In Search Of The Perfect Pav Bhaji
On her first trip to Mumbai, we take author and food historian Colleen Taylor Sen on a pav bhaji jaunt to some of the city’s most iconic eateries
COLLEEN TAYLOR Sen’s tryst with Indian food goes back nearly four decades, when she met her husband Ashish Sen at university in Toronto. Like most Bengalis, he was passionate about food, and her mother-in-law, the late Arati Sen, also wrote frequently on the subject for the Bengali magazine Desh. Trips to India in the early ’70s introduced her to its diversity, and she began writing about lesser known regional Indian cuisines for several American and Canadian publications.
“It amazes me how much has changed in India since then. Twenty years ago, you couldn’t find restaurants serving Bengali food and now, there are places serving Bihari, Mizo and Assamese food, which is revolutionary because people are beginning to discover other cuisines,” she says, on the sidelines of Tata Lit Live in Mumbai. Colleen’s first book on the country, Food Culture in India, was published in 2004, and she has since written five more, including the recent Feasts and Fasts: A History of Food in India, which Brunch columnist Vir Sanghvi also wrote about earlier this year.
Colleen’s next book, to be published next year, is Street Food: Everything You Need to Know about Open-Air Stands, Carts, and Food Trucks Across the Globe, co-authored with Bruce Kaig. The book is an update to a 2013 version, which catered to academics and students. “This version is intended for a broader market and is more reasonably priced,” she says.
While she has made frequent trips to Delhi – she loves chole bhature – Kolkata and other parts of India in the past few decades, this is her first trip to Mumbai. And since her next project chronicles street food, it is only fitting that she be introduced to the culture here through a dish iconic to Mumbai’s culinary landscape – pav bhaji.
Made out of potatoes, peas, tomatoes cauliflower and other vegetables mashed together on a flat tawa, the bhaji comes with piping hot pavs doused in butter. Whether it’s served on handcarts or in swanky restaurants, pav bhaji has been a great leveller, just like the city it supposedly originated in. “Wasn’t this dish discovered as a way to use leftover vegetables the next day, and became popular with mill workers?” she asks, as our kaali-peeli winds its way through south Mumbai’s traffic. Her theory is quite on-point, but what does she think of the dish? Find out. We begin our trail at the popular, 40-year-old Cannon Pav Bhaji opposite CST station in Fort. A modest-looking open eatery that has just enough space to stand – no tables here – the pav bhaji gets to us within a minute, ladled onto the plate by the efficient women servers. After observing it for a few seconds, Colleen asks if the bhaji has to be poured on the pav or vice versa. When I tell her it’s the latter, she breaks a piece of the greasy pav and dips it in the bhaji ever so carefully. “Oh my, this is wonderful!” she says, after the very first bite. “I can taste the potatoes, tomatoes and lots of coriander. I can’t really make out the other vegetables though,” she adds. A few bites in, she grabs a spoon and scoops up some bhaji, noting that it’s mildly spiced. What’s becoming clear though, is her fondness for the pav. “It’s crunchy on the outside and so soft inside. Just perfect.”