• Pav bhaji is Mumbai's signature food. (Aleksandra Bliszczyk)Source: Aleksandra Bliszczyk
In a country with hundreds of beautiful local breads, the humble white dinner roll is a favourite in India's western states.
Aleksandra Bliszczyk

31 Aug 2020 - 10:45 AM  UPDATED 14 Sep 2020 - 3:05 PM

India has no shortage of fresh bread. Across the country, countless leavened and unleavened varieties are made in millions every day. In Punjab, arm-length naans are hauled out of roadside tandoors. In Uttar Pradesh, dough balls are stuffed with paneer and deep-fried into chewy, bubbly bhatura. In Kerala, fermented rice and coconut batter is dribbled onto hotplates and spread thin to become crisp dosa.

But in Maharashtra, the central-western state housing India's second-largest city, Mumbai, the most popular is the squishy white bread roll. 

Similar to sweet burger buns, or the fluffy dinner rolls served alongside Southern fried chicken, pav is the vessel for Mumbai's signature dish, pav bhaji, meaning bread and vegetables. Pav is served in pairs, buttered and warmed on the grill, and plonked next to a plate of soupy bhaji, a lightly spiced mixture of tomatoes, potatoes, capsicum, fresh peas or dried lentils, chilli and coriander. Then it's topped with a thick slice of cold butter that slowly surrenders to its warmth. 

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Hundreds of thousands of Mumbai's 22 million residents stand shoulder-to-shoulder at street stalls every day, mopping up bhaji and chugging chai before, during and after work.

But despite Australia's growing Indian population, pav bhaji is generally unheard of outside the community. The Indian food that non-Indian Australians are most familiar with is Punjabi ­from the country's north-east; typically thick, dairy-based gravies, grilled meats and tandoor-fired bread.

In fact, India's regions are so singular in culture, language, landscape and cuisine that they often feel like separate nations.

But one chef in Sydney's west is putting pav on the map. Dharmesh Rangparia opened Mumbai street-food chain Chatkazz with business partner Hardik Kanabar seven years ago.

"It was in really great demand [when we opened] because it is the most-selling food in Mumbai. You can say it's world-famous," says Kanabar.

Since then demand has grown enough to open second and third outlets. The 250-item menu showcases every famous street snack from the region – most involving a white roll – that Sydneysiders are otherwise hard-pressed to find.

"You can say it's world-famous."

Over in Mumbai, Amish Sheth has been introducing Western tourists to pav for the last 12 years through his street food tour company Mumbai Moments. According to him, most Mumbaikars will tell you pav bhaji is their favourite food – including himself.

"All you need is in [pav bhaji]," he says. For vegetarian Indians like Sheth, "the same quantity of a paneer-based item will make you quite lazy and give you a heavy tummy, whereas this is quite healthy. Indians are not used to eating salads, so pav bhaji is a complete food from the local perspective."

What began as nondescript mashed scraps served with a cheap, relatively long-life staple has since evolved and seeped into every corner of the country.

Pav bhaji is one of India's original street foods, but its ancestry is open to speculation. One widely adopted theory is that it was birthed during the American Civil War in the mid-19th century.

When cotton exports stalled in the US, India became the world's leading supplier and textile production in India's fabric centre went into overdrive. To feed Mumbai mill workers, who were clocking off long after dinnertime, some cooks began improvising with leftovers and selling their concoctions cheaply on the streets, where they have stayed.

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Although unmistakably Indian in flavour, the foundations of pav bhaji – the bread, tomatoes, potatoes, peppers and even chilli – were introduced by Portuguese colonisers in the 16th century.

These Catholics landed in the south of India, where the grain of choice is rice. However, wheat bread was needed for Holy Communion, so, using fermented coconut water in place of yeast, they taught the locals how to bake 'pão', meaning bread, which became "pav".

Despite Australia’s growing Indian population, pav bhaji is generally unheard of outside the community.

What began as nondescript mashed scraps served with a cheap, relatively long-life staple has since evolved and seeped into every corner of the country. Everyone has their own conceptions of what makes a good pav bhaji, but in Mumbai, Sheth says the secret is in the balance of masala (spices) and vegetables.

"It should not be too oily, too buttery or too spicy. Spices are good, but spicy doesn't really make it happening." In other words, it should be difficult to decipher the flavours – they should all sing together. And it shouldn't make you sweat.

Kanabar says few Sydney restaurants serve pav bhaji, but Chatkazz's full dining room suggests there's fuel for it to take off. 

"Mostly we are getting Indian people, but we are getting some Australians," he says.

"If they're happy to eat the spicy food, I am always happy for them."

You can try pav bhaji at Chatkazz in Sydney and at Honest Pav Bhaji in Melbourne

Love the story? Follow the author on Instagram @aleksbliszczyk and Twitter @aleksbliszczyk 

Photographs by Aleksandra Bliszczyk

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