If you ever get to visit the Indian city of Mumbai and decide to try just one dish, make sure it's the vada pav. Spiced potato patties locally called batata vada, golden-crispy on the outside, soft and mushy on the inside, slathered with sweet, tangy, and minty chutneys, sandwiched in a soft white pav (bun), and served with a generous quantity of spicy, dry garlic chutney, and some fried green chillis. Mumbaikars (the people of Mumbai) are proud of this street snack.
A few years back, when I visited a friend's family in Mumbai, I was welcomed with warm hugs and a plate heaped with six vada pav sandwiches, and a cup of adrak chai (ginger tea), just for me. Two were eaten on the spot, and some were packed for me to take, for later. Because there are no bounds to a Mumbaikar's hospitality, and no such thing as too much vada pav, apparently.
At just Rs13 (Dh0.65), the humble vada pav is more than just a street snack in the densely-populated city. It's an affordable carb-loaded power snack for a physical labourer, an on-the-go munchie for a young student or office-goer, a tasty, affordable meal for the poor in the city, and a colourful street-food click for the young Instagrammer. The dish has almost become synonymous with the city. Even international culinary queen, Nigella Lawson, is a self-professed fan of Mumbai's famous vada pav, according to a post on her Instagram account a few years ago.
The story of Vada Pav
The story of pav or the bread used in vada pav begins many years ago, with the Portuguese invasion of the Indian state of Goa in the year 1510. The Portuguese who began residing in Goa started missing their daily diet of bread and meat. So, the word pav comes from the Portuguese word for bread, pão. It was the Portuguese who brought the name, as well as the baking method needed to make the pav (before this only unleavened bread was commonly made in India). In 1964, the Portuguese liberated the colonies that were under their control, and Goans started travelling to the neighbouring states, including Maharashtra. This is how the pav bread became popular in Mumbai.
It is said that the credit for inventing the mouth-watering Vada Pav goes to a man named Ashok Vaidya. In 1966, Vaidya set up a stall outside Dadar train station. Here he began selling vada (batter-fried patties made of mashed up, spiced boiled potatoes) and poha (a breakfast dish made of flattened rice flakes) for the hundreds of thousands of textile mill workers, who passed the station every day on their way to the mills in the neighbouring suburban areas. A a stall next to him used to sell Omelette Pav. This gave Vaidya the idea, he experimented with selling a vada between pav along with some chutney to add flavour. The result was an instant hit.
Later, Mumbaikars who moved to the UAE, of course, could not leave their favourite snack behind. Vada Pav is a staple in most UAE restaurants serving Mumbai street-style cuisine. But, is it easy enough to make it at home?
"Yes! Certainly," says 24-year-old chef Hafeez Ul Shaikh, who works at Kulfiholic - The Mumbai Gully, a restaurant in Dubai's Oud Metha. The walls and the decor of this restaurant, by Dubai-based Indian expatriate Rupali Koirala, will transport you straight to Mumbai, with giant, hand-painted murals of Bollywood actors, scenes from the city, and lines you would commonly hear on the streets of Mumbai.
The vada pav served here is a recipe by Koirala's mother who has been running a catering business in Mumbai for over 25 years. Koirala passed it to Hafeez Ul Shaikh, who showed Gulf News the right way to make Vada Pav. The only thing we didn't get the exact recipe for was the dry garlic-chilli chutney. "It's our secret recipe, our trade secret," grinned Shaikh, who used to work in Mumbai for 10 years, before he came to Dubai, three years ago.
Step-by-step guide to making vada pav
Pressure cooker or pan to boil potatoes
Bowl to mix the batter
Wok to fry the vada
Skimmer (to strain the vadas once fried)
A pan or skillet
Makes: 6-7 vadas
For the vada:
- 500gm boiled potatoes
- 1tbsp crushed garlic
- 1tsp crushed ginger
- ½ or 1tbsp green chillies (depending on spice tolerance)
- 4-5 curry leaves
- 2tbsp coriander leaves chopped very small
- 2 pinches of turmeric
- 1½tbsp oil (the chef used sunflower oil)
- salt to taste
For the batter:
- 200gm besan (gram flour or chickpea flour)
- 200ml water (to be adjusted depending on batter consistency)
- salt to taste
Note: This recipe uses store-bought pav, and pre-made mint chutney.
In a wok, heat ½tbsp of oil. Once the oil is warm, add the garlic, ginger, green chillis, and the curry leaves. Sauté till light brown and the raw smell disappears. Do this on low heat so that it doesn't burn the mix.
Add a pinch of turmeric powder, and toss in the mashed potatoes. Combine well using a ladle.
Add some chopped coriander leaves and salt to taste, mix well. Set this mixture aside for 10-15 minutes until completely cooled. Meanwhile, let's make the batter.
In a bowl, take the gram flour, add salt to taste, and slowly start adding water, while mixing it by hand. Continue mixing and adding water in parts till all the lumps disappear and a smooth and flowy batter is formed (Refer to the video to know the right consistency).
Pro tip: The chef said that some people and restaurants use baking powder in the batter to thicken it, but the vada will taste better without this addition.
By now, the potato mix would have cooled down. In a wok, add enough oil to deep fry the vada. While it heats up on low flame, let's get the potato patties ready.
Using clean hands, roll the patties, dividing the mix into 6-7 balls weighing around 80gm each. Dip to cover fully in batter and slowly drop it into hot oil. The oil should not be boiling, as the vada has to be slowly fried till it reaches the right colour.
Fry the vada for 15-20 minutes till the outer layer turns slightly brown. Now strain, using a skimmer, onto a dry kitchen paper towel to drain off any excess oil.
Don't turn off the flame yet. Into the same oil, toss a few green chillis, fry them lightly and remove using a skimmer.
Time to serve. Cut open a pav midway horizontally and toast it ever-so-slightly on a warm pan or a skillet. Place a vada in the center, and add some mint chutney.
You can add a layer of spicy potato crisps, for that extra crunch. Enjoy this with a warm cup of ginger tea.
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