The iconic staple snack of Mumbai — vada pav — has contributed greatly to an American researcher’s study of the city.
In 2007, Harris Solomon, assistant professor at Duke University, was in Mumbai researching for a book on metabolic diseases. “I spent a lot of time in the clinics of nutritionists,” he said. “When people recited their diets, the one item repeated endlessly was the vada pav.”
The researcher then decided to use the snack as a lens through which to observe the city — its people, its streets, and how the snack related to social and political histories of Mumbai.
This part of Solomon’s book was recently made available to the public as a research paper, on the online journal Cultural Anthropology, under the title ‘The Taste That No Chef Can Give: Processing Street Food in Mumbai’. His book, tentatively titled Metabolic Living, is slated for release next year.
Solomon spent 18 months in Mumbai in 2007 and 2008, meeting vendors, consumers, historians and politicians to trace the significance of the vada pav.
His research paper explores the theory that the snack has roots in the Sindhi immigrant colony of Ulhasnagar. Commuters carried “spiced potatoes and bread”, a Sindhi staple, as a snack on the long commute to the city. Tossing the potato in batter made it easier to eat in transit. “Vada pav thus was a reminder of home for a lot of people, as it has become now in Mumbai,” said Solomon.
He also explores how the decline of Mumbai’s textile mills in the 1980s popularised the snack.
“Those who lost their jobs began opening up vada pav stalls in the area, and found a loyal clientele in their former colleagues,” said Solomon. “When a vendor began selling vada pav outside Dadar station, it caught the attention of the Shiv Sena, who was looking for a food item to replace the [south Indian] dosas and idlis and [north Indian] bhel and chaat that were the staple street foods then.”
Solomon is currently in Bandra, researching a second book linking the unplanned use of public spaces with Mumbai’s astonishingly high road accident rate.
(Read Solomon’s research paper, ‘The Taste That No Chef Can Give: Processing Street Food in Mumbai’, at bit.ly/1LfHKrh).