Pav Bhaji: Abraham Lincoln's Contribution To Iconic Mumbai dish

 The Holy Trinity of Pav dishes – after vada pav and keema pav – is the pav bhaji, gustatory proof of Aristotle’s anecdotal phrase that the whole can be greater than the sum of parts.  

One can use a thousand different adjectives to describe it, but let me borrow the words of Sidin Vadukut from his column about the dish’s origin: “A mongrel dish of uncertain origin, flexible loyalties, epic history, shallow roots, convenient assembly, instant despatch, infinite scalability, a spicy kick, satisfying mouthfeel, and a tart finish. A dish, my reader, that is truly worthy of Mumbai.”

Interestingly, the pav bhaji’s ingredients are sourced from across the world.

Chillies came from Mexico. Garlic, most probably, is from central Asia. Tomato, capsicum, and potato from South America. And created most probably for hungry Gujarati traders thanks to the American Civil War. 

At the height of the American Civil War, Gujaratis would trade cotton when the global supply was affected by the American Civil War. 

Aakar Patel notes in his Mint column: “Abraham Lincoln’s navy blockaded New Orleans and the Mississippi and Manchester’s looms came to a halt, sending cotton prices shooting. The Gujarati merchants, being one of the world’s finest managers of uncertainty, made a lot of money. These early globalizers worked in a fashion similar to today’s call centre workers, late into the night when the rates were wired in, and orders wired out at American and European times. By then, everyone would be quite famished, and the wives would be asleep at home.” 

He adds: “This demand for regular food at an unusual time created a unique supply. The traders were served by street stalls that invented a late-night special: pav bhaji. This is mashed vegetables (all the leftovers) cooked in a tomato gravy and served with buttered loaves. The loaf came from the Portuguese Jesuits, who settled in Bandra around the mid-1500s. It has been neatly absorbed into Indian fast food, soaking up the oil and gravies that Indians love.”

The rest is culinary history. The pav bhaji exploded with more versions than Loki variants. Now you can eat Jain pav bhaji (no onion or garlic or potatoes), Punjabi pav bhaji (with extra spices), khada pav bhaji (where the ingredients aren’t mashed together), pav bhaji wraps, and many other combinations that your brain can't even begin to fathom. 

And it all happened because Abraham Lincoln stood up against slavery.