Sometimes called India's veggie burger, vada pav is indeed just as iconic in Mumbai, the city of its origin, as the burger is in America. But this deep fried, spicy potato patty sandwiched in a small, square roll was invented more than 50 years ago, long before the first burger showed up on the subcontinent.
Traditionally cooked and sold by Mumbai's street vendors, vada pav is loved by people across society and is a symbol of local culinary creativity – combining local flavors with foods (potato and bread) introduced to the subcontinent by Europeans.
But in a country with a growing middle class, with its newly acquired love of foreign foods and greater disposable income, even this iconic dish is being forced to evolve.
Walk through the streets of Mumbai and you can see vendors dunking spicy mashed potato balls into chickpea batter before dropping them into a pan with hot oil. Then, they cut open the pav – the roll – and smear the inside with three different types of chutney: green chutney, made with cilantro and green chilies, sweet and tangy tamarind chutney and a dry lasoon chutney, made with garlic and spices. Then, they stuff the hot, golden vadas in the rolls and serve them with fried green chilies.
Touted as a poor man's staple, a vada pav is a quick, grab-and-go meal that can be eaten for breakfast, lunch or dinner. No plates — or cutlery — needed.
One can even buy a vada pav on train journeys. In fact, my earliest memories of the snack are of eating it on trains. Having grown up in the neighboring city of Pune, my family would often take the three-hour train journey to Mumbai. As our train approached the city, vendors would climb aboard at several stations and walk through the car calling, "Vada pav! Garama Garam (hot-hot) vada pav!" My parents waited with the exact change to buy the dish served in old newspaper wrappings. For families larger than mine, the orders could range up to a dozen.
This quintessentially Indian dish owes its origins to India's colonial past. Europeans introduced potato to India, says Mohsina Mukadam, a food historian at Ramnarain Ruia College, Mumbai. And the Portuguese, who once ruled many places on the Indian west coast, introduced their bread, pão, which later came to be called pav by Indians.
"The first restaurant to serve the batata (potato) vada is Mama Kane's," Mukadam says. That was back in 1928, when the restaurant – one of Mumbai's oldest – had a different name.
But it was only in the 1960s when the humble vada pav was born. At the time, there was a regional political movement to promote the cuisine of the state of Maharashtra, of which Mumbai is the capital. Back then, South Indian restaurants ruled the roost in the city. So, Balasaheb Thackeray, the leader of the Hindu supremacist group Shiv Sena, encouraged local people to open eateries selling their state's delicacies, says Mohsina.
In 1966, a street vendor named Ashok Vaidya, who sold snacks from his handcart outside a busy local railway station, introduced Mumbai to the humble vada pav. His son, Narendra Vaidya, a young man in his 30s, has continued his father's business – he sells vada pav and other snacks just outside the railway station in Mumbai's busy Dadar neighborhood. The family's role in the history of this iconic dish was the subject of a recent short documentary.
"The crowd from these areas and the daily train commuters were the initial patrons," says Vikram Doctor, a food writer based in Mumbai. And soon, it became a popular snack, he says.
Vada pav has been a symbol of local ingenuity and pride. As recently as in 2008, the Shiv Sena party conducted the best vada pav contest, says Mohsina, one of the contest's judges.
In 1982, right after a big strike by workers in Mumbai's textile mills, the unemployed workers opened their own vada pav stalls for a source of livelihood, increasing the number of people selling the snack. The humble dish of the masses has also made its way into restaurants and canteens at colleges and offices.
But the recent boom in India's economy has sent the vada pav on a path to modernization. Ever since India opened its doors to multinational fast food companies, like McDonald's and Burger King, vada pav chains like Jumboking Vada Pav, Goli Vada Pav and Wow Vada Pav have mushroomed across the country. These chains sell modern versions of India's veggie burger to compete with the chicken and paneer burgers sold by the multinationals.
Take for example, Jumboking's Schezwan Vada Pav, which comes with a generous helping of Szechwan sauce, or Goli's Makai Palak Vada Pav, with corn and spinach.
"Vada pav is the single largest-selling snack in Mumbai," says Dheeraj Gupta, the managing director of Jumboking Vadapav. He says his company wanted to turn a largely unorganized industry – run by street vendors and small mom-and-pop food stands – into an organized one.
Today, Jumboking has 82 outlets and plans to reach the 200 mark in the coming two or three years, says Gupta. Goli Vada Pav, on the other hand, has 350 stores across 90 cities and 21 states in India, according to the company's website. It has been so successful, that it was recently studied by the Harvard Business School as an example of a rapidly growing Indian fast-food company.
The companies outsource the making of their vadas and chutneys. For example, Jumboking produces potato patties from the kitchens of Tasty Bite Eatables, a company that also sells ready-to-eat, packaged foods.
Mohsina says these chains have also tapped into the growing foodie culture in the country. "Chinese, Italian, Thai and many more cuisines have found a place in India's gastronomic scene," she says. "People are adventurous and ready to try new fares. Hence, there is the need for fusion which these vada pav chains are adapting to."
Still, not everyone's rushing to these chains for a taste of their favorite Mumbai snack. "Vada pav is a hard-core, economical street food and is best enjoyed from the local hawkers," says Doctor. So, street vendors and mom-and-pop shops selling the snack are here to stay, he says.
I for one, remain a devoted patron of these small vada pav sellers. Their freshly made vadas are far tastier than the outsourced, frozen and fried ones of chain restaurants.
On a recent work trip to Mumbai, I walk with a friend to Aram Vada Pav, a small shop across from Mumbai's main railway station. I get two orders of vada pav – one to carry back home with me, the other, to eat right away. As I walk back to the railways station to go home, I take a bite of the hot snack and am transported back to my childhood, to the days of train travel with my family, eagerly anticipating my next bite of vada pav.
Rathina Sankari is a freelance writer based in Pune, India.