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Snack and the city: How the vada pav has kept up with Mumbai’s appetite

From a meal eaten by migrant workers in the ’60s, to the ‘deconstructed’ variants served today, the humble vada pav’s journey has mirrored the city’s growth.

mumbai Updated: Apr 21, 2017 11:18 IST
There is a vada pav for everyone: from Rs 60 to Rs 200.
There is a vada pav for everyone: from Rs 60 to Rs 200.(Illustration by Shrikrishna Patkar)

It’s a fairly odd recipe, as recipes go — carbs dipped in more carbs, wrapped in carbs.

But that’s no accident. The vada pav is the answer to a riddle from the last century: What filling snack can you offer a mill worker with just a few annas and no time to sit and eat?

“Even before the vada pav, its ingredients — chilli, garlic and potato — were already favourites,” says food historian Kurush Dalal. “What the stalls of the 1960s did, was take the migrant worker’s average meal and package it to go. And that just worked. It soon became a hit with students or whoever had little money to spend, but wanted a good snack. It is only later that it has become an identity of Mumbai itself. Now, everyone who comes to Mumbai tries the vada pav,” he says.

Today, you can’t turn a corner without running into fresh, hot vadas served with garlic powder, teekha-meetha chutneys (imli and green chilli), and fried chillies on the side.

You already want one, don’t you? Chances are you’ve had at least one in the past month. And it may not have been at a pavement stall either.

You can now order Mumbai’s favourite snack at trendy cafés and casual fine-dining restaurants in the city. Sometimes it’ll come to you in the form of a slider; other times, it’s ‘deconstructed’.

It’s a fairly well-travelled little fellow too. You can now get a vada pav in London, New York or Sydney — granted, you will have to ask for the Bombay burger when you order.

It’s been a symbol, snack and political icon. At each stage of the city’s transformation, it has acted as a mirror — going corporate at the turn of the century, saffron in the oughts, and taking to casual fine-dining in the early parts of this decade.

It’s a migrant too!

Interestingly, the vada pav’s core ingredients aren’t really local. The pav is a legacy of the Portuguese; the potato and groundnut came to us from the Americas, also via the Portuguese. The garlic is local…and the chickpea batter.

Like any good Mumbaiite, the snack is supremely adaptable. It’s many things to many people, often at the same time.

In 2008, for instance, it became a political statement when the Shiv Sena launched more than 100 Shiv Vada Pav stalls across the city. As Sena legislator Anil Parab puts it, “It is a part of Mumbai’s culture. Several people who had vada pav stalls were Shiv Sena supporters already, so the party felt it would do well for the business and the city to turn it into a brand.”

These stalls weren’t the snack’s political debut either. There’s a theory that the vada pav has its very roots in the Sena’s battle to establish a Marathi identity as the basis of Mumbai’s melting-pot culture.

“In the 1960s, some Shiv Sena protest signs read “Idli dosa bhagao” [Stop idli and dosa], referencing the two iconic snack foods of Tamil Nadu, as Sainiks attacked South Indian Udipi restaurants because the party founder, Bal Thackeray, accused south Indians of taking jobs that “rightly” belonged to the Marathi manoos,” says Harris Solomon, a professor of cultural anthropology at America’s Duke University, in a paper titled ‘The Taste No Chef Can Give: Processing Street Food in Mumbai’, published in 2015.

It was then, as a counter to the increasingly popular idlis and dosas and as a way to promote entrepreneurship, that the party first encouraged Maharashtrians to start their own vada pav stalls.

“It was about encouraging the Marathi people to turn entrepreneurs instead of hunting for jobs,” says Parab.

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Pav wow

Two decades on, came the real boost for the vada pav.

“When the city’s textile mills began to close in the 1980s and people needed income, they sold vada pav outside the mills. The rest of the mill workers would pass their former colleagues on the streets selling vada pav, and buy from them,” Solomon writes.

Then came the post-liberalisation boom. In 2001, Dheeraj Gupta launched Jumbo King Vada Pav, with its first outlet outside Malad railway station.

This was followed by trendy kiosk-style outlets with names such as Goli Vada Pav (2004) and Wow Vada Pav (2012).

With their shiny clean interiors, quirky combinations and customisable toppings, they soon became popular.

All three now have scores of outlets across the country — from Jharkhand to Uttarakhand and Hyderabad to Delhi.

Somewhere in Ranchi, then, there is someone eating what started out as a mill worker’s snack, now available in local flavours — with chhole, for instance, or achari-flavoured.

“We think of the vada as the ultimate finger food,” says Gupta. “And we’ve expanded our menu options accordingly, through the years.”

That same spirit of experimentation is visible in the khau gallis of Vile Parle, Churchgate and the CST area, where the snack is getting a new avatar all the time.

In these parts, you can get a Schezwan vada pav made with Chindian spices; one with dollops of cheese coating the patty; or even a paneer vada pav, in which paneer replaces the potato.

Don’t expect any of this at the original home of the vada pav, around Dadar railway station.

“The railways were a lifeline for the mill workers, so it was logical for the earliest stalls to be here,” says food historian Kurush Dalal.

There is still a stall here that has been around since 1967. “I inherited it from my father, Ashok Vaidya,” says co-owner Narendra Vaidya. “Our stall has a few loyalists, who have been coming here for decades. But, we keep getting new customers. We’ve made no changes and have no secret recipe. It just works, and has kept working.”

The many avatars of the Vada Pav
DECONSTRUCTED At Farzi Café (top) and SpiceKlub, you get potato mousse or patties accompanied by smears or pouches of chutneys, sprinkled with lasoon chutney, sev, fried chillies and curry leaves
IN A BAO Casual fine-dine restaurants such as the popular Social chain put the patty in a soft Chinese bun called a bao. Accompaniments include a lehsun chutney mayonnaise.
AS A SIZZLER At outlets of Bar Stock Exchange, the vadas come with a side of vegetables, cumin rice and kachumber, topped with
AS A SALAD Dishkiyaoon in BKC serves the potato patty comes with salad leaves, pomegranate and a pinch of farsan.

Smart casual

With the boom in disposable incomes and the mushrooming of stand-alone restaurants, the vada pav went smart casual.

“The changing economy changed the way people snacked too,” says Mumbai columnist and city chronicler Smruti Koppikar. “Street food, which was once for the poor, has now become emblematic of a culture and entered the restaurants. As it travelled indoors from the streets, there has been a transition of the snack too.”

So you now get the vada in a bao, as a salad, or made with chicken!

But these, loyalists like to say, are fads.

After all, the mills are gone and soaring glass-and-steel office buildings have taken their place, but the snack of the mill labourer still thrives, in exactly the same form.

It must now compete with meals in a box, dosa stalls, ‘street Chinese’ and packaged snacks. It still wins. Unlike the meal in a box, it’s cheap. Unlike bhel and chaat, it’s filling. The packaged snacks aren’t piping hot. And you can’t eat a dosa on the go. As Gresham Fernandes, head chef at Impresario, puts it, “When in Mumbai, I still like to have my vada pav on the street.”

If anything, it feels odd to sit down at a faux Irani café and order a ‘platter’ of your favourite street food. Like any true Mumbaiite, the vada pav is at its best under pressure and on the move.