Pao Bhaji at Home
When I travel, it’s for the food. When planning a day in a new city, I do my best to lead my companions to restaurants and food vendors. (“What you’ve never heard of the world-famous sewing needle factory? By the way, there’s supposed to be good gelato across the street.”) So naturally, Feast is my favorite part of AFAR. Food is an entry point into a culture, and if I can’t get to every destination, at least I can taste its flavors. So I’ve made it my goal to conquer every one of these Feast recipes. Armed with a camera phone and the world’s smallest stove, I’m going to let AFAR take me on a tour of the world through food, hopefully not losing any fingers along the way (knife skills, I have not).
First stop, Mumbai.
Dan Packel explored India’s street food paradise in the September/October issue. Puffed rice and vegetable mixtures topped with garlic-y chili chutneys and diced mango, Bombay sandwiches with cucumbers and butter, each dish slightly different depending on the vendor. The recipe included in the article was for pao bhaji, originally a mash of all manner of leftover vegetables (potatoes, tomatoes, peas, cauliflower), combined with spices and butter and served steaming hot with soft rolls to commuting day traders.
Other than an obscene amount of boiling, pao bhaji didn’t look very labor intensive. I had visions of myself making this often, impressing everyone I knew with my knowledge of Mumbai street food. Yet, four grocery stores later, I was already beginning to lose my patience. The pao bhaji masala (or pav bhaji masala) was nowhere to be found, and even though the recipe suggested garam masala as a substitute, by the time I settled for it, I already felt slightly defeated.
As it turns out, boiling green peppers, cauliflower and peas “until mushy” is difficult. 30 minutes in, green peppers still slightly springy, I glance over at my cumin seeds. They were swimming happily in butter a few moments before; now they’re decidedly burnt.
Oh, what’s that? A medium-sized fire. Grab a lid to cover it. Strain the potatoes; accidentally dump still-boiling starchy potato water on foot. Potatoes back in pot, ready to mash. Oh, there’s no potato masher. Begin cursing under breath while roommate makes slightly frightened sideways glances. Add vegetables to boiling tomatoes. Spoon in garam masala and coriander.
Then, all of a sudden, the scent of the spices takes over. Cinnamon-y and toasty and slightly sweet, it’s the kind of smell that floats cartoon characters along, their entire body being led by their nose. And it tastes good too. The cumin gives the tomato mixture a complex warmth while the coriander brightens it. The potatoes are creamy and the heat from the chilies hits just the right place at the back of your throat. It won’t win any beauty contests, but finished with a squeeze of lime, served with some feathery, lightly toasted bread, this dish is worth a few disasters. Make it when you have some time on your hands, when you feel adventurous, when it’s cold out and you just don’t have it in you to make yet another chili or vegetable stew, and even (maybe especially) when you’re longing for a little taste of travel before heading back to work on Monday.
Try the recipe and tell us what you think!