The more I learn about lifestyle-related content, the more I’m pleasantly surprised by how meaningful it is. Usually deemed frivolous and vapid, the realms of food, travel, and fashion are seeping with culture, heritage and politics and are guides to the functioning and structure of society. So, it comes as no surprise that one of Mumbai’s most famous street food, the vada pav, is also entangled in cobwebs full of history. But, the vada pav isn’t the focus of any ordinary story of the past – the food item became a symbol for Marathi ethnicity established by the Shiv Sena, a right-wing political party that weaponised Mumbai’s favourite street snack.
Catering to a large clientele of textile mill workers and other local commuters in South Bombay in the 1960s, Ashok Vaidya, a street vendor near Dadar station, is said to be the ‘father of the vada pav.’ Although the dish’s flavours and ingredients vary from neighbourhood to neighbourhood, at its core, Shelly Walia says, the “vada is essentially a spicy potato ball, dipped in a coating of spiced-up chickpea batter and deep fried in hot oil. It is then tucked inside a soft bread called pav and served with green chillies and red chutney.”
This overload of tasty carbohydrates dubbed the “common man’s staple,” was birthed in Vaidya’s stall, ‘Ashok Vada Pav’ near Kirthi College, and attracted hoards of working class people and even inspired imitators. Ramya Sarma says that after Vaidya’s original inception, the vada pav found a home in “every food stall outside every school, college, mall or office building,” with local variations.
Soon, this food item became a phenomenon that caught the eye of the Shiv Sena, an “anti-immigrant party... [that] politicized the snack as a symbol of regional pride.” Funnily enough, the history of the ingredients aren’t indigenous to Maharashtra at all–– according to Roshni Bajaj Sanghvi, the etymological root of the word ‘pao’ is Portuguese and potatoes and chillies were historically imported commodities, the Shiv Sena established that the DNA of vada pav and Maharashtrian society was one and the same.
When Bal Thackeray launched the Shiv Sena party in 1966, his agenda was to give a voice to a demographic he called ‘Marathi manoos’ or “sons of the soil,” local, working-class Marathis (men) who Thackeray believed were being robbed of jobs by a growing south Indian population. When, in the 1980s, the textile mills in Lower Parel began shutting down, the workers followed Vaidya’s example and started setting up their own vada pav stalls to make up for their loss in income – a situation the Shiv Sena managed to tap into. The political party offered these unlicensed hawkers protection from the authorities and asked for monetary patronage in return, said Harris Soloman, a cultural anthropology professor from Duke University who wrote about Mumbai’s urban street food politics. For vendors, what began as a few Rupees grew into hundreds and thousands that were hard to keep paying, and the source of vada pav, these street stall owners, became indebted to the Shiv Sena.
Around the same time, the south Indian community of Bombay began taking centre stage in Mumbai’s financial and culinary scenes with staples like dosa and idli climbing in popularity. A pushback to communities the Shiv Sena considered alien immigrants required a rebranding or reclaiming of what is truly ‘Mumbaiyya.’ So, for the Shiv Sena to further cement the support from working-class people, Solomon, in his paper, says, “A friend explained to me that in the 1960s, some Shiv Sena protest signs read ‘Idli dosa bagao’ [Stop idli and dosa], referencing the two iconic snack foods of Tamil Nadu, as Senaiks attacked South Indian Udipi restaurants because the party founder, Bal Thackeray, accused South Indians of taking jobs that ‘rightly’ belonged to the Marathi manoos.”
But, the Shiv Sena didn’t stop there. In 2008, they decided to launch a fast food chain for vada pav that would hire only Marathis who were expected to say “Jai Maharashtra!” as greetings. Wanting to frame this commercial venture as an employment scheme for the ‘Marathi manoos,’ Shiv Sena’s spokesperson, Sanjay Raut, said, “I think this is the first of its kind sammelan where hundreds of us have gathered to celebrate a popular food item, that is the pride of Maharashtra.”
About 5,000 of the Shiv Sena’s vada pav stalls are functional today as a source of livelihood and street food for the average Mumbai resident. The legacy of Mumbai’s favourite street snack is wrought with controversy and partisanship, not an altogether unusual incident seeing how easily politics filters into most elements of Indian society, from language to dress. Vada pav, whether you believe in the Shiv Sena’s political messaging or not, has become inseparable from the soul of Mumbai. The snack has become a regular feature of every ‘must try’ tourist list, an easy and frugal choice in every college, school, workplace canteen, and a comfort food in every home.
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