A unique blend of spices and vegetables, the Pav Bhaji is undoubtedly one of the most consumed street foods in Maharashtra, India. Originating from the lanes of Mumbai, this dish is as flavour-packed as it is nutritious. A quotidian delight to the locals and a quick treat for daily workers, the Pav Bhaji is a delightful concoction of boiled and mashed vegetables like potatoes, carrots, peas, and cauliflower in a tomato and onion paste, seasoned with a myriad of spices, and served best with a side of bread.
True to its name, Pav Bhaji stands for Pav (bread) coming from the 16th century Portuguese word "pao", and Bhaji (a generic name for Indian vegetable dishes). An explosion of tangy and zesty curry, the Pav Bhaji is served with a garnish of chopped onions, coriander, a squeeze of lime and a dollop of butter.
When travelling through the alleys of Mumbai, a frequent sight at every nook and corner of the city are make-shift food stalls with a large tawa (pan) on a fire stove broiling the Bhaji, ready to be served. Being a common dish with an exemplary demand, the Pav Bhaji has its own origin history tied to the American Civil War. Though not directly, it was with the rising need for textiles during the war that mill workers in Mumbai were forced to do overtime duties to meet the requirement.
Working till late into the night, they hardly had time for proper meals. With such a short time for breaks, they needed food that would be light on the stomach yet cheap and fulfilling to continue with their strenuous routine. It was then that a street vendor decided to assimilate all the left-over sides, add in sizeable portions of spices, and serve it with a side of bread that he had procured from a nearby church, to feed the hungry workers. Being a scrumptious and piquant delicacy, the Pav Bhaji soon became a renowned late-night street food, served in every other locality.
The dish originally meant for the mill worker, has now evolved into a coveted Indian snack, being served even at high-end restaurants. Adaptations and variations evidently followed to suit regional palates. Renditions like the Jain Pav Bhaji, made without onion and garlic, while subtly exchanging the potatoes and peas with unripe bananas, and Khada Pav Bhaji where the vegetables are not smashed but left intact, have become equally popular. Moreover, regional diversification has also offered us with the buttermilk-laden Kathiawar Pav Bhaji from Gujarat and a Punjabi variant with overloaded whole spices.