Blog: The humble origins of Mumbai's popular snack - Pav Bhaji

Mumbai Jul 14, 2020, 12.44 PM(IST) Written By: Ishan Choudhary

Pav Bhaji Photograph:( Zee News Network )

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Simple women of Mumbai chawls laid the foundations of this modern-day culinary wonder 

When was the last time you ate something at a street vendor’s stall in Mumbai and wondered what the story behind the dish was? I bet, you wouldn’t even have thought about it. In a city that has to offer a wide array of culinary variety, right from a Rs 10  nimbu paani to a Rs 25000 three-course meal, not many seem curious about the history behind the food that they savour on a daily basis. 

Mumbai’s street food perhaps has the widest range of delicacies that you can possibly sample in 233 sq. miles of area. It’s a culinary universe packed onto a set of little islands. Holding true to its cosmopolitan reputation, the city’s street food, too, has various identities and avatars. Perhaps the most popular street food dish in Mumbai would be the Pav Bhaji. A spicy, soupy, crunchy mixture of vegetables, pan-fried or  Tawa fried in a unique mixture of spices, served with two or three portions of the city’s famed laadi pavs, soaked in butter and chaat masala – this combination is a delight for any avid foodie. Nowadays, the humble Pav Bhaji, which was often served in stalls or small vendors in humble nooks and corners of the city, has now taken on a national and even an international identity, served with toppings ranging from mozzarella cheese to grated paneer to mushrooms. It has even evolved in some places to become Pav Bhaji pizzas. You name it, and the Pav Bhaji has an avatar ready to match your palate! 

But there are a very few people who would know about the humble beginnings of this now popular fast food item. In fact, in all probability, Pav Bhaji can be called the first South Asian dish to be associated with the term ‘fast food.’ While many wrongly associate the origins of this dish to Gujarat, it was actually conceived as a necessity by the womenfolk of 19th century Mumbai chawls. The Pav Bhaji’s birth was actually born as a makeshift fix rather than invention. In the late 1800s when Mumbai’s cloth mills started flourishing, they created a huge workforce of labourers who would toil hours in a day. These labourers would often go hungry because they would get very little time for a decent bite, as they were tirelessly working to fulfill the growing demand of Indian cotton in European markets. The workers would leave early and come back late from their respective shifts, leaving their wives with very little time to prep a decent meal to pack for their men. It was out of fulfilling this necessity of ensuring that the man of the house keeps the machines running without going hungry that the street food of today, the Pav Bhaji was born.

The woman of the house realized that in order to provide the nutrition on a thin budget, a quick fix was required. A wide range of vegetables, including carrots, potatoes, cabbage, green peas, onions, or whatever else was available in their little chawls would be cooked in a peculiar mix of different powdered spices (which is a staple in Maharashtrian households) and packed for lunch with bhakri – a nutritious flat bread prepared from millet dough, similar to roti but more coarse in texture. Surprisingly, the pav was introduced, much later. The homemaker could then be at peace about the health of the bread-winner of the family while preparing a meal in no time. 

Today’s version of  Pav Bhaji, however, rose to the fore sometime in the late 70s when the dish gained fast popularity amongst the Gujarati community in Mumbai with added elements like butter, cheese and various chutneys catching up with time. But the basis of the modern dish – a crush of potatoes, tomatoes, onions, green peas and at times cauliflower or broccoli – remains the same till date. The simple food wonder has helped many families – who still set up little roadside stalls serving the dish - put their children through decent education and have good lives.  

So, the next time you are pampering your taste buds – be it at Tardeo’s Sardar Pav Bhaji, at CST’s Canon Pav Bhaji, or at any other such famed localised brand – don’t forget to tip your hats to those simple women of 19th century Mumbai chawls, who laid the foundations of this modern-day culinary wonder! 

(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed above are the personal views of the author and do not reflect the views of ZMCL)

Ishan Choudhary

The writer is a former journalist based in Mumbai. He now works as a communications professional while attempting to tell untold stories of his beloved city