Maska Maarke with Kunal Vijayakar: How the vada acquired its pao
The last time there was a riot in Mumbai was 25 years ago, and I’m not about to start another one. But the controversy at hand is perilously sensitive, conceivably volatile and seriously scrappy. Nevertheless, I am gallantly going to raise the question, so here goes: “Is the vada pao (hold your breath), a traditional Maharashtrian food or not?”
Oh dear me… I can hear the faint sounds of utensils clashing, the feel of heat sizzling and a faraway murmur even as I speak these words. Is that the sound of turmoil or is it just the sound of hot oil. Well, like all civilised people do, let’s chat about this.
The vada pao is Mumbai’s go-to food, and you don’t need me to tell you that. But is the chauvinism slightly misplaced? I can only speak from personal memory. When I was a kid, in the early ’70s, there was only batata vada, and no such thing as a vada pao.
In fact the pao or bread was taboo in most Hindu homes till as late as the 1950s. Only Christians, Parsis and Muslims ate bread. Rumour has it that Portuguese missionaries in 15th-century Goa would throw bread into Hindu wells at night, and when Hindus drank the water the next morning, the missionaries would proclaim ‘You have now become Christians’.
In a traditional Maharashtrian restaurant like Prakash Shakahari Upahar Kendra at Dadar — where the iconic batata vada is a big fat ball of mashed potato spiced with green chilies, turmeric, curry leaves and mustard seeds, doused in batter and deep-fried till it’s a crispy gold; and where the time-honoured misal is dark and dangerously spiced with garam masala and raw onions — if you dare ask for pao to go with either, the waiter will stare you down with disdain and flatly refuse.
So then when did the vada acquire the pao and assume the mantle of Mumbai’s most identifiable food?
The most plausible story traces it back to a batata vada seller outside Dadar station, in the early ’70s. The food cart was poised right in the centre of hundreds of hungry commuters rushing about at a pace only Mumbai demands. His snack was in great demand, but the piping hot batata vadas were impossible to eat on the run.
As the story goes, this enterprising vendor decided to find a way to make it portable. Right next to him was a street cart selling omelette-pao. He observed how an omelette could quickly be sandwiched between a pao, and taken away.
The legend goes that he borrowed some bread from the omelette-pao-walla, threw in some garlic chutney and bunged in a batata vada. And lo and behold, the vada pao was born.
This working-class snack, created in the city’s Maharashtrian heartland, was soon to become a staple food, a political symbol, a favourite in one of London’s most happening eateries and the only Indian dish that I could find at the foot of Mount Titlis in Switzerland. Salut, vada pao.