and then to regions globally where the Indian trading community travelled.”

Such has been the reach of pav bhaji that it even made it to the formal table of diplomats. So calling this once frugal mill worker’s meal Mumbai street food would not be right. Delicious, satiating and ever evolving, pav bhaji today is a cult classic. One that everybody has a story about, and a favourite place where it is best served.

Madhulika dash
Known for her columns on food anthropology, Chefs’ Retreat and wellness-based experiential tables, Madhulika Dash has also been on the food panel of Masterchef India Season 4, a guest lecturer at IHM, and is currently part of the Odisha government’s culinary council.

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