I remember whenever I travelled up North, my relatives would often ask me about pav bhaji and how keen they were to taste it whenever they would get a chance to visit BOMBAY. Given it’s fame, variants had reached every corner of the country, with localised tweaks and adjusting the taste to suit the local palates. Infact, it’s recipe has travelled around the world with Mumbaikars and chefs across the world introducing their own versions.
When Mumbai was still Bombay, the vegetarian leftovers from commercial kitchens that turned into mishmash the next day, was mashed together on a heavy cast iron tawa, along with added masala and dollops of ‘Amul’ butter and served piping hot, with lightly toasted soft pavs brushed with butter on flat iron tava . This was indeed a quick & tasty meal served at busy traders’ street now famously known as ‘Dalal Street’ , Asia’s first stock market . The Gujarati community majorly vegetarian were happy to eat during their busy hours trading in cotton and making fortunes. Even the textile mill workers survived on it during their night shifts. From rich to poor, everyone stands next to each other to grab a plateful of this spicy, buttery delight, lapping it up with fresh pavs. It was affordable , served hot and filled up hungry bellies and soon became the life line of mumbai people. Thus an iconic street food of Mumbai came into existence marking it’s presence all around the world.
Not every pav bhaji can bring you back to a food joint. Many add hell load of ginger garlic paste , that actually overpowers the basic flavors of the humble vegetables. I strongly believe that a good pav bhaji should come along with freshly chopped onions and a piece of lemon to balance the taste according to one’s palate, not forgetting the added blob of butter on the hot mishmash that looks like molten lava making its way in between freshly chopped onions .
The large iron tava is a integral part of pav bhaji. It actually holds in all the flavors layered up gradually with time. I doubt if the tava is regularly washed. The foodies turn into live spectators and the ustad (self proclaimed chef) is the magician. Customers patiently stand around watching the preboiled mix veggies , the leftovers and boiled potatoes encircled like a boundary. The display of different raw vegetables add to the colourful glory . The ustad drags a small lot from the boundary into the hot center of the tava and the show starts with a merciless mashing up all the ingredients with a special masher, adding secret masalas and dollops of butter . The sizzle of butter and the rhytmic ‘tic tok’ of the metal spatula/masher, act as one to entice the passersby… making sure that the hungry customers waiting anxiously fall in love with the aromas and definitely have a plate.
Then comes the pav, an important soulmate of this iconic dish. It has to be fresh and soft with a crusty cover that is slightly salty. Pav has its own history and comes from various bakeries hidden away in small gullies of Mumbai mostly run by members of the Muslim community . Pav bakeries have been there much before the dish was invented. A stale pav with sour flavour can destroy the taste of the dish while the sweet buns are an absolute NO NO ! Now the pav has to be smothered with butter and rubbed around on the same tava which absorbs even the minute traces of bhaji. Served piping hot , the bhaji will easily coat the buttered pav teasing, tantalising each taste bud.
The serving tray is again iconic to the snack turned meal . Slotted shallow steel trays with four compartments . The largest one reserved for hot mashup that spread evenly so as to not seep into the pav and make it soggy. The buttered pav has its place near the bhaji while rest two small compartments are for the chopped onions and a piece of lemon. Sprinkle the chopped onions and squeeze the lemon on it . Mix it well and dig in a larger first bite, blowing on it to ensure you don’t scald your tongue in the haste to savour the dish. There are few old iconic places which never use slotted trays instead stick to regular plates. Best part of these steel utensils is , they are manhandled so much that they are all buckled on the edges, which has become a kind of trademark of pav bhaji eateries. You’re not done with just one serving of two pavs as the bhaji still remains on your plate…So shamelessly order another round of buttery pavs. The reason is simple… serve more bhaji so that you make money on extra pav. That’s how you start adding to the real profits. The fact that all the ingredients are basic, available round the year contributed to its success graph. The butter is the only expensive product here, apart from making sure that the bhaji tastes priceless.
While finishing my college , I stopped eating it as the bhaji turned into pureed gravy with senseless additions of various other ingredients like corn, bottle gourd , pumpkin, papaya , raw bananas and brinjals obviously to earn more profits. Like any other dish, over the years, the humble pav bhaji too got new versions like Jain pav bhaji (without onions , ginger and garlic), infact with raw bananas, which just doesn’t relate to the original dish. The ‘khada masala pav bhaji’ with whole lot of coarse spices, not completely mashed up veggies and more pungent flavors. The ‘hirwa masala pav bhaji’ with pureed leafy vegetables , the ‘kathiyawadi pav bhaji’ with typical flavors served with farsan, the ‘south indian pav bhaji’ with sambhar powder and the latest ones are ‘cheese and mayo bhaji’. There is even a ‘kaala pav bhaji’, where the color turns out dark, not the usual red/brown. I believe the original pav bhaji is dressed up to suit the regional palates and religious norms.
The new generation is experimenting with fusion of all kinds from pizza , burgers, sandwiches, kathi rolls to ice creams and fondues trying to get the attention of foodies, who might not be keen like me. The pureed bhaji on ready-made pizza base at school and college canteens can be referred to as cheap fusion but sadly the new generation is missing on the real tasty meal . The pav bhaji samosa is something that brings together two favorite snacks, and is still manageable if the filling does justice to the crispy covering of the deep fried triangle . The snack turned meal can be found near every railway station, bus stops, in restaurants, at small food joints, cafes, street food carts and small hole in the wall eateries everywhere in Mumbai and adjoining places, including live counters at wedding buffets but sadly, has lost its original flavor.
I have seen the pav bhaji changing from a flavorful mix, to a red colored pureed tasteless mess, probably comprising stale potatoes, topped with cheap greasy mayo , fake cheese , fake butter and margarine to call it fusion. The new generation buying packaged frozen version killing the flavors with added preservatives , taste enhancers and colors without actually knowing the real taste. My love for the dish diminished with changing versions sold at every nook and corner of the city , probably because I’m used to the taste of real pav bhaji which still lingers on my taste buds.