(Shutterstock)
(Shutterstock)

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
By Shikha Kumar | Hindustan Times
UPDATED ON NOV 26, 2016 08:01 PM IST

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.”

(Aalok Soni)
(Aalok Soni)

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.

(Aalok Soni)
(Aalok Soni)

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.

(Aalok Soni)
(Aalok Soni)

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.

(Aalok Soni)
(Aalok Soni)

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!

Follow @TheCommanist on Twitter

From HT Brunch, November 27

Follow us on twitter.com/HTBrunch

Connect with us on facebook.com/hindustantimesbrunch

SHARE THIS ARTICLE ON
Close
Ricardo Sciutto, CEO of Italian footwear brand Sergio Rossi
Ricardo Sciutto, CEO of Italian footwear brand Sergio Rossi

Indian embroidery brings about cross-influence, but it’s tricky: Ricardo Sciutto

By Shruti Nair
UPDATED ON FEB 27, 2021 08:59 PM IST
Riccardo Sciutto, CEO of Italian footwear brand, Sergio Rossi, pointed out how it’s more difficult to understand the market for footwear and jewellery as compared to clothing
Close
Myntra’s CEO, Amar Nagaram
Myntra’s CEO, Amar Nagaram

“Next step: apps must include luxury items”

By Shruti Nair
PUBLISHED ON FEB 27, 2021 08:23 PM IST
Myntra CEO says that the younger generation has more disposable income and is more willing to spend on luxury
Close
HT Image
HT Image

“Made in Italy means high-quality craftsmanship”

By Shruti Nair
PUBLISHED ON FEB 27, 2021 08:12 PM IST
Vincenzo De Luca, the Italian Ambassador to India, spells out why Italian fashion is so loved around the world
Close
Stefano Canali of Canali Menswear, which has had a brand presence in India since 2009
Stefano Canali of Canali Menswear, which has had a brand presence in India since 2009

The Nawab jacket was our tribute to India: Stefano Canali

By Shruti Nair
PUBLISHED ON FEB 27, 2021 08:07 PM IST
Canali Menswear has had a brand presence in India since 2009
Close
Alessandro Liberatori, Director of the ITA
Alessandro Liberatori, Director of the ITA

“‘Made in Italy’ extends beyond fashion…”

By Shruti Nair
UPDATED ON FEB 27, 2021 08:19 PM IST
Alessandro Liberatori, Director of the ITA, says India is one of the most important markets for fashion, and will be valued at $93 million by 2025
Close
(Top) Gong Bao chicken at Hyatt Regency; Mai Bao restaurant was jam-packed for an event on Valentine’s Day
(Top) Gong Bao chicken at Hyatt Regency; Mai Bao restaurant was jam-packed for an event on Valentine’s Day

Rude food by Vir Sanghvi: Welcome back, restaurants!

PUBLISHED ON FEB 27, 2021 06:58 PM IST
Yes, it’s time to eat out again and enjoy the full experience. As long as you follow physical distancing and remember to sanitise and wear a mask except while you’re eating!
Close
From diving into dark chocolate sorbet to immersing in hours of literary fiction, decadence is in (Parth Garg)
From diving into dark chocolate sorbet to immersing in hours of literary fiction, decadence is in (Parth Garg)

Humour by Rehana Munir: In defence of decadence

By Rehana Munir
PUBLISHED ON FEB 27, 2021 06:58 PM IST
Equanimity has its sensible uses, but nothing succeeds like excess. Especially after the year and then some spent in lockdown
Close
Thick and bushy eyebrows is the way to go for a natural look; Model: Naveed Khan (A theatre actor and model from Afghanistan) (Yatan Ahluwalia)
Thick and bushy eyebrows is the way to go for a natural look; Model: Naveed Khan (A theatre actor and model from Afghanistan) (Yatan Ahluwalia)

Men’s Style & Grooming by Yatan Ahluwalia: Casual is cool

By Yatan Ahluwalia
PUBLISHED ON FEB 27, 2021 06:58 PM IST
A style guide to creating a casual look that suits your personality and fits you just right. Something for every kind of occasion
Close
How to make sneakers sexy and why kaftan suits all
How to make sneakers sexy and why kaftan suits all

Ami Patel: How to up your sneaker game & why kaftans work

By Ami Patel
PUBLISHED ON FEB 27, 2021 06:56 PM IST
Ditch those stilettos and embrace your comfy, sexy sneakers; and knee-length kaftans that work for even those who are 4 feet zilch
Close
Gaurav opines that if you want to upgrade an iPhone every year, then you’re not going to find any major difference or notice tangible improvements with every upgrade
Gaurav opines that if you want to upgrade an iPhone every year, then you’re not going to find any major difference or notice tangible improvements with every upgrade

Technical Guruji: When do you upgrade your iPhone?

By Gaurav Chaudhary
UPDATED ON FEB 27, 2021 08:58 PM IST
Eyeing the new iPhone? Well, considering it will burn a hole in your pocket, it’s best to wait for at least two years to upgrade to another
Close
Chef Prateek suggests saving all the vegetable trimmings and freezing them
Chef Prateek suggests saving all the vegetable trimmings and freezing them

Prateek Sadhu: Stocking up on stock

By Prateek Sadhu
UPDATED ON FEB 27, 2021 06:56 PM IST
How can you make non-vegetarian or vegetarian stock and use it for the whole week, especially with offices opening up or WFH becoming more hectic?
Close
(From left) Islamabad resident Dananeer Mobin, 19, whose pawri/party video went viral and music producer Yashraj Mukhate, 25, whose pawri mash-up started trending
(From left) Islamabad resident Dananeer Mobin, 19, whose pawri/party video went viral and music producer Yashraj Mukhate, 25, whose pawri mash-up started trending

HT Brunch Social Media Star of the Week: Pawrriii… aka Party

By Karishma Kuenzang
PUBLISHED ON FEB 27, 2021 06:55 PM IST
The word with an exaggeratedly rolled American R became a meme and showed us how having an accent has gone from elite to funny
Close
Mandvi Sharma, who was Shah Rukh Khan’s publicist for several years, now works with the likes of Kamal Haasan
Mandvi Sharma, who was Shah Rukh Khan’s publicist for several years, now works with the likes of Kamal Haasan

HT Brunch Game Show: Which star has the right idea of fame?

By Karishma Kuenzang
PUBLISHED ON FEB 27, 2021 06:54 PM IST
The actor who believes that social media following shouldn’t affect the films they do, who says one shouldn’t idolise celebs, or the one who believes the mystery of stars is a thing of the past
Close
Did Shonda Rhimes’ version of Bridgerton work for you or do you prefer the book by Julia Quinn?
Did Shonda Rhimes’ version of Bridgerton work for you or do you prefer the book by Julia Quinn?

HT Brunch Sunday Debate: Play it by the book

By Vivek Bhattacharyya, Ritika Passi
PUBLISHED ON FEB 27, 2021 06:54 PM IST
A bookworm and a bingewatcher who’ve watched and read the books Bridgerton is based on argue which version works better
Close
David remembers that when he first came to India, EDM was still a little bit new but the response was still amazing. The scene has only become bigger, he opines
David remembers that when he first came to India, EDM was still a little bit new but the response was still amazing. The scene has only become bigger, he opines

India Exclusive: India on the cards for David Guetta?

By Karishma Kuenzang
PUBLISHED ON FEB 27, 2021 06:53 PM IST
The French DJ talks about post-Covid performances, the rise and fall of EDM and returning to the subcontinent
Close
SHARE
Story Saved
OPEN APP