Mumbai has a sandwich that is quintessentially its own- the vada pav. Literal translation, patty bread. Simple and straight to the point, just like the city.
People don’t have time or energy to screw around here. No frills, no meandering, no sugar coating. Full transparency, no cover ups. Lay it bare and all out there.
The vada pav is much the same. A soft, square bun, which is, at best, maybe three inches wide by three inches long. Not very big, modestly sitting as one among many in a sheet of pavs, waiting to be ripped away when its turn comes. It is uncut, so when the time comes, the top and bottom are torn apart by nimble, experienced fingers, to make space for a filling to be shoved in. The bun is not fully ripped apart the way a hamburger bun is. It remains joined, one entity, still held together at the spine.
Into the cavity, a hot, deep-fried dumpling of spiced potatoes is shoved. The potatoes are boiled, then mashed, with all kinds of aromatic spices mixed in- spicy red chilli, yellow turmeric, fresh chopped green chillies, vibrant coriander leaves. The mixture gets rolled into small balls, dunked in chickpea batter, and dropped to sizzle in eager, bubbling hot oil. Fried to a golden brown, the vada is ready to be joined to its partner.
Usually, the vada is bigger than the pav can hold, like an ego that needs to be contained. Pushed into the pav, it is squeezed to flatten and sit in peace within its shell. Chutneys are dabbed generously, as if to draw out its exuberant spirit – a red, fresh garlic one that burns your mouth unforgivingly, and a green coriander-chilli dip that exudes a cool sauciness with its own bite. Both serve as the vada’s handmaidens, bringing out its loud, teenager spirit.
The bite of a vada pav can be simply exquisite, as the mashed potatoes explode through the batter coating, bringing along specks of the two sauces. The cloak of the neutral pav makes it the perfect marriage of edge and softness.
The glorious vada pav, there is none like it, and yet, it does not bother to publicize itself. I didn’t know about it till I became a Mumbaikar. And now, I feel privileged. In a world that seeks to add layer after layer of falseness and pretense to look attractive, the vada pav is a welcome reminder of the true beauty that comes with honesty and simplicity.