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In search of the perfect pav bhaji

On her first trip to Mumbai, we take author and food historian Colleen Taylor Sen on a pav bhaji jaunt to some of the city’s most iconic eateries

brunch Updated: Nov 26, 2016 20:01 IST
Shikha Kumar
(Shutterstock)

On her first trip to Mumbai, we take author and food historian Colleen Taylor Sen on a pav bhaji jaunt to some of the city’s most iconic eateries

Colleen Taylor Sen’s tryst with Indian food goes back nearly four decades, when she met her husband Ashish Sen at university in Toronto. Like most Bengalis, he was passionate about food, and her mother-in-law, the late Arati Sen, also wrote frequently on the subject for the Bengali magazine Desh. Trips to India in the early ’70s introduced her to its diversity, and she began writing about lesser known regional Indian cuisines for several American and Canadian publications.

“It amazes me how much has changed in India since then. Twenty years ago, you couldn’t find restaurants serving Bengali food and now, there are places serving Bihari, Mizo and Assamese food, which is revolutionary because people are beginning to discover other cuisines,” she says, on the sidelines of Tata Lit Live in Mumbai. Colleen’s first book on the country, Food Culture in India, was published in 2004, and she has since written five more, including the recent Feasts and Fasts: A History of Food in India, which Brunch columnist Vir Sanghvi also wrote about earlier this year.

Colleen’s next book, to be published next year, is Street Food: Everything You Need to Know about Open-Air Stands, Carts, and Food Trucks Across the Globe, co-authored with Bruce Kaig. The book is an update to a 2013 version, which catered to academics and students. “This version is intended for a broader market and is more reasonably priced,” she says.

While she has made frequent trips to Delhi – she loves chole bhature – Kolkata and other parts of India in the past few decades, this is her first trip to Mumbai. And since her next project chronicles street food, it is only fitting that she be introduced to the culture here through a dish iconic to Mumbai’s culinary landscape – pav bhaji.

Made out of potatoes, peas, tomatoes cauliflower and other vegetables mashed together on a flat tawa, the bhaji comes with piping hot pavs doused in butter. Whether it’s served on handcarts or in swanky restaurants, pav bhaji has been a great leveller, just like the city it supposedly originated in. “Wasn’t this dish discovered as a way to use leftover vegetables the next day, and became popular with mill workers?” she asks, as our kaali-peeli winds its way through south Mumbai’s traffic. Her theory is quite on-point, but what does she think of the dish? Find out.

The soft crunchy bite: Cannon Pav Bhaji, Fort

We begin our trail at the popular, 40-year-old Cannon Pav Bhaji opposite CST station in Fort. A modest-looking open eatery that has just enough space to stand – no tables here – the pav bhaji gets to us within a minute, ladled onto the plate by the efficient women servers. After observing it for a few seconds, Colleen asks if the bhaji has to be poured on the pav or vice versa. When I tell her it’s the latter, she breaks a piece of the greasy pav and dips it in the bhaji ever so carefully. “Oh my, this is wonderful!” she says, after the very first bite. “I can taste the potatoes, tomatoes and lots of coriander. I can’t really make out the other vegetables though,” she adds. A few bites in, she grabs a spoon and scoops up some bhaji, noting that it’s mildly spiced. What’s becoming clear though, is her fondness for the pav. “It’s crunchy on the outside and so soft inside. Just perfect.”

That buttery feeling: Sukh Sagar, Chowpatty

Dodging the Girgaum traffic, we make it to this Chowpatty landmark just around lunch time and quickly grab a seat in the air-conditioned section upstairs. The pav bhaji arrives after a nearly 10-minute wait and the first thing Colleen notices is the size of the pavs. They’re much smaller here, compared to Cannon.

“Does everyone make their own bread too?” she asks. She scoops up the bhaji with a piece of pav. “This has the same degree of spiciness, but it’s more buttery and has a smoother texture. It’s more finely mashed,” she observes. “I think I’m really starting to like this,” she adds. While it’s hard for her to pinpoint a difference, if any, in the ingredients, she tries the bhaji by itself to confirm. “I can really taste the crunchiness of the onions in this one. It was hard to notice that with the pav though,” she says.

Bhaji without kanda: Manohar Pav Bhaji, Girgaum

We walk a few hundred metres to get to our next stop, Manohar Pav Bhaji. It’s easy to miss this hole-in-the-wall, which has only a few tables inside. It’s compact, so much so that the cook sits cheek by jowl with the cashier, furiously stirring the bhaji on the signature large tawa. To stir things up a bit, we order the Jain pav bhaji, a variant that doesn’t contain onions or potatoes (Jains don’t eat root vegetables). The pav bhaji comes with a side of tomatoes – as opposed to minutely diced onions. One bite, and Colleen is nodding her head in approval. “This is delicious,” she exclaims. “This has so many dimensions and textures. The masala is great and I can really taste the pepper.”

Traditionally, Jain pav bhaji substitutes the potatoes with plantain, but things are slightly different here, as Colleen finds out. The marked difference in taste, and texture, is due to the white peas (used in usal too), in place of the potatoes. “This one’s a winner... so flavourful. I love it,” says Colleen as she tucks into the bhaji.

Cheese please: Swati Snacks, Tardeo

Our last stop is this upscale vegetarian eatery, frequented by Gujaratis in the area for panki (savoury rice flour pancakes) and handvo (a kind of vegetable cake). We seat ourselves at one of the tables opposite the kitchen, visible through a glass partition, and order a portion of the cheese pav bhaji, a spin-off that’s hugely popular because well, what doesn’t taste good with cheese!

As the dish arrives, Colleen remarks that the presentation is very elegant. The bhaji here is served in a deep bowl, not on a flat plate. By now, she’s a bit of an expert, and is quick to dig in. The analysis doesn’t take too long. “I like this the least. I’m just not fond of the flavouring,” she comments. A few bites in, she consciously scoops up some of the grated cheese along with the bhaji. “I can’t taste the cheese, it’s too mild. There’s no richness... the others were spicier and more aromatic.” A few sips of water later, she adds that she doesn’t like the aftertaste either. The verdict’s out on this one, and Colleen’s not impressed.

In the taxi back to her hotel, Colleen says that’s she’s surprised at how a simple dish can have so many variations. “This has been one of the most interesting culinary adventures I’ve had. I’m going to try pav bhaji everywhere I go now,” she says, laughing. She has another point to make. “I think the quality is inverse to how fancy the place is.” We hear you, Colleen!

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From HT Brunch, November 27

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