FOOD SAFARI Ramya Sarma feasts on this vegetarian fast food, but with tissue in hand.

I first heard about vada pav when I started work in Mumbai years ago. It sounded intriguing, but with my unfortunately western-acclimatised palate, I was terrified to go anywhere near it. It looked meanly at me every time I worked up enough nerve to be in the same room, and that lurid red chutney and the spiky green chilli seemed to be aiming directly at my spice receptors, the extra-sensitive little nibs that lurked in my mouth, eyes, nose and various parts of my digestive system.

One day, a merciless and determined rakhi brother took me to a local eatery where the specialty of the house was vada pav — also misal, piyush, sabudana khichdi and dried amla as a mouth freshener, all typically Maharashtrian, native to the State and peculiarly Mumbaiyya in flavour, presentation and degree of fire. I was pushed into a seat at a formica-topped table, my bottom plunked down hard on an excruciatingly clean and hard bench and an order rapped out to a hovering waiter in immaculately fluent Marathi.

A few seconds later, plates started scattering over the table in front of me. And the smells that wafted straight into my nose got my mouth watering with anticipation. I reached over for the vada pav, a pillow of soft white bread enveloping a patty that seemed to be potato with some added bits and pieces.

Combo crisis!

A bite later my mouth, nose and eyes began to water. There was some confusion too — that single bite held magic and evil, joy and great grief, all in one complex package.

In that one morsel there was the heaven of softly cooked potatoes dancing delightfully with melting onion, sparks of ginger and garlic and coriander leaves. And then there was the hell of spiky chillies, their calm green colour belying the devilish heat and indelible burn that followed their arrival on my tongue. The soft comforting blanket of the bread in which this mélange was enclosed helped for a brief few seconds and then the chutney kicked me smartly in the tonsils, the red chilli, garlic and salt stabbing directly at the pain synapses. “It has to be spicy, idiot,” my brother said cheerfully as I mopped my eyes and wiped sweat off my forehead. Yes, the fire helped, most of all in directing a baleful glower at the man sitting across from me.

The vada pav is an extremely popular vegetarian fast food sold on sidewalks, and in starred restaurants all over the city. It is cheap, hot, filling and, in comparison to so many other dishes that are classed as ‘fast’, nutritious — starchy, energy-rich and not too greasy.

The vada is made of boiled and crushed batata, or potato, which is mixed with spices, herbs and onions, chillies, ginger and garlic, and shaped into a patty, dipped in a coating of gram flour or besan with spices and then deep-fried in very hot oil. This is inserted, piping hot, into a fresh pav, or unsweetened bun.

Credit for creating this Mumbaiyya staple is often given to Ashok Vaidya, a snack vendor who set up his stall just outside Dadar station, a major commuter hub in the metropolis. Vaidya reportedly came up with this recipe in 1971 to appease the hunger of the rush of commuters who wanted a snack they could carry and munch on without needing implements or cleansing wipes. He served it up with a fiery red chutney that could include coconut, peanuts, chillies, garlic and tamarind pulp. And it flew off his stall and straight into the eager mouths of the always-rushed daily commuter.

Fusion mania

As with anything that is a huge hit — be it food or films — imitators leaped on to the bandwagon. Every food stall outside every school, college, mall or office building started developing its own variation. Fusion played a huge role — the conventional Maharashtrian snack acquired collaborators from all over the world: There was soon the Schezwan vada pav, with Chinese influences that perhaps the Chinese would never recognise, but the local eating public knew and loved; cheese vada pav, which included a nice scattering of grated processed cheese that melted deliciously and coated teeth and potato alike; Jain vada pav that catered to religious sensibilities and eliminated onion, garlic and potatoes (what is left, you may ask); and a luxury version that came with cashewnuts, raisins and the occasional and startling syrupy maraschino cherry.

And when mass manufacturing caught up with the wave, chains were established — Jumbo King was pre-shaped, pre-fried, pre-packaged and far less spicy if required, almost like a local version of the MacDonalds Aloo Tikki burger. Goli Vada Pav was also set up as a rival chain and the Shiv Sena’s own Shiv-Vada made its own niche in the business.

But it is the smaller street-side vendors who have got the perfect vada pav, say loyal customers. Vaidya has the best, say his clients, who queue up at Ashok Vada Pav near Kirti College, Dadar. Gajanan Vada Pao centre and Durga in Thane are as well known. Outside Andheri station near the foot over-bridge you find delicious vada pav, best eaten with the chilled lassi. And close to Vile Parle station, four shops down the left side of the street, you get the Gujarati version of the fast food. Some claim that the best place to enjoy vada pav is at Khau Gali in Zaveri Bazaar, a place that is now patrolled by security forces after a bomb blast killed many there some months ago. But universal opinion has it that Mithibai College in the western suburbs of Mumbai is where the best vada pav can be had — just opposite the college, at Anand Vada Pav, or Dhiraj.

A fortnightly feature on food and the places that made them famous

HOW IT'S MADE

Vada Pav (serves 4 generously)

pav (best if made in Mumbai!)

Ingredients

6-8 medium sized potatoes, boiled and smashed

2 cups gram flour (besan)

Oil for frying

Salt

1 small piece ginger, chopped

4-5 cloves garlic, chopped

4-5 (or to taste) green chillies, chopped

1/2 cup coriander leaves, chopped

To temper

1 tsp turmeric powder

Curry leaves (as many as you like)

1 tsp mustard seeds,

2 tsp oil

Method

1. Grind ginger, garlic and green chillies fine.

2. Add ginger-garlic-chilli paste, coriander leaves and salt to the potatoes.

3. Heat 2 tsp oil and splutter mustard seeds; add turmeric powder and curry leaves. Pour on the potatoes and mix.

4. Shape mashed potato-masala mixture into small balls.

5. Add salt to taste, turmeric powder and chilli powder to taste to the gram flour. Add water gradually and mix until a thick batter is formed.

6. Heat oil. Gently coat the potato balls in batter and drop into the hot oil. Fry until golden brown and drain well on absorbent paper; if you want to be authentic Mumbaiyya, you need the oil, but healthwise it would be better to avoid it.

7. Split each pav, keeping the base thicker than the top half, and slather on garlic chutney, peanut chutney or green chutney. Sandwich the vada in it. Add fried green chillies, whole, for that extra spark.