Saturday, March 25, 2017

Pav Bhaji

What do the laws of electromagnetism, the Portuguese, the price of cotton, time zones, vegetarianism, and the American Civil War all have in common?

They came together to invent the iconic Mumbai street dish known as pav bhaji (pronounced: paav bhaaji — the two "a"'s are actually long vowels.)

Every good military general would tell you that the best way to win a war is through economics. The naval Union Blockade of April 1861 which heavily targeted New Orleans (Louisiana) and Mobile (Alabama) made the cotton exports of the South come to a grinding halt. The savvy Gujarati speculators of the old Cotton Exchange in Bombay knew the drill. Rates were wired in and orders wired out late into the night when the corresponding exchanges in Chicago would've been open.

(Bombay made its fortune on the basis of its cotton mills — a fact that is quite clear even today in its geography. The point being that the price of cotton mattered hugely and the American Civil War and the telegraph provided a mechanism to speculate on the price swings. Note that the world was on a Gold Standard back then so that exchange rates between the dollar, the pound and the rupee, which was basically the pound, would not matter.)

The word for trader in both Hindi and Gujarati is dalal (दलाल) — it's not a neutral word. It has a slightly shady connotation to it. No trader would self-describe themselves as a dalal even though that's exactly what they are. It carries with it the negative connotations of both "speculator" and "pimp". The Japanese equivalent is kabuya (株屋) — stock-broker/stock-slinger (= speculator.)

Now you have a bunch of traders working hard into the deep night. They're largely vegetarian. They're rich (or wanna-be rich) but in the classic tradition of rich people, they're also cheap. When you have a demand, a corresponding supply opens up. It has to be fast, tasty, and yes, cheap.

Where do the Portuguese come in?

India had no tradition of baking leavened breads before the 15th-century just like most of Southeast Asia. The Portuguese were responsible for introducing the yeasty bread (pão in Portuguese) which is paav in Hindi and パン (pan in Japanese).

The dish is made from the cheapest of ingredients — potatoes, tomatoes and onions. Plus fried bread. It's a street dish. It's not fancy. You toss in whatever vegetables you have lying around. It's also infinitely configurable with different toppings depending on the individual taste buds.

The critical point is that everything could be made ahead of time. You're basically stir-frying at the last moment. Even the bread could be made ahead of time. It could even be slightly stale because it would be fried again. Every corner that could be possibly cut was actually trimmed. This is one efficient caloric machine.

Needless to say, it was an instant hit.

Nothing's changed since 1861. This dish is still a hit and will continue to be so.

It's endlessly addictive. It's one carb-laden umami-laden butter-laden bomb!



(serves 4)

6 small potatoes (or 3 large ones)
8-10 tomatoes

1 large onion (finely chopped)
1" ginger
4-5 cloves garlic


3-4 tbsp pav bhaji masala

chopped vegetables (peas, carrots, cauliflower, french beans — optional)

12-16 pieces pav


red onions (finely chopped)
cilantro (finely chopped)

Note 1: Some of the toppings are missing in the photograph. Specifically, the red onions with lime and cilantro. (The toppings are frequently mixed together so you just add as much as you like including the lime juice.)

Note 2: The CC knows that the bread in the picture is not fried. As Julia says, butter makes everything better, but sometimes a little restraint also works. (People also add extra butter on the bhaji itself which is kinda "over the top".)

Note 3: Yeah, the CC is totally aware that the picture below isn't the "real" paav but one must work with what one has in New York not what one wishes one had. It's the closest approximation to the "real thing". The bread pictured above has the right texture — hard exterior and soft interior. It's from a local bakery.

Note 4: For once, the CC is not going to post a recipe for the spices. You are better off buying this at a Indian grocery store. You could do it yourself but the proportions would be all off unless you plan on making a year's supply. Sorry.

Note 5: Note the presence of two different kinds of sourness — amchur (= dried green mango powder) in the pav bhaji masala and lime juice. This is a consistent theme in Southeast Asian cooking. The presence of a dry "mellow" kind of sourness allied with a wet perfumed "fresh" kind of sourness.

Note 6: The CC knows that it's much more tricky to describe a street dish than it is to describe a more conventional one. However, when you are faced with alternatives and problems, the key question you need to ask yourself is "Would a street vendor in 1861 worry about this problem in the middle of the night?" If the answer is no, then the CC says, "Wing it!" Except for the butter, the spice mixture, onions, potatoes and tomatoes, it's all up in the air anyway!

Note 7: If you've ever watched it being made on the street, you'd realize that your puny home cooking range simply doesn't have the BTU's. Additionally, the tomatoes are simply not ripe enough. They toss whole ripe tomatoes onto the sizzling skillet and de-skin them with their spatula. You have neither the heat nor the skill to do so. Do it the CC's way, OK?

Note 8: The vegetables may or may not have been part of the original recipe but they've become "traditional" with the advent of healthier eating.


First boil the potatoes. Skin them and set aside. Mash gently.

Pass the tomatoes through a food mill to get just the pulp. If the tomatoes are not completely ripe, you may need to par-boil them for 5-6 minutes each to get them to soften.

Pound the ginger and garlic into a paste.

Heat up the butter in a pan. Add the onions and fry till they turn pink. Do not let them caramelize. Add the ginger-garlic paste and fry for a bit. Add the tomatoes and let it come to a boil. Skim if you prefer that. Let it cook for at least 10 minutes. Add the pav bhaji masala.

Add the mashed potatoes and let it cook for 8 minutes or so. This concoction has a tendency to act like molten lava splashing everywhere so cover the lid partially otherwise you will be cursing the CC.

Taste. You may need to add more pav bhaji masala. It's hard to predict how much exactly.

Split the bread into two without cutting all the way. Take a skillet. Add butter and let the bread fry on both sides. (This is optional.)

Serve the bread, the pav bhaji and the toppings on the side (as needed.)

No comments: