Pav Bhaji is the ultimate street snack from my hometown, Bombay.
In a time long ago, I worked in the Bombay bureau of a Calcutta newspaper called The Telegraph. The bureau was made up of a couple of dozen or so people, including four journalists, all crammed into four rooms of a high rise in Nariman Point.
Nariman Point is a mass of skyscrapers in South Bombay, and it is where a lot of the city’s business gets done. It is cradled by the spectacular Arabian Sea, and is home to some of the city’s biggest landmarks. Mantralaya, the state legislative assembly, is here, round and with a distinctive honeycomb pattern. There’s the Air India building, with an ivory-white facade crowned by a rotating image of the airline’s icon, an archer. The National Centre for the Performing Arts, where a lot of the city’s theatrical talent unfolds. Express Towers, home to one of India’s oldest newspapers, the Indian Express, where Desi started his career as a journalist. And the posh Oberoi Towers Hotel which was one of the targets of last year’s terrorist attacks in the city.
Nariman Point is the city’s skyline, and an especially panoramic one when seen from the Queen’s Necklace at Marine Drive, a curving promenade along the sea that lights up at night. The promenade is fringed by old buildings with spacious, curving balconies that are fast morphing from homes into hotels and restaurants as the city of 20 million gets busier than ever.
But elegant as it may sound, Nariman Point also throbs with the red-blooded reality of everyday life in a city that is so big and so vibrant, it is almost impossible to describe its rapacious pace. The noise of thousands of voices speaking together, car horns blowing incessantly in the streams of traffic clogging each road, and the dust and pollution kicked up by these cars is a constant backdrop here, but one you soon learn to accept and ignore. All along the pavements straddling the high-rises, vendors bustle around, selling or delivering food and refreshments to make work and life a little easier for the thousands of people who pour in each day.
Chaiwallas deliver thick, milky, overboiled but still delicious tea in small glasses washed after each use by being dunked in a single bucket of water.
There’s nariyal paani, or coconut water, the most deliciously refreshing weapon against Bombay’s harsh humid summers. The vendor shaves off the top of the green coconut fruit with a sharp knife, flips open the top, and inserts a straw in it before handing it to you.
There’s sugarcane juice, squeezed right in front of your eyes by passing long, bamboo-like canes through two metal wheels. A dash of lime makes the frothing green and very sweet juice extra delicious.
Vendors in makeshift stalls also sell all kinds of luscious fast street food, like bhurji, scrambled eggs, Indian-style, spiked with spices and onions, or vada pav, a Bombay veggie burger made by sandwiching a spicy chutney and a fried potato dumpling inside a bread or pav, among other treats.
With such delicious treats just an elevator ride away, it was hard to resist their call even as we slogged over our stories at the Telegraph bureau.
All four of us journalists were women, which made life at the bureau really fun (no offense, guys!). We had a small, narrow room lined with tables to ourselves. We’d take turns to make calls to sources on the only two phone lines and write at the two computers. In between, we gossiped about everything under the sun.
We had a lot in common. We were all roughly the same age, we all had very curly hair (which made us brand ourselves the curly-hair club– sounds silly now but it seemed hilarious at the time :)) and we all loved to pop out, at the first excuse, for some food. Lucky for us, our waistlines were young enough to withstand the blitz.
We had favorites everywhere– there was a place along Marine Drive, a 15-minute walk away, where you’d get some of the best pani puris in the city. It was amazing how, as he served a dozen people at a time, all buzzing around his cart, the vendor kept count of exactly how many puris each of us had consumed, so he could charge us accordingly.
There was a new restaurant with a great salad bar we sometimes went to whose name I forget but which was en route to the Regal Cinema. In those times raw salads were not wildly popular in India (we Indians prefer our veggies cooked most of the time), and it made us girls feel just a little ahead of our times.
And there was a tiny shack on the sea just around the corner from us called, appropriately, Bay Bites, which served a delicious brownie. It was the perfect dessert after you’d devoured one of their tasty egg sandwiches (this was, of course, in my pre-vegan days).
But when pressed by deadlines, as we usually were, we’d just step down to a busy fast-food restaurant in the same building that served a delicious Pav Bhaji on the fly.
There are restaurants in South Bombay with a cult-like following for their Pav Bhaji, like Sukh Sagar and Kailash Parbat. But I can honestly say I’ve never met a plate of Pav Bhaji anywhere in the city that I didn’t love.
It is hard to go wrong with this dish even when you make it yourself, especially once you get your hands on some Pav Bhaji masala which is quite easily available in Indian grocery stores anywhere or online.
In the past, hit by a craving for Pav Bhaji so far from Bombay, I would make just the bhaji, depending on the soft rolls I could buy from grocery stores here as substitutes for pav. But as anyone who has ever eaten a pav in Bombay would tell you, the store-bought rolls don’t come even close to emulating the soft crust and pillowy texture of a typical pav — think of it as a brioche roll without all the butter.
Then, recently, I came across this recipe for pav from Vaidehi which made me squeal with delight. It looked perfect.
So Pav Bhaji it was this week. The pav was just perfect, and both Desi and I– veteran Bombay street foodies– agreed that it was as good as the real thing.
I think I am still on a bit of a high. Thanks, Vaidehi! If you don’t have the time to make the pav, feel free to use soft white dinner rolls from the bakery or supermarket– they work just as well.
I made just a few very small changes to the pav recipe, so I have reposted it here, along with my own recipe for the bhaji. I used regular all-purpose instead of self-rising flour which Vaidehi used, so I added a small amount of baking soda because self-rising flour has baking soda added to it and I wanted to be sure my pav turned out as beautifully as her’s had.
- 3 cups all-purpose flour
- 1½ tsp active dry yeast
- ½ tsp baking soda
- 1 tsp salt
- 1½ to 2 cups warm water
- 2 tsp sugar
- 1 tsp soy milk + 1 tsp canola or other vegetable oil for brushing the top of the rolls
- 3 tbsp canola or other vegetable oil
- Mix the sugar, ½ cup warm water and the yeast in a mixing bowl and set aside for about 10 minutes until the mixture starts to froth, indicating the yeast is alive and well.
- Sift the flour and baking soda into the bowl. Knead on low speed in a stand mixer or by hand for about 3 minutes, trickling in enough warm water until you have a dough that's smooth but slightly sticky (I needed ¾ to 1 cup of water).
- Add the oil and continue to knead until the oil has been absorbed by the dough, about 1 more minute.
- Now place in an oiled bowl, turning over once to coat all over with oil, cover with a kitchen towel, and set aside for 2 hours until the dough has risen.
- Punch down the dough and divide into 8 balls
- Shape them into a slightly rectangular shape by pulling at the sides of the dough and tucking under on all four sides.
- Place the tolls in a rectangular 9 X 13 inch baking dish smeared with oil and lightly floured, or on a cookie sheet, close enough but not touching each other. Let the rolls rise for 30 minutes. They will join at the ends when they have risen, creating a slab that you break the baked rolls off from. (In India, laadi pav is sold in slabs by a vendor on a bicycle who makes his rounds each morning or evening. Laadi, unless my Marathi's really rusty, translates to slab in Marathi.)
- Preheat the oven to 370 degrees. Brush the tops of the pavs with the soymilk-oil mixture which gives them a nice color on top.
- Bake 22 minutes. Then turn off the oven and let the pav stand inside for another 4 miuntes before removing it from the oven and allowing it to cool for 10 minutes on a rack.
- 1 tbsp canola or other vegetable oil
- 1 large onion, cut in a small dice
- 1-inch piece of ginger, grated
- 2 green chillies, chopped
- Paste of 6 garlic cloves
- 3 tomatoes, diced
- 1 cup green peas, boiled and then mashed slightly
- 3 potatoes, boiled, peeled, and coarsely mashed (I like to leave a few pieces in for texture)
- ¼ or a medium head of cauliflower, grated or chopped really fine
- 1 green bell pepper, seeded and cut into a small dice
- 2 tbsp Pav Bhaji masala
- Heat the oil in a wide skillet.
- Add the onions and saute, until golden spots appear.
- Add the ginger and garlic and green chillies and saute another minute.
- Add two of the three diced tomatoes and cook over medium-high heat until the oil begins to express itself, about 4 minutes.
- Add the cauliflower, peas, potatoes and green bell pepper and stir together.
- Add the remaining tomatoes, pav bhaji masala powder, salt and 1½ cups water. Bring the mixture to a boil, turn down the heat, and simmer another 15 minutes or until the vegetables are really tender.
- Very carefully, using a potato masher or the back of a ladle, mash the vegetables. I like to leave some texture in, so I don't overdo it, but you shouldn't have any very large pieces of vegetables in there.
- Check salt before turning off heat.
But wait, we’re not done. I also want to share with you the exact procedure for eating Pav Bhaji. As some of you already know, I am not a stickler for cooking in exactly one way or the other– we each have to find what works best for us. But for Pav Bhaji, I make an exception. You do need to eat your Pav Bhaji with a few specific accompaniments and in a certain manner, or half the joy of eating it is quite lost.
Once you have the pav and bhaji cooked, slit the pav down the middle along three sides, leaving it joined along the spine, like an open book. Then toast it, cut side down, on a screaming-hot skillet with some melting hot vegan butter until golden spots appear. The Bhaji also has to be served hot, topped with a scallop of butter (or vegan butter, in my case). It is at once spicy and sour and incredibly delicious. Swirl the butter around the bhaji, mix in some chopped onions and chopped coriander, and squeeze in a few drops of lime.Now you’re ready to eat.
Tear off a piece of the soft pav and dunk it into the bhaji and then into your mouth. No spoons and forks and knives here, folks. You can wash your hands before and after you eat. Even Desi, who can barely eat a chapati without a knife and fork, uses his fingers for Pav Bhaji. There just is no other way to enjoy it.Have a great weekend, everyone!
(C) All recipes and photographs copyright of Holy Cow! Vegan Recipes.