To truly experience local culture while travelling, one must savor the traditional food of a region. Traditional food is rooted in the history and heritage of a place and also in its people’s lives. You can not go to Vietnam and not relish pho, you can not go to Spain and not indulge in paella, and you must not come back from a trip to England without having fish and chips. Local food gives you the taste of a slice of local culture within a limited time-frame. So, when you are in Mumbai, the one thing that you must eat is the famous street food called pav bhaji that has been every Mumbaikar’s favourite for decades now! The savory and spicy pav bhaji is much more than a street food item; it is synonymous with the cultural identity of Mumbai, the city of dreams, on the shore of the Arabian Sea.
The origin of pav bhaji dates back to 1860. Due to the American civil war, the demand for cotton in the USA reached an all-time high in the 1860s. Back in those days, India used to be one of the major global players in the manufacture and supply of cotton. To meet demand with supply, the employees at the Bombay Cotton Exchange had to work deep into the night as the new cotton rates came from America via telegram only at night. As a result, they went home really late, and the exasperated wives would not serve food at such ungodly hours. Pav bhaji came into being as a solution to this problem.
The street food vendors were asked to collect leftover vegetables and bread from the Jesuit priests and rustle something up for the late-night meal of the workers. The vendors mashed all the vegetables together, adding a secret concoction of spices, and then tempered the mixture to serve a tangy and zesty bhaji (meaning vegetables) with butter-slathered pav (meaning bread).
There is some argument as to the root of the pav part in pav bhaji. Some people will tell you that pav in the Marathi language means a quarter, and the bread in pav bhaji is served as quarter pieces, hence the name pav bhaji. Others argue that the leavened bread that is served in pav bhaji used to be made by kneading the dough with feet which are called pav in Hindi, and that is why the dish is called pav bhaji. Some people also believe that pav has its roots in pao, the Portuguese word for bread, as it was the Portuguese who introduced bread in Mumbai. However, there is no argument over the fact that pav bhaji is synonymous with Mumbai and is not just a street food but a household item now.
Pav bhaji is omnipresent in Mumbai. Every corner of every street has a famous pav bhaji stall serving the hot, spicy, lip-smacking dish. So, the place where you should have your share of the decadent goodness really depends on the area of the city you are in. If you are in the commercial district called Fort, you need not look beyond Cannon Pav Bhaji near the illustrious Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus which is a must-visit. If you visit Chowpatty Beach in south Mumbai, head across the road to find a nondescript joint by the name of Sukh Sagar and feast on their flavorful pav bhaji. Here, you can also watch the chef prepare the dish from scratch in the open kitchen as you wait for your order. Amar Juice Centre near Juhu beach is an iconic fast food center that remains open till 2 AM. Take your pav bhaji from the shop, walk across to the Juhu Beach and indulge in it while watching the sunset over the Arabian Sea. Another iconic pav bhaji joint in southern Mumbai is Sardar Refreshments on Tardeo Road. Their specialty is the copious amount of butter that they add to the bhaji. Leave the calorie count at the doorstep, and dig into the pav bhaji with dollops of creamy butter.
If there is one street food item that will never slip under the food radar of Mumbaikars, it is pav bhaji. With several modern versions such as the cheese pav bhaji and double teekha (meaning spicy in Hindi) pav bhaji doing the rounds, pav bhaji will keep reinventing itself and stay relevant for decades to come. When you are in Mumbai, dig into a plate of pav bhaji and taste the most authentic flavours synonymous with Mumbai!
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