• Nabil Ansari's version of the beloved vada pav. (Jana Langhorst)Source: Jana Langhorst
Vada pav is a street food known as the Mumbai burger. Its size and flavour-bomb chutneys will make you want to eat six in one go.
By
Audrey Bourget

8 Sep 2021 - 11:46 AM  UPDATED 20 Sep 2021 - 10:17 AM

When strolling through Mumbai, it’s impossible to miss the vendors putting together vada pav, one of the city’s most popular street foods. Surrounded by hungry customers, the stallholders quickly slather bread rolls in chutneys, stuff them with a spiced potato fritter and serve them with a side of fried green chilli.

Filling, tasty, and easy to eat, it’s no wonder that the snack is a staple in Mumbai, and has become popular in other parts of India as well.

“You often get it at railway stations in Mumbai. Everybody travels by train and people are really obsessed with it,” says Payal Bisht, co-owner of Burger Shurger, which serves Indian-inspired burgers in Melbourne's Elsternwick.

Vada pav was actually invented outside a Mumbai train station in 1966 by street vendor Ashok Vaidya. The snack was meant for mill workers who needed something quick and easy to consume on busy trains. When several mills closed down in the 1970s and 1980s, some of these workers opened their own stalls. In the last two decades, local chains have also started selling vada pav, which is often nicknamed the Mumbai/Bombay/Indian burger.

When the vada pav inventor died in 1998, his son Narendra took over the stall, which he still runs today.

Bisht says that you can now find vada pav in her hometown of New Delhi, but they weren't a thing there when she was growing up. She can still remember the first time she bit into one, when visiting Goa for a film festival. “I thought it was amazing! I’m a full-on meat eater – so if you give me a burger, I want a chicken or beef burger. But this Indian version is full of flavour, yet very simple. Normally, a vada pav is small, so people have four or six in one sitting. You can just keep eating it. I was blown away!”

Anatomy of a vada pav

“Vada” are savoury fritters, in this case, made with potato. Using the tadka (or tempering) technique, mashed potato is mixed with spices like asafoetida, turmeric, and mustard seeds, as well as herbs and chilli. Potato balls are coated in a chickpea batter and deep-fried. “Pav” are the soft bread rolls, which vendors usually get from local bakeries.

They may not be included in the name of the sandwich, but the chutneys are an essential part of vada pav. The most common are the mint and coriander green chutney, and the dry garlic and coconut chutney. Some vendors also make a sweet and sour tamarind chutney. A side of fried, blistered green chilli is a must.

“You need the kick of the chutneys, especially the garlic chutney. If not, you’re just having any potato fritter. The chutney can make or break a vada pav,” says Bisht.

Mumbai-born chef Nabil Ansari agrees, the vada pav is all about the chutneys. “The chutney and coconut crumb should be on point; these small components add lots of flavour and texture. And you need the chilli, don’t be scared of biting into it,” he says.

Ansari mostly grew up eating vada pav at home because his family moved to Abu Dhabi when he was three. His mum would make the sandwich, which sparked his interest in cooking.

“You need the kick of the chutneys, especially the garlic chutney. If not, you’re just having any potato fritter. The chutney can make or break a vada pav.”

During last year’s lockdown in Melbourne, Ansari gained a big following while delivering vada pav and other Indian dishes. And until this current lockdown lifts, the Sunda chef will cook vada pav for a pop-up at The Hotel Windsor in Melbourne every Friday and Saturday.

He uses butter and ghee instead of oil in his potato fritter. And the pav is a Japanese-style milk bun. “Japanese bread is a bit sweet so the spicy condiments and chilli work well with it,” he explains.

For Bisht, serving the sandwich at Burger Shurger was a no-brainer. “I had to! It’s the original Indian burger,” she says.

Burger Shurger’s version is larger than a regular vada pav, and comes with green, garlic and tamarind chutneys, sliced onions and aloo bhujia, for an extra crunch.

Because of its size, people snack on vada pav throughout the day, though they can be especially popular in the morning.

“It’s carb on carb on carb, so it gives you energy for the day,” says Bisht.

 

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