The bhelpuri stalls in Mumbai were all run by migrants from UP(Shutterstock)
The bhelpuri stalls in Mumbai were all run by migrants from UP(Shutterstock)

Rude Food by Vir Sanghvi: A requiem for Bombay bhelpuri

Bhel epitomised the old Bombay. But the new Mumbai is about pav-bhaji and vada-pav
Hindustan Times | By Vir Sanghvi
UPDATED ON JUL 26, 2020 08:10 AM IST

In North India, we use bhaiyya as a term of affection or respect: for your brother or someone you regard in the same way. But in Bombay, when I was growing up, it meant a ‘person from UP’.

It was neither affectionate nor insulting, just a matter of fact. The guy who brought you milk in the morning was called bhaiyya. So was the man who made your bhelpuri.

I thought back to the ‘bhaiyya’ days, the last time I was in Mumbai and noticed how the milkmen and the bhelpuri-wallahs had become a much less important part of the city.

People now bought their milk in bottles or in cardboard or plastic packets. The tradition of the doodh-wallah, who came to your door each morning with fresh milk, had been almost forgotten. And the name ‘bhaiyya’ for doodh-wallah had almost died out.

So it is with bhelpuri-wallahs. When I was a child, the beaches were important centres of the social life of the city. It was normal for middle-class families to drive to Chowpatty, get out of their cars and walk on the beach, stopping only to eat bhelpuri.

A restaurant called Swati in Mumbai serves Gujarati-style bhel and chaat
A restaurant called Swati in Mumbai serves Gujarati-style bhel and chaat

The bhelpuri stalls were all run by migrants from UP. The stalls were mostly run by men with the same name: “Sharma Snack Stall” or “Sharma Bhel Centre”. All the Sharmas were addressed as “bhaiyya” by their customers and were happy to be called that. 

I have no idea why the citizens of Mumbai believed that people from UP – whether milkmen or chaat-wallahs – should be called bhaiyya. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Mumbai (or Bombay as it was then) was already India’s most cosmopolitan city but you could still tell the ethnicities apart.

The Parsis lived mostly in South Mumbai. There were distinct Muslim areas. Such places as Shivaji Park had a high concentration of Maharashtrians. Matunga was South Indian. Bhuleshwar was Gujarati.

Rather than the melting pot it is today, Mumbai was a shimmering mosaic where every community felt at home, but also maintained its own identity. Bollywood, for instance, had a largely Punjabi air and Bandra had a Christian character.

Many of these communities consisted of migrants to the city. Over the years, people streamed into the city because it offered opportunities to all. I imagine that the migrants from UP came fairly long ago. While they kept their regional identity, they treated Mumbai as home and even in the 1970s, many of them had been born in Mumbai.

Though some got into the dairy business, I doubt if they brought the milk trade with them. On the other hand, they certainly brought chaat to the city.

Despite the many extravagant claims made for Delhi as the home of chaat (most legends throw in a Mogul emperor or two to sound more authentic), the truth is that UP is the natural home of chaat. The best chaat in India is still in such towns as Benaras and Lucknow, and nearly all great chaat dishes can usually be traced back to UP.  

There is no pav-bhaji without packaged bread and Amul butter today (Shutterstock)
There is no pav-bhaji without packaged bread and Amul butter today (Shutterstock)

There are two great exceptions. The first is Delhi-style chhola-bhatura, which seems to have gained in popularity only after Partition when Punjabis came to the city.

And the second is bhelpuri.

You can’t really dispute that most Mumbai chaat came from UP. Yes, the names were changed. The UP batasha, for instance, has taken on many identities in different parts of India: puchka in Kolkata and golgappa in Delhi.

In Mumbai it became pani puri, a purely functional name that described its primary constituents, puri and a spicy, watery solution.

But bhelpuri has many ingredients that you don’t find in UP chaat. Sev is very much a Gujarati thing. So are mumra (puffed rice or rice crispies if you want to get fancy). The general consensus when I was growing up in Mumbai was that bhelpuri was invented in the city by merging UP’s chaat traditions with Gujarati flavours and Gujarati textures.

There was even a restaurant that claimed to have invented it: Vithal’s near the New Empire cinema. But bhelpuri had moved beyond any ethnic origins and belonged to all of Mumbai. At the same time as the Sharmas were stirring it up on Chowpatty, the Shetty bhelpuri chain of restaurants (owned by people from Karnataka) was offering a more upmarket version, complete with “bhelpuri packet”, in case you were travelling and wanted to take it out of Mumbai with you.

In many Gujarati homes, bhelpuri would be assembled (if not fully made) by housewives. This was never as masaledaar as the Chowpatty version but it could be delicious, clean and made with the best ingredients (a date chutney rather than the imli chutney preferred by some stalls).

Soam in Babulnath, Mumbai, is also famous for its chaat (Shutterstock)
Soam in Babulnath, Mumbai, is also famous for its chaat (Shutterstock)

This tradition received a boost when a small restaurant called Swati (owned by Gujaratis) opened near Bhatia Hospital, and began serving bhel and Gujarati takes on chaat. Swati soon became a phenomenon, and now visitors to Mumbai regard its take on bhelpuri as the definitive version. (It is very good but my favourite remains Soam in Babulnath.) In the process, the Gujaratis have reclaimed bhelpuri and the poor bhaiyyas of Chowpatty are less and less associated with it.

The best chaat in India is still in such towns as Benaras and Lucknow, and nearly all great chaat dishes can be traced back to UP

Like most Mumbai people of my generation, I loved bhelpuri. In 1979, I wrote the cover story for the newly- launched Bombay magazine and I compared the city with its delicious mixture of separate and distinct elements all bound together in perfect harmony to bhelpuri. At the time, I thought the parallel was apt. (And so, presumably did our readers, the issue sold out in 24 hours.)

But I wonder if I would use that parallel today. For a start, I don’t think that bhelpuri is the great Mumbai dish any longer. Sure, you get it all over the city but it is just one more dish on a chaat menu. Today’s chaat-eaters see no distinction between bhelpuri and pani puri. They don’t care that one is distinctively Mumbai and one is pan-Indian.

In fact, if you ask people what the great Mumbai street food dish is, they would probably say vada-pav or pav-bhaji. Both are dishes that were popularised in the ’70s and after. They are like the dabeli and the Bombay sandwich, dishes that depend on industrial bread and increasingly, on bottled sauces. 

It is easy to see why they are popular. In essence, they are dishes that any fool can make. There is no pav-bhaji without packaged bread and Amul butter. In the old days, pav-bhaji wallahs used pav from small bakeries but it is all industrial bread now. There is a certain skill involved in cooking the bhaji but as anyone who has eaten pav-bhaji recently will tell you, apart from the use of pre-packaged pav-bhaji masala, there is no proper recipe. Everybody just makes it up, reckoning that packaged bread, butter and packets of ready-made masala will see them through.  

The vada-pav is now basically about the chutney (Shutterstock)
The vada-pav is now basically about the chutney (Shutterstock)

The vada-pav is now basically about the chutney. There are still people who put the spicing in the vada but more and more vada-pav wallahs are making basic mashed potato bondas and putting them in an industrial bun. A conscientious guy will make his own chutneys. But packaged versions are readily available.

I understand why Mumbai street food is becoming no more than a way of assembling mass-produced industrial ingredients. It is cheaper and easier this way. Nor does it require that much skill. (That said, there are places that still make outstanding pav-bhaji and vada-pav in Mumbai).

Also, there is the attraction of Westernisation: a vada-pav is a sandwich.

But mostly, I think it is because in Mumbai, unlike say Kolkata, people are losing the taste for real chaat. They are happier with a Jain pizza or an alleged hakka noodle. They don’t really want to stand by a stall and eat pani puri, one at a time. They think bhelpuri is a mess and they like the ‘sophistication’ of a bread-based snack.

Fair enough. But here’s my fear. Making great bhelpuri was an art. No ingredient was industrial. Everything was artisanal. And the final quality of the dish depended on the hand of the man who mixed it all. Did he add the right amount of chutney? Were there too many crushed puris? Had he kept the mumra from taking in too much chutney and getting soggy?

But I won’t complain. One definition of modernisation is a switch from artisanal to industrial. So, I shall just sit quietly and order my bhelpuri and enjoy the mumra bursting on my palate, the sharp taste of the little shards of onion, the richness of the khajoor chutney and the satisfying crunch of the broken puris.

You guys can enjoy your bread!

From HT Brunch, July 26, 2020

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