Little kids pushing their luck in a game of cricket, a flock of pigeons taking flight during every sunset at the Gateway of India, the trains which have an infinite capacity to always accommodate ‘one more person’, local bands taking the stage at St Xavier’s College to perform for the first time, hole in the wall cafés, the rains, a rickshaw driver sharing his story as you commute in what could probably be his most prized possession, the hustle, the bustle… and the humble vada pav.
This is Mumbai.
And for those who haven’t visited the Indian city yet, this is your sign to do so.
Crammed with people and shops, there’s a charm unique to the city. Often addressed as the ‘city that never sleeps’, a city of ‘dreamers’, a city ‘full of life’, an ‘imperfectly perfect’ city and a city that’s ‘home to the best street food’ you could find... there’s always something to hold on to in the city.
Packed with food, Mumbai’s streets are a culinary treasure
If you ask a resident of Mumbai, or a Mumbaikar, as they are often addressed, they would tell you street food in Mumbai is a culinary treasure. Brought in by immigrants from all around the world, each influence resulted in an assortment of food and cooking styles. These soon found their way into homes and then all around the city, finally etching its way into the hearts of people.
But when it comes to street food, in every tiny stall lies the humble vada pav often known as the ‘Indian’ potato burger or a poor man’s burger…
There’s quite a story behind the vada pav, if one were to trace its true origins. The potato and the bun were actually imported by the Portuguese to India in the 17th century. However, the only ingredient that’s resident to the vada pav is besan (chickpea flour), with which the batata or spiced potato mix is coated with before frying it.
Eventually when Ashok Vaidya, a snack seller from a Mumbai suburb, started selling the batata vada in split bread, little did he know that his one idea would successfully spread across the city like wildfire. According to several reports, Vaidya started selling the snack back in 1966 opposite Dadar station and slowly grabbed the attention of workers, who travelled on their way to textile mills in areas such as Parel and Worli, especially since it was inexpensive.
The pav or bread roll is cut in half, smeared with butter, placed on an iron griddle and lightly toasted to perfection. Then a spiced, golden, crisp potato patty is placed between the two slices. Hues of red and green accentuate this humble snack in the form of spicy and herby chutneys, which is then served with a green chilli or two, if you’re someone who likes to live with a little danger.
But wait, before you sink your teeth into one of India’s best dishes, make sure you have half a glass of spiced sweet tea, or what’s also known as Mumbai’s favourite – the cutting chai. Because there’s no other relationship stronger than a hot cup of tea and vada pav or batata vada.
Simplicity at its finest, vada pav is an “underrated” dish
For Mumbai-bred residents in Dubai, vada pav is a dish that is longed for. To eat it from a stall is a moon-shot away given travel restrictions.
But all is not lost.
Amol Dhote is one such Mumbaikar who refused to give up his roots while being away from the city, which holds his heart. As the founder and owner of O’Pao in Al Karama, Dubai, Dhote feels the urge to give everyone a taste of his childhood, his college days and his home.
Like I said, the vada pav deserved a gold throne, so place 22 karat edible gold sheets, serving it in a carved wooden box with a nitrogen base, a side of fries and lemonade… there was no better way to present this.
“I feel it [vada pav] is not given enough recognition. Nobody really sees the brilliance it carries in every bite. It’s just so underrated, you know? I remember a time when I used to play cricket… maybe when I was around 12 years. I used to go to Shivaji Park back in Mumbai, and we used to rush to the nearest stall to eat vada pav. Then when I used to go to school, my mum used to pack fresh homemade vada pavs or I used to buy it from the canteen at school sometimes. I’ve always been a big fan of this dish ever since I was a kid,” he told Food by Gulf News.
Getting a gold makeover
Amol Dhote’s love for vada pav changed a lot of things. To him, the snack deserved a “gold throne” as he describes it. When he first introduced the gold vada pav in Dubai, he was quite shocked with the response he got. “After 12 to 15 times of trial and testing, we finally came up with this concept. Like I said, the vada pav deserved a gold throne, so place 22 karat edible gold sheets, serving it in a carved wooden box with a nitrogen base, a side of fries and lemonade… there was no better way to present this.
“We also used French truffle butter to enhance the flavour a little more to suit every palate. When I set up my restaurant, my aim was to introduce everyone to a culture that’s been around for several years. Of course, we reduced the spice to cater to all audiences, but then again, we’ve managed to retain the happiness factor one gets from eating the vada pav,” he added.
A steady fan following
Like Dhote, there are several Mumbaikars who are ardent fans of this humble dish. Food by Gulf News got in touch with those based in Dubai and back home, and it resulted in nostalgia and sentiment…
Esca Travasso, a 38-year-old office manager in Dubai said: “Vada pav from Mumbai is not just another food item, it's an emotion we Mumbaikars feel. That feeling of going to a road-side cart, watching them make it fresh, and eating it while it's piping hot with a fresh chilli, woah! Even after years, the rush I feel is the same as when I was a kid. The first rain shower and you immediately think of sizzling vada pav and chai. Even just thinking of it makes me smile and drool.”
For Mumbai-based 41-year-old Shirley Baretto, who works as a retention coordinator in Dubai, this dish is the perfect solution to end a ‘hard day’ at work: “Every city has its own charm and for us its apna (our) Marine drive in the rains with our favourite vada pav. Some places give the dish an extra ‘edge’ by sprinkling what I personally call vada pav dust… melted butter when toasted brings that extra crunch in every bite, the vada pav from our local ‘bhaiya’… the whole experience can never be replicated!
“Mumbai's vada pavs are the best because the authentic flavour of the vada and freshly baked pav mingle with the amazing chutney. In many ways the humble vada pav is reminiscent of every Mumbaikar’s spirit… eventually savoured after every long hard day.”
As for Ayushi Mathur, a 35-year-old public relations executive and international Gulf News reader, who has been based in Mumbai ever since she can remember, describes her personal liking for vada pav as a friendship that’s lasted a long time: “Being a Mumbaikar if I don’t talk about vada pav then what’s even the point? Vada pav has been my go to food for as long as I can remember. When I was younger, vada pav used to be my family’s special breakfast treat along with piping hot jalebis and fried green chilli.
“As I grew up, my fondness for vada pav grew too. In junior college, vada pav from the canteen with friends was a daily affair and even before the pandemic, my daily breakfast used to be two piping hot vada pavs before I step into the everyday job madness… all in all vada pav and I have been pals for as long as I remember and hopefully even when I’m wearing dentures!”
For Simran Pattnaik, yet another international reader, a 23-year-old business analyst working in Mumbai, vada pav is the solution to every craving: “Apart from being the most reliable and accessible snack, you could simply walk across the road to silence that midnight 2am craving and buy a golden brown vada pav from the ‘chacha’ [vendor] who works till 4am making this perfect dish!”
The legacy carries on…
The vada pav has been around for several years now. Ashok Vaidya may have started the trend, but his son Narendra Vaidya continues to carry on his legacy, from the same stall in Mumbai, and so do several other stall vendors and restaurant owners who sell this irreplaceable dish all over the world.
The Indian burger does have its perks after all. Don’t you think so? Here’s a quick and easy recipe to making it at home.
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