A Trip Down Pav Bhaji Lane

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A TRIP DOWN PAV BHAJI LANE

Pav bhaji has transcended from sustenance for mill workers to one of Mumbai’s most popular foods (giving vada pav a run for its money), with versions available in every format at railway stations, quick service restaurants and even in a couple of gourmet avatars. While there is no clear “best” pav bhaji in town, a perennial favourite is Sardar Pav Bhaji, which serves just pav bhaji and different versions of it.

Sardar Pav Bhaji, 166-A, Tardeo Road Junction, Mumbai 400 034. Phone: 022 2353 0208

WORDS BY MILI SEMLANI

Trips to Girgaum Chowpatty were an integral part of my Mumbaikar’s childhood, and pav bhaji was my favourite thing to eat there. My father, who hated long queues at restaurants, would respond to my tantrums to eat out by taking me to Chowpatty. Amongst my best childhood memories are those of us sitting under the stars on a hand woven straw mat while I relished the humble mash of perfectly spiced vegetables anointed with a halo of glistening butter. Having finished the pav bhaji, we’d end the evening with an ice gola dipped in sour, black currant syrup.

Providing sustenance for the mill workers, the first pav bhaji sellers appeared in the city in the late 1950s and ’60s. They soon became popular with the cotton exchange traders who waited late at night for the New York cotton prices to be announced. Easy to make, hearty and wholesome, it gained instant popularity. Today, it’s practically the “national” dish of Mumbai (giving vada pav a run for its money) with versions available in every format at railway stations, quick service restaurants and even in a couple of gourmet avatars.

Ask anyone in Mumbai where you will find the most iconic pav bhaji and chances are you will be directed to Sardar, a 50-year-old restaurant in Tardeo. Established in 1966, Sardar is credited with gilding the common man’s pav bhaji with a slab of golden butter, elevating it instantly (every time I see an Amul hoarding with the words “utterly butterly delicious” I think not of butter, but of pav bhaji).

As the years go by, pav bhaji, once the staple of mill workers, has been given a trendy makeover.

A recent visit to Sardar surprised me – there was a long queue despite it being a weekday. But then I realized the open kitchen is strategically placed right at the entrance. As the cooks mashed the vegetables, the aromas ambled down the queue, whetting appetites, making the wait equally worthwhile and unbearable.

The queue moves quickly. Like the traditional Indian-wedding buffet system, Sardar allocates tables in batches. The menu is just pav bhaji and versions of it, (cheese pav bhaji, masala pav, khada pav bhaji, Jain pav bhaji), some juices and two desserts – Caramel Custard and Chocolate Mousse. The restaurant seats up to 40 people, and the concise menu means ordering and service is efficient.

Once I’d earned my seat, all I had to do was wait for my Amul Bhaji (named after the butter). Note to newbies: Sardar also whips up a special garlic chutney to add extra punch to the bhaji. In a matter of minutes, the famous Sardar Pav Bhaji (a luxurious pat of Amul butter melting on top) was served, with pav (also slathered in butter), chopped onions, lime and papad. My signature Mumbai meal was complete.

There are several contenders – Sardar included – for the distinction of Mumbai’s best pav bhaji. A favourite with government officers and the working class of the CST and Fort areas, Cannon Pav Bhaji is a historic institution. Feeding hundreds everyday, this tiny kiosk bang opposite Chattrapati Shivaji Terminus (CST) is a popular breakfast and after-hours hangout, a landmark meeting point for canoodling couples, businessmen in deep discussion or college students on a skimpy budget.

As the years go by, pav bhaji, once the staple of mill workers, has been given a trendy makeover. Its pride of place on the Mumbaikar’s palate has inspired chefs to attempt to reinvent it, giving it room on innovative menus with global aspirations. There’s a Pav Bhaji Fondue at Spice Klub, and 145 Kala Ghoda serves the staple in a cone! But to me, it will always be the stuff of impromptu trips to the beach, eating with the people of my city.

Feature photo by Harsh Agrawal [CC BY 2.0], via Flickr

 
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