The Mumbai’s street food staple Pav Bhaji – a legacy of the city’s mill workers

If you are going to be eating a good plate of pav bhaji, you must do it right. On being served a hot plate, you must first tear a piece of ‘soaked-in-butter’ and lightly toasted pav, or bread, and scoop a generous amount of soupy bhaji or mashed and spiced vegetables, which has been topped with chopped onions and a dollop of butter.

While eating, it must cause an explosion of flavour. The toasted piece of pav must be lightly crunchy and salty because of the butter. The bhaji, made with an assortment of vegetables, should be a little tangy and spicy. All of this combined, you should have an empty plate in the first five minutes of being served.

However, this dish has quite the tale behind it. You may know it as one of the popular street food snacks of Mumbai, India, but it was not really a meal until the American Civil War, which took place for four years, starting 1861.

The scarcity of cotton gave rise to pav bhaji

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Cotton mills in Mumbai worked endlessly to produce cotton
Image Credit: Shutterstock

During the war, the British did not have a stable and adequate supply of cotton. This eventually led them to look for new sources. The solution was India’s cotton fields.

Mumbai’s mills were running full time, the British got their cotton, and workers at the mill were left with lack of sleep and meals due to the long working hours. Once work was done for the day, the workers headed home to angry wives and empty plates. This could not carry on further as a solution was necessary.

Vendors outside the mills proved worthy when they took leftover vegetables, and cooked it with potatoes, tomatoes, and spices. As for the bread, Portuguese Jesuit priests (who settled in the suburb of Bandra during the mid-1500s) would give them leftovers, which were toasted with ghee or clarified butter.

This soon proved to be tasty, nutritious and quite easy to make a meal given the lack of resources and time.

From the mills to the restaurant

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Today, every other street food stall accommodates the pav bhaji…
Image Credit: Shutterstock

It was only in 1960 when a proper restaurant was set up to sell pav bhaji as an exclusive dish. Sardar Ahmed, who previously owned a fruit stall outside one of the mills, started Sardar, still located at Tardeo in Mumbai. However, he soon realized a drink wouldn’t suffice as much as a full meal would, and started selling pav bhaji, which were made using fresh ingredients rather than leftovers.

Thus began the Mumbai pav bhaji love story.

The dish you see today is an advanced version of what was actually served back then. It was only later that butter and cheese were added, making it one of the most sought-out street food dishes of all time. Today, every other street food stall accommodates the pav bhaji, forgetting how it came to be.

Has this story got you craving a plate of hot, buttery pav with spicy bhaji? Check out the recipe below:

Pav Bhaji by Chef Joginder and Chef Sumit, Eggiterian Cafe in Dubai

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Here’s how you can make Pav Bhaji at home
Image Credit: Supplied

Preparation time: 15 minutes

Ingredients:

2 medium potatoes (approximately 1½ cups), quartered

½ cup green peas (fresh or frozen)

¾ cup chopped cauliflower (approximately ¼ head of cauliflower)

½ cup carrot (approximately 1 medium), chopped

1 large onion (approximately ¾ cup), chopped

1 tbsp ginger-garlic paste (a blend of equal portions of minced ginger and garlic)

2 medium tomatoes (approximately 1¼ cup), chopped

½ cup capsicum (approximately 1 small), chopped

1½ tsp red chilli powder (or less)

1 tsp cumin-coriander powder, optional

1 tsp pav bhaji masala powder (store bought)

2 tbsp pil + 2 tbsp butter

2 tbsp coriander leaves, finely chopped

Method:

1. Take all the vegetables listed in the ingredients. Wash them in running water and cut them into small pieces

2. Transfer chopped potato, cauliflower, carrot and green peas into a 2- to 3-liter capacity pressure cooker. Add ½ cup water and salt to taste.

3. Close the pressure cooker with a lid and cook over medium flame for two whistles. Turn off the flame. Open the lid after pressure releases naturally; it will take around 5 to 7 minutes.

4. Mash the boiled vegetables gently with potato masher or using the back of a large spoon until you achieve chunky mash. You can mash cooked vegetables into a texture you like – with small chunks or smooth with no chunks at all. The texture of your dish would depend on how you mashed the vegetables.

5. Heat 2 tablespoons oil and 2 tablespoons butter together in a pan over medium flame. Add chopped onion and ginger-garlic paste. Sauté until onion turns translucent.

6. Add chopped capsicum, chopped tomato and salt.

7. Sauté until tomatoes and capsicum turn soft.

8. Add 1½ teaspoons red chilli powder, ¼ teaspoon turmeric powder, 1 teaspoon cumin-coriander powder and 1 teaspoon readymade pav bhaji masala powder.

9. Stir and cook for a minute.

10. Add ¾ cup water, mix well and cook for 2 to 3 minutes.

11. Add boiled and mashed vegetables and 1 teaspoon of lemon juice.

12. Mix well and cook for 4 to 5 minutes. Taste for the salt at this stage and add more if required. Turn off the flame. Add chopped coriander leaves and mix well. Bhaji is ready for serving.

13. Transfer prepared bhaji to a serving bowl and garnish with a cube of butter. Serve hot with butter roasted pav, sliced ​​onion and lemon wedges.

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