There are probably very few cities in this country where I could live without pining for Bombay very often. In San Francisco, I know I have found one of them. The easy access to many things Indian is icing on top of the fabulous cake that life in these wonderful climes is. But then suddenly, a random fragrance or vivid colour will send my mind spiralling back to India. Especially where I grew up. Bombay. There is quite literally no other place like it. Hustle and bustle take on an entirely different meaning in this city that truly never sleeps. It was a big city even back then, the Bombay I knew, loved and grew up in. Though it was immense and teeming with life of all kinds, not for a second did I ever feel unsafe in it. It’s true we don’t have largely famous forts or gorgeous old temples, but we have our very own rich history, written and perpetuated by the people who lived there and carry a piece of it wherever they go, as I do. The attitude of Bombayites (or Mumbaikars as they are now known since the city was renamed Mumbai) is unique in India. There is at once a sense of openness with a strong background of tradition behind us. And it is the eternal dream city. So many people from all over the country aspire to live there. The city is always assimilating yet keeping true to itself. And the cultural influence has helped Bombay develop a cuisine in which you will recognise many things from many places It is a veritable melting pot.
It is ridiculous but also very cool, how food minded this city is. Throw a stone around from anywhere in it and you are liable to hit at least three food establishments. Granted, one of those ‘establishments’ may very well be a guy with a tokri (large woven basket) selling peanuts or raw mango laced with salt and chilli (slurp!!). But you will never, ever want for variety in food in this city. When I lived in it, there were enough food joints that you couldn’t try each and every one in your life time. Today, you could probably make that a few life times. Globalisation has brought with it all kinds of food and India as a whole is happily enjoying the boost to the palette. Thai, Japanese, Mexican, you name it, and you will find it there. You may not recognise it, because of course just as there is the adaptive General Tso’s chicken here, there is the Maharaja Mac and McAloo Tikki there. We’ve always been great at taking things and adapting them to make them our own. India’s history is filled with foreign elements vying for dominion. They didn’t last but the things they brought with them stayed with us, several of them in our food. It is hard to imagine that some four hundred years ago, the Indian foodscape would have looked very different in the absence of, among other things, the potato, the tomato and what so many people automatically associate Indian food with, the chilli peppers.
It is true that there are probably more restaurants in Bombay per five square kilometer radius than there are people in some parts of the world. But just as the heart of Bombay is in its streets, its power house is its street food. Practically every feasible corner will have a little shop that seems to grow out of the wall it is leaning against or a cart that has seems to have taken root. There will be a blackened, soot covered kadhai (wok) busy frying up samosas or a knife furiously powering through the vegetable it is cutting, to attacking a block of wood it is on. Tomatoes and potatoes are sliced impossibly thin and bread is covered in just the barest quantity of butter or chutney to make a sandwich. Or, if you’re really lucky, your first experience of Bombay street food will be pav-bhaji.
The Portuguese brought with them baked bread. We in India liked it so much, that we whole-heartedly adopted not only the bread but also their name for it. Paõ in Portuguese became pav in Bombay and Goa where the Portuguese stayed for a while. The bhaji in ‘Pav-bhaji’ is basically what we call vegetables. But this vegetable is specific. It has its humble beginnings in the quick meals that the working class spiced up and ate as an inexpensive yet filling meal. Today it is in a class all its own. Typically it is made on a large, circular, edgeless griddle of cast iron or steel, on which the vendor will start with butter, onions, tomatoes and maybe garlic. To this, he will keep adding layers of vegetables, mashing them all the while until the entire mixture is an individually unrecognisable yet completely homogeneously and supremely delicious vegetable dish. He will top it with onion and cilantro. Other toppings like grated cheddar may be added to make cheese pav-bhaji. Or shredded paneer for paneer pav-bhaji. Sometimes even pomegranate or dry-fruits are added (not my kind of pav-bhaji). In my opinion, it is best enjoyed in it’s basic form, which as you will see, is not quite all that basic.
For the vegetable (or cooked ingredients):
Potatoes – 4 large, peeled
Cauliflower – 1 small, broken into florets
Carrots – 4,peeled and sliced into rounds,
Green Peas – 1 cup
Green beans – 1 cup, pieces cut
Pepper strips – 1 cup
Broccoli – 1 cup florets
Red Onions – 1 cup, diced fine
Tomatoes – 4 large, quartered
Garlic – 8 to 10 cloves, minced fine
Ginger – 2 inches, minced
Pav Bhaji Masala – 2 to 3 tbsps
Red chilli powder – 2 tsps
Garam Masala – 1/2 tsp
Cumin seeds – 1 tsp
Butter – 2 tbsp
Tamarind paste – 1 tsp
Salt to taste
For garnishing (or uncooked ingredients):
Red Onions – 2 cups, diced fine
Cilantro – couple of handfuls, chopped.
Lemons – 1/4 wedge per person
Butter – 1 tbsp
Pav (or sourdough bread rolls) to serve alongside, toasted on a buttered griddle
– In a food processor, put tomatoes, tamarind paste, ginger and garlic and give it a whizz until the ingredients form a fine paste.
– Boil all the vegetables together, except the onion, tomatoes, ginger and garlic. Once boiled, allow them to cool and then mash them.
– Heat a large pan or griddle and add 1 tbsp butter. When the butter melts, add cumin seeds.
– When the cumin starts to splutter, add 1 cup onions and fry until soft.
– Add the tomato-ginger-garlic paste. Fry for a while until the butter separates.
– Add the mashed vegetables to this. Mix thoroughly.
– Add the pav bhaji masala, chilli powder and garam masala. Add a little water if the mixture is not workable. (See cook’s notes)
– Add salt to taste. Mix and turn up the heat to bring the mixture to a boil.
– Then turn down the heat to let the dish simmer. Cover with a lid and let it cook for about ten minutes.
– Remove the lid and add 1 tbsp of butter to it. Allow to melt, then mix.
Slice the bread or roll lengthwise to form two halves. Toast them on a buttered griddle or pan.
Ladle the vegetable on to a dish and add a tiny dot of butter on top. Add a liberal helping of diced raw onion and cilantro leaves. Place the bread and lemon along side to serve.
You’ll never see that street vendor in Bombay who makes pav-bhaji for a living use a food processor. He is also never likely to use tamarind ( a tip from Amey’s mom) or boil anything except the potato before hand. These professionals work with high heat and wonderful knife skills to get the vegetables so fine that cooking and mashing them on high heat becomes a super easy and quick proposition for them. While the street vendor is likely to hand you your pav-bhaji within minutes of you placing your order, the one you make at home will take decidedly longer to prepare. Chalk it up to the fact that things are just slower with residential burners and average knife skills. But the effort is totally worth it.
Like other masalas or spice mixtures I’ve mentioned before, Pav-bhaji masala can be bought ready-made at any Indian grocery for a couple of bucks. If you feel strongly about grinding your own spices, go ahead. But I’d like to say that even my grandmom never thought of doing that, she quite contentedly used the packs available. And if you think that the list of ingredients here is long (its probably the longest I’ve ever put down here), your eyes will start swimming reading the individual spices that go into the spice mixture. This dish truly takes in a little bit of everything but tastes like nothing else. Be generous with the onion and cilantro. I call it a garnish because it goes on top uncooked. But it’s as important as the cooked ingredients and you can’t taste real pav-bhaji wihout it. Add it on top and then mix it in before you start to eat. Take a piece of bread and dip it in the vegetable to eat or dollop a good amount of vegetable on the bread and take a large bite. Mmmm!!
It may seem like there’s an awful lot of butter involved but remember that this recipe serves several people. The butter is integral here. Don’t try to substitute oil for it. It makes a kind of difference to the dish that you don’t notice until it isn’t there. Even better if you can get your hands on some lovely Indian butter. Halving the recipe to reduce quantities will work just fine, but its almost the same amount of work as this quantity. We generally make a large batch and then eat it at different times over a week. The vegetable lasts very well in the refrigerator. Also, we don’t necessarily always find all of the veggies listed here, in which case we make do with what we have. I would say you definitely need the onions, tomatoes and potatoes. The rest of the vegetables can be used in different quantities or traded for portions of other vegetables. As long as the veggie has bite and can be hopelessly mashed, it can be used here.
Indian stores in the US sell the bread too. It’s a white bread that isn’t sweet and is sold in a laadi or slab in India, in packets of 8 to 12 here. We’ve found that sourdough rolls make a fair substitute. Toast the bread till the cut side browns on the buttered griddle and you’ll love how well it pairs with the vegetable.
This dish is quintessentially Mumbai. Once Bombay has you under her spell, it’s hard to leave her. Forgetting her is impossible. Especially if you love the urban life as I always have and probably always will. This dish always helps bring us a slice of the city, oh-so-far away.