Indian Food: Vada Pav, Mumbai's chutney-slathered vegetarian food

Indian Food: The spicy Vada Pav - a vegetarian food that is heavy as a baseball and dripping with chutney - costs 22 cents in Mumbai.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Employees at Ashok’s put the final touches on vada pavs, spicy deep-fried potato patties in a bun with sauces. The street vendor sells some 1,000 of the sandwiches daily, at 22 cents apiece.
Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Manager Ramesh Thakur, blue shirt, serves vada pavs at Ashok's stall - named the best vada pavs in town.

The street vendor cuts into a roll, drops hot food between the halves, then, with a flick of a spoon, dollops sauces in the middle. He pushes it on a small paper plate to me, one of several guys sidled up to his stall to catch lunch on the street.

If this were Manhattan, we would be talking about hot dogs.

But this is Mumbai, the megacity of 14 million people also known as Bombay. Here, few people eat pork or beef. Instead, you could describe what sits before me as a deep-fried veggie burger with some serious street cred.

The vada pav marries a spiced potato patty – the vada – with a white-bread bun – the pav. But it also binds together Mumbai. Cheap and served outdoors, the sandwich brings laborers, office stiffs, and students elbow-to-elbow around the stalls. Even the making of vada pav is an act of local love:

"The bread is made in a Parsi bakery by Muslim workers," says Satish Vijaykumar, a young professional. "And the vada is made by Hindu [residents]. And Goan Catholics [from the neighboring state] are called pav. And all of Bombay eats it. This is amazingly the thing which unites Bombay."

I pick up the heavy-as-a-baseball Bombay burger. Dainty it is not. The mint and tamarind chutneys are soaking into the bun and flirting with that fine line between juicy and sloppy.

One bite produces the entire range of flavors found in an Indian buffet. The mint and chutney combo offers a sweet and tangy effect comparable to the ketchup, mustard tag team on Western sandwiches. But the dry red-chili chutney on the vada pav adds a third dimension of heat.

Fortunately, I like spicy food, and as with most Indian cuisine, there's something on the plate to calm the palate – in this case, the bun. The "meat" of the dish, the potato patty, reminds me of the innards of a samosa. It's made of much the same ingredients: boiled potatoes, green chilies, cumin or coriander, garlic, and salt. Two guys in the back slap the mixture into small patties, dip it in a mix of chickpea flour and water, and deep-fry it in peanut oil.

At this particular stall, named Ashok's, any chickpea mix drippings are added to the plate, somewhat like French fries. Ashok's sells about 1,000 vada pavs a day, at 22 cents apiece. They come wrapped in sheets of newspaper. I spy one headline: "Beating cyber insecurity."

Ashok's has won awards for the best vada pav in town, but manager Ramesh Thakur seems just as proud of the fact that he has customers who drive up to the stall in a car.

Mr. Thakur explains that his vada pavs go for a premium (others may cost just 13 cents), because he insists on ordering particularly fluffy buns, making the chutneys fresh every morning, and changing the peanut oil twice a day.

"All the ingredients are high, high grade," says Thakur.

But, he adds, "it's only when you put ingredients in the right proportion that you get the best taste."

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