They may call it the financial capital of India. It may be better known for a myriad other things, but the one thing that comes to my mind when I think of Mumbai is it’s street food. It is quite unlike the street food that can be found in almost any city. Unusual, because of the sheer innovation displayed in the creation, be it Pani-Puri, Pav-Bhaji, Misal, Dhabeli or Bhelpuri.
The uncrowned king of this culinary hotch- potch, at least in my book, is the quintessential Vada-pav. For those not in the know, a Vada-Pav is purely and simply, a potato Vada (or Batata Vada in Marathi) rammed between the two halves of a split bun, or Pav, as it is locally called. The Pav, incidentally, is the reason the local Christians are called Pavwalla’s, since the Goan's used to monopolise the bakery business in Mumbai a long ago. The zing is provided by a chutney made of chilly powder and garlic. For the hardier souls a whole green chilly, fried and sprinkled with a little salt can also be alternately chewed along with each bite of the Vada-pav!
You could say, that after living for more than 22 years in Mumbai, on various occasions, I tend to lean very heavily in favour of this humble fare. While this may be partially true, it still does not explain why my friends from the north of India used to like it so much. The moment they reached Mumbai and it was time for breakfast or lunch, or they were just plain hungry, they would exclaim “the hell with a hotel, lets eat some kachara today!” “Kachara” was the affectionate term they gave to the local street food, under the mistaken impression that it lacked any nutritional value to qualify as a pure meal! They still found it delicious enough to go out of their way to hog it, though!
I remember my bachelor days in Mumbai, when I would leave my cozy residence along side the Bandra Bay and rush to Town, after fighting my way through various modes of transport to reach my office, which was at Hutatma Chowk, or Flora Fountain, as it is more popularly called. Taking time out for breakfast was a luxury under the circumstances, but thanks to the ubiquitous Vada-Pav vendor on the way, I never went hungry all those years.
While the Vada-Pav is available at almost every street corner in Mumbai I find the ones sold at the corner of the Flora Fountain Junction to be absolutely the tastiest. 20 years back, it used to sell at just about Rs. 0.50/- per Vada. Now rising inflation has taken its toll on even this humble, common man’s fare and it now sells at Rs. 7/-. Previously, there used to be a choice of green and sweet chutney’s also. Now they seem to have done away with those frills, no doubt to keep costs down and the place viable.
I honestly cannot figure out what the secret of the taste is, because the ingredients are quite visible and basic, but for some reason it cannot be duplicated in our own kitchens. Any attempt to do so may come close, but it never quite matches the taste of the original from the street! It is basically mashed potatoes, with coriander and other basic ingredients, dipped in a gram flour batter and deep fried in oil. The Vada outer should be crisp and fluffy, while the inner filling should be well cooked and mashed, retaining a certain amount of gooeyness. The trick, I guess, lies in the batter consistency and the proportion of the ingredients in the filling, as also the oil temperature. Eaten piping hot and fresh, it is absolute bliss!
Even after leaving Mumbai for Bangalore, I still manage to go back at least once a year on official visits. The very first thing I do is to rush down to Flora Fountain to sample the Vada-Pav, a habit which my colleagues find no end amusing! It is only after a week of daily indulgence that my craving for this snack is somewhat satiated! In fact, the craving starts even as the train pulls into Sholapur, en-route to Mumbai. Invariably, I make the mistake of sampling one from the platform and end up deeply regretting my impulsiveness!
The only Vadas which match the Fountain Vadas in taste are the ones I used to sample at Vadhkal Naka. In those days, I used to regularly visit the IPCL Factory at Nagothane, via the Konkan route. Just after Panvel there is this Junction called Vadhkal Naka. By the side of the road was a place that used to sell these humungous Vada’s. I mean, they were huge! And the taste, along with their dry garlic chutney? Mnnnnnnnnn... It still lingers in my memory!
Sadly, I no longer have any reason to take that road and haven’t done so for many years. I’m not even sure if that place still exists or if it has given way to swankier but poorer imitations. Thank God, the one at Fountain still does roaring business! I don’t miss the dinosaurs, but I would surely miss those Vada’s if changing times were to render them extinct!