Growing up in the sixties and the seventies in Bombay, which is now Mumbai, I did not think of Usal Pav, Misal Pav, Vada Pav, Kheema Pav and Pav Bhaji as fast food or street food. These snacks were found everywhere. Factory workers had them as lunch, school children had them in their tiffin and picnic boxes, restaurants served them as an all-time snack and push cart vendors sold them to late-night snackers.
Pav is not the same as bun which you find in Iyengar bakeries. There are several legends about the origin of the humble pav. And much of that has to do with its name. Some say the small bread is called pav because you always got it in sets of four and you broke off each mini-loaf as you ate it (Pav in Marathi means one-fourth).
Another story has it that when the Portuguese arrived in India they brought with them the art of making bread which was called pao in Portuguese, pronounced with a nasal twang. Before this people made only unleavened bread varieties like rotis and chapatis.
The craziest story about the origin of the word pav is that it was so named because the dough was kneaded using the feet (paon in Hindi) — and not the hands — to speed up the work and keep pace with the demand!
Crusty or cushiony-soft
Pav comes in two varieties — crusty dry Kadak Pav and soft moist Naram Pav. Some people like only Kadak Pav and some only Naram Pav. Many, like I used to, alternate between Kadak and Naram Pav or even both at a time, perhaps depending on the mood or impulse.
Usal Pav is a popular breakfast and snack dish. Usal is a curry of sprouted beans, peas or chick peas. Usal forms the base for Misal, a popular snack and street food. Misal Pav (spicy curry with bread) is a traditional Maharashtrian dish usually made of chick peas and chilly powder gravy. The final dish is topped with sev (used in chaats), diced onions, lime wedges and coriander and served with bread toasted with butter.
Pav bhaji was perhaps the first “street” food to migrate to other urban centres in India, including Bangalore. It consists of the bhaji (a potato-based curry) and the pav, garnished with coriander and chopped onions. For the calorie-conscious, pav is high in carbohydrates and fats (if served with butter) and the potato-based bhaji is also a carb fest.
The origin of this dish is traced to the rise of the textile mills in Mumbai. The impoverished mill workers preferred to have a cheap light lunch during their short lunch break, so a vendor created this innovative dish. Initially, it remained the food of the mill workers. With time the dish found its way into restaurants and spread over Central Mumbai and other parts of the city. From Mumbai, the pav bhaji spread to other urban centres in the country and has become a popular snack among the classes and the masses. It has also migrated to Indian restaurants in the UK, USA, Singapore and Hong Kong. Today it is an evening snack and a party favourite.
Utterly butterly delicious
The very process of making pav bhaji is mouth-watering with the aroma wafting from the tava as the potatoes are mashed and fried with dollops of butter and made into a thick gravy after adding diced tomatoes, finely chopped onions, green peas, capsicum and other vegetables like cauliflower and carrots. A special blend of spices simply called pav bhaji masala — similar to garam masala — is added to this thick gravy. The gravy is then allowed to simmer on the pan for a few minutes and is served hot in a flat dish with a tablespoon of butter on top.
The pav (bread) is toasted on the same pan with an ample amount of butter. The bhaji is garnished with diced onion and a slice of lemon and served with the pav. Variations available in restaurants include Cheese Pav Bhaji, Paneer Pav Bhaji, Mushroom Pav Bhaji and Jain Pav Bhaji (without onion and garlic).
The humble pav bhaji got a celeb make-over after Sanjay Dutt played the role of a pav bhaji vendor in the blockbuster Vaastav. In the Telugu film Dubai Seenu, Ravi Teja and his friends open a pav bhaji stand on streets of Mumbai.
Vada Pav, which is popular in Mumbai, is yet to make inroads in Bangalore. Two years ago, Dheeraj Gupta, Managing Director of Jumbo King, a vada pao brand, was toying with the idea of setting up franchisee kiosks in Bangalore. But nothing seems to have happened so far.
Vada pav is said to have been devised by Ashok Vaidya, a popular snack vendor outside Dadar railway station over three decades ago. It is a quick, cheap and filling snack. It is essentially batata vada served in pao. Mashed potatoes are made into balls and coated with green chillies, ginger and tadka (tempering) of mustard seeds and turmeric. These balls are then dipped in a batter of gram flour and deep fried. The finished vada is wrapped in pao and served with chutney. Vada Pao has become the desi equivalent of the American burger.
Some variations of the Vada Pav include Cheese Vada Pav, Samosa Pao, Chinese Vada Pav (soy/ chilli sauce is used instead of chutney) and Jain Vada Pav (without onion or garlic).
Vada Pav politics
The Vada pav, a symbol of the common man, has now been politically exploited. Last year, Shiv Sena’s Executive Vice President Uddav Thackeray launched Vada Pav as the party’s Shiv Vada Pav at a Vada Pav Sammelan.
Over a hundred Shiv Vada Pav kiosks are proposed to be launched across Mumbai this year.