I just had lunch but beginning to write about Pav bhaji has brought on a sudden pang of hunger. I can almost taste the soft bread (pav) and the thick, spicy vegetable curry (bhaji) as I am writing this. For those of you who are unaware of the dish, Pav Bhaji is a fast food dish from Mumbai, India, consisting of a vegetable curry cooked in tomato gravy and served with a soft, buttery bread roll. While Bhaji is a traditional Indian name for a vegetable dish, the Pav or Pao was the Portuguese word for bread, which was introduced by them during their short presence in Mumbai around the mid-1500s. Let us delve a little deeper into the origins of this famous dish.
Until the Muslim community arrived, Indians were not great bakers — with them came maida. And with the Portuguese, came pav, originally the crusty bread used in the Holy Communion. The Portuguese started using a few drops of toddy to ferment the dough and created the various Goan loaves of bread we know today -the round gutli, the flat pav, etc.
Pav quickly became the food of the minorities (Muslims, Catholics etc.) while Hindus stuck to traditional (and non-maida) breads like rotis, pooris, etc, even in Bombay. The divide was broken with the introduction of pav bhaji which flooded the streets of Mumbai, becoming the staple diet of the mill workers. The textile mill workers had lunch breaks too short for a full meal, and a light lunch was preferred to a heavy one, as the employees had to return to strenuous physical labor after lunch. The dish was invented to fulfill the dietary requirements of lunch for them. They needed cheap, easy, quick-to-prepare, light but nutritious food. The first pav bhaji stalls were located near the old Cotton Exchange because traders waited for the New York cotton prices that came in late at night and early in the morning.
Another well-known story about the origin of the word pav is that it was so named because the dough was kneaded using feet (paon in Hindi), and not hands, to speed up work and keep up with the ever-increasing demand. And thus, the humble pav led to the beginning of more dishes such as Vada Pav, Misal Pav, and Pav Omelette that throng the street food scene of India today.
Almost 15 million people in Mumbai eat pav bhaji every day. The dish has spread from Mumbai to all over India and even as far as the United States. So what are you waiting for? Have a tasty serving of pav bhaji for your next evening snack.