Food has always been the biggest and perhaps, the strongest source of nostalgia for me. There is a subtlety associated with food nostalgia, something that evokes intense emotions. More than the sight of food, its smells travel longer in our memories and stay for times to come. For instance, the smell of pav bhaji for me — an umami medley of vegetables mashed up with spices and butter, scooped and cleared off the plate with griddle-toasted quarter loaves of bread.
Pav Bhaji, conceivably mundane to locals in Bombay, was a newfangled joy for me in early 2000s. Considering that my mother is an excellent cook and impeccable in her creations in the kitchen, she never encouraged me or my siblings to loiter for street food when we were children. Needless to say we didn't enjoy generous pocket money to be spent on food that vendors sell on the roadsides in India. Moreover, pav bhaji wasn't a street food in the small towns of India where I grew up, at least what I remember from my equivocal childhood memories spread across multiple places. Pav Bhaji is quintessentially Bombay food, its name spins off the cosmopolitanism that expounds Bombay. Pav (pao in Portuguese) was introduced by Portuguese in Goa and travelled to Bombay, and this foreign food proved a consummate fit for the Indian bhaji (vegetables).
With the outbreak of civil war in the 1860s and Abraham Lincoln's navy blocking the Mississippi and New Orleans, Manchester's looms were halted, leaving cotton prices to skyrocket. The time was ripe for astute businessmen in Bombay, believed to be the Gujarati traders who moved from Surat to Bombay in the 1660s (with their dhokla, fafda, khamni, patra and thepla that started a snack revolution in India centuries later).
The discerning traders worked late into the night in the American and European time zones, when cotton rates were wired in and orders were wired out. At these wee hours, wives were asleep at home while their hungry trader husbands fatigued at the Bombay cotton exchange. This led to the food stalls outside cotton mills to create a late night food, pav bhaji. A mishmash of leftover vegetables was cooked with tomatoes done to goodness, culminating in a gravy smelling of spices and oil settled on a griddle, and served with buttered loaves of bread.
While this version of the story narrates the story of pav bhaji originating on the streets of Bombay, another version claims pav bhaji to have originated in homes of the cotton mill workers and travelled later to the streets.
The toiling working class of Bombay in the 1800s slogged 12 hours a day at the textile mills setup by the British. To ensure that the men sweating at the mills weren't famished, women of the households came up with a quick-fix meal that was suited to their economic impedition. A medley of vegetables was cooked in typical Maharashtrian spice blend and packed with bhakri (an Indian flatbread) in the tiffin boxes. The pav replaced the bhakri in the later half of the nineteenth century.
I tend to lean towards the latter story than former because the first pav bhaji stalls outside the cotton exchange are believed to have come up in the 1950s or 60s, much later than the American civil war or the mill culture of Bombay of the 1860s. Moreover eating out wasn't common in those times, and as Kaumudi Marathé — a popular voice in the Maharashtrian food scene — explains in her writings that snack items were limited to fritters (like batata vada and bhajiyas) available at railway stations or public places.
Irrespective of its origin, whether it was a consequence of housewives cooking in the chawls (blocks of apartments for mill workers) or the ingenuity of street vendors, pav bhaji lies at heart of the mill culture of Girangaon which undoubtedly shaped the face of Bombay in the twentieth century. It goes a long time back in Bombay's past, and has travelled beyond Bombay making a place for itself in every household menu in India. While the
Maharsahtrians make it spicy, the Gujaratis lend a sweeter note, the Jains make it without onion and garlic while the Punjabis top it with copious butter. Globalization has diversified pav bhaji further. So, you would easily find cheese or pasta added to pav bhajis these days. Commercialization has further led pav bhaji masala (spice blend) to be used in other kinds of foods, like masala dosas, tava pulao and misal pav.
Throughout my years living in Bombay, I have loved eating the non-spicy, free of food colour
pav bhaji at the famous Amar Juice Centre in Bombay, and I have also waited in queues outside the iconic Sardar Pav Bhaji to savor the utterly buttery version of pav bhaji served there. On every other trip from South Bombay to my then home in New Bombay, I have packed a plate of this legendary dish from Cannon Pav Bhaji outside the Chatrapati Shivaji Terminus or CST station. I have shamelessly devoured my friend, Rishita's lunchbox at office as her mom makes the most amazing pav bhaji and I have also unabashedly declared to my elder sister that every time I visit her, she must make her typical pav bhaji. That's pav bhaji for me — memories of Bombay slathered on a plate.
What about this pav bhaji recipe?
No two pav bhajis would taste alike.This is because the spice blend, pav bhaji masala, used in a pav bhaji could vary depending on the brand of the masala. The taste is also dependent on the quantity and kind of tomatoes, the variety of vegetables and the usage or absence of butter.
My version is more home like, and I like the texture of my pav bhaji slightly on the chunky side. I boil the vegetables and potatoes separately: chopped vegetables with minimum water and potatoes with skin-on and submerged in water.
I don't use any added food colours and thus, the colour of my pav bhaji is never a strange red. To add an oomph to the colour, I sometimes add beetroot.
I usually rely on Everest Pav Bhaji masala when I don't have my homemade pav bhaji masala ready.
For the vegetables, I use bellpeppers, cauliflower, green beans, carrots, peas and potatoes. The gravy is predominantly tomatoes with a small portion of onions.
I tend to add less butter in my pav bhaji and prefer it that way. There are two stages when I add butter: in the beginning when I start tossing the onions and in the end when the gravy is almost done.
I recommend making it in a thick bottom pan, skillet or wok that is wide. When all the vegetables are mashed together, the quantity will double and you would need space on the skillet to keep tossing and turning the gravy around. The more you sauté it, the better will be its texture and taste alike.
Can I make it vegan?
Yes! Replace the butter in the recipe with an unsweetened vegan butter like cashew butter or sunflower butter, or go butter free totally.
How can I make the pav bhaji masala at home?
To make my version of pav bhaji masala at home, dry roast 2 tbsp coriander, 1 tbsp cumin, 1 bay leaf, 3-4 cloves, 1 black cardamom, 1/2 inch cinnamon, 1 tsp peppercorns, 1/4 tbsp fennel, 2-3 dried whole red chilies, 1/2 tbsp amchur (dry mango powder), a pinch of nutmeg and a strand of mace in a pan, cool the spices and then blend together with a pinch of salt.
2 cups of chopped vegetables like green bell pepper, cauliflower, green beans, carrots, beets
1/2 cup peas
2 medium potatoes boiled
1 onion finely chopped
3-4 tomatoes finely chopped
1/4 tsp cumin
1 tsp ginger and garlic minced or paste
1 tsp red chili powder
1/4 tsp turmeric
3 tbsp Pav Bhaji masala
1-2 tbsp of neutral oil
3-4 cubes of unsalted butter
Salt to taste
Make the bhaji:
Boil the potatoes in an instant pot or pressure cooker, and keep aside.
Add salt to the vegetables in minimum water and boil using the same pressure cooker or instant pot.
Heat a thick bottom pan or skillet on medium heat and add oil and half of the butter butter. Once the butter melts, add cumin and then the ginger garlic paste.
Let everything sizzle and then add the onions. Sauté for about 3-4 minutes and then add red chili powder and turmeric. Mix and sauté again for at least 3-4 minutes.
Add the tomatoes and keep sautéing until the tomatoes soften. Lower the heat slightly and check your vegetables.
Peel the boiled potatoes and add them to the boiled vegetables. Mash everything as finely as you can using a potato masher. The mixture should appear like a porridge.
Get back to the skillet and turn up the heat. Add 1 and 1/2 tbsp of pav bhaji masala and sauté the tomatoes more, until they lose their juiciness and mix well with the tomatoes. Use the potato masher to smash the onion-tomato mixture.
Add the mashed vegetables and mix everything well. Add the remaining 1 and 1/2 tbsp pav bhaji masala, and continue blending and mashing with the potato masher.
Check seasoning and add salt as required. Add remaining butter and mix again.
Once everything looks well combined and you're happy with the consistency and texture of the bhaji, turn off the heat. Keep the bhaji aside.
Toast the pav:
Slice open the pav or dinner rolls with a knife.
Place a griddle or pan on the stove and heat some butter or oil on it.
Add a pinch of red chili, and then place the cut-opened loaves on the griddle. Move them on the griddle in a swirling motion and turn to toast both sides.
Serve the bhaji piping hot with toasted pav with some raw chopped onions and wedges of lime.
So, bread with mashed vegetables! What could possibly be so compelling about this dish, you may wonder if you have never eaten or made pav bhaji! Wait till you make it. I bet you will wipe your plate with extra pav to finsih every bit of the bhaji on your plate! Often the most simplistic foods are the ones that make us feel at home. Dishes that don't challenge you with the complexity of techniques and skills. They have an assurance no matter how bad you cook them, they will taste good and make you feel full, and I feel pav bhaji exemplifies this best!
If you make this recipe, don't forget to tag me on Instagram or drop in your comments here! I will be happy to hear from you and know how you liked my pav bhaji!