In Search Of The Per­fect Pav Bhaji

Hindustan Times ST (Mumbai) - Brunch - - FOOD - Text by Shikha Ku­mar

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.”

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