In Mumbai, the words pav walla means two things. First, and the most obvious reference is to that fellow who brings you bread every morning. The other pav walla is a slang that in today’s terribly politically correct climate may be considered inappropriate. It’s how, in more innocent days, we affectionately referred to our Goan catholic friends as. But, to me, both the ‘pav wallas’ played a significant and meaningful role in my upbringing as a Bombay boy.
I grew up in Mazagon, which, in the ’60s, was a pre-dominantly Anglo-Indian, catholic neighbourhood, amongst friends either called Castellino, Fernandes, Misquitta or DeSouza — the ‘pav wallas’. But there was the real pav walla as well. That man, who comes on a cycle, sports a long beard, a skull cap, and dons a checkered lungi.
The cycle always had a big wooden box at the back, which was covered with a plastic sheet that, in turn, was held in place by a long rubber tube. This wooden box contained hot bread. This was the typical south Mumbai pav walla. He picked up fresh bread from the local bakery and hawked it to the neighbourhood two times a day. And, mind you, in those days, the Byculla-Mazagon area had a bakery every few hundred yards.
Even today, you can see this lungi-clad cyclist selling bread in most areas of south Mumbai, including Hanging Gardens, Warden Road, Nana Chowk, Prabhadevi, and occasionally, in Dadar. Much like his father, or his father before him, did. It is a sight that, till this day, makes me rush to the window and yell for him to stop.
But the history of bread-making in Mumbai dates back to the Portuguese. In the 19th century, a modernised version of Bombay was in the making. Cuffed by a severe economic wane under the Portuguese dominion, Goans, Portuguese priests and officials had left the centre of the city and started moving outside the fort of Bombay. These areas that were situated further north were inhabited by indigenous converts and were the largest Roman Catholic community on the Island. The culinary tastes of these Indo-Portuguese, with a facility to the western way of life, made pao, or bread, a daily necessity. Goans held the tiller of bread-making right till the last decade of the 19th century, till the Iranis came in.
By the beginning of the 20th century, Bombay witnessed a permeation of migrant Iranis, most of them Zoroastrians from Yazd and Kerman. The Iranis were now running bakeries and restaurants called Kyani, Bastani, Sassanian, B Merwan, and Yazdani, to name a few. All boasted of their own wood-fired ovens and freshly baked breads, biscuits and savouries.
Yazdani, in the by lanes of Fort, till this day, does daily brisk business selling hot bread from its ovens in their backyard. From the usual white bread, it has graduated to whole wheat, multi-grain and more.
Kyani & Co, across Metro Adlabs in the busy street of Dhobi Talao, negotiates a heavy traffic of freshly baked chicken and mutton patties, buns, biscuits, breads and cakes; stuff that it has been doing for over 90 years. Paris Bakery, in a small inaccessible lane behind Princess Street, manages an unattainable tender-crispness in its khari biscuits, wine biscuits, cheese biscuits, and almond macaroons. No one in Mumbai does a crisp Khari or cheese papri as well as the Paris Bakery.
Sassanian Boulangerie and Bakery, diagonally opposite Marine Lines railway station, adds a diametrically oriental touch to its chicken patties. Its Madeira cakes and puddings sweeten an otherwise drab part of the city. And, finally, there’s B Merwan on the eastern side of Grant Road railway station. For years, this place has been famous for two things: the spongiest and richest mawa cakes in the city, and the threats to shut shop every few months.
That, in a gist, is the history of bakeries in Mumbai. Please forgive any inaccuracies and discrepancies because, for you, I will always be a foodie, and not a historian.
Author and TV show host Vijayakar is “always hungry”. He tweets as @kunalvijayakar