Sunday, July 18, 2004

More Tasteless Comments...


Vada-pau-walla’s tended to be less of performance artists. That distinction usually went to the pau-bhaji-wallas. I still recall the ones lining up outside Borivli Station on the Western suburban train line. Every evening, L.T. Road came alive to the clanking of spatula-on-griddle as the pau-bhaji-walla bhaiyas served up their mashed vegetables with a pool of melted butter and a garnish of chopped onions and cilantro, and just a squeeze of lemon. The voices, in orchestrated rhythm, called out in the heavy up-country hindi.

The pau-bhaji cart has not evolved much, oh, for the last 50 years or so. Just a bit bigger than a small dining table, riding on four bicycle wheels, it features a pressure-primed kerosene stove with an enormous griddle. One pan is heaped with potatoes, cauliflower, cabbage, peas and any other vegetable the bhaiya who runs the stall happens to find in the market that morning. The veggies are mashed in with oodles of butter, liberal handfuls of a fiery spice mix called the pau-bhaji masala, and pulverised into a thick puree. That pounding of metal spatula on griddle is the call to dinner in Bombay. On the other pan is a pool of molten butter in the middle of which is piled a mountain of small bread loaves – the pau.

At the heart of the popular street fare in Bombay is the humble loaf of bread. The pau, as Bombayites know their fluffy loaves, baked in eights, is a Portuguese word. Until the advent of the Portuguese, Indians ate their bread unleavened, many still do. By the way, another of the main ingredients in the both vada pau and pau bhaji is batata (another Portuguese word). You may call it potato, or aloo as the upcountry natives call it. The Portuguese carried the root to the subcontinent from its native regions in their South America. Cashew, chilli-pepper and the tomato were among the other South American transplants in India.

The marquee over the pau-bhaji cart usually has an appropriately auspicious name like “Jai Ambe Pau Bhaji” or “Jai-Javan Jai-Kisan Pau Bhaji,” and is festooned with dim Christmas lights. The food is usually served up under the light of a hissing petromax gaslight. Of course, that might have changed in recent years.