From vada pav and pav bhaji to kheema pav and choris pav, the humble pav is not just bread—it is a unique bread that has a long, fascinating culinary history. For those of us who grew up in Mumbai (then Bombay), pav is so intrinsically connected with our idea of food that there is actually a popular idiom which says, “we would “kill for a laadi.” So do you know where the pav originally came from?
Thank the Portuguese
When you think of the contribution of the Portuguese colonialists to the food we eat, dishes like vindaloo, sorpotel, and balchao come to mind. However, these dishes merely scratch the surface of the iceberg that is the Portuguese culinary impact on Indian food. They are also responsible for bringing the omnipotent chilli to the country, and yes, pav too! Traditional Indian cuisine veers toward wheat atta or flour. Maida or refined flour was introduced by Muslim invaders. However, they too restricted their use of maida to making different kinds of parathas, naan, and baked goodies. Even today, very few food items in the north of India are served with pav on the side. This is not the case in the western parts of India though. Why did this discrepancy arise? The answer lies in the sunny state of Goa.
From Goa with love
In her authoritative tome ‘Curry – A Biography’, Lizzie Collingham addresses the colonial culinary contribution of places like Cochin and Goa where the Portuguese had a stronghold. The traditional food accompaniment in these places was rice. However, the Portuguese sorely missed their beloved crusty pav and tried to replicate it in India. Though yeast was hard to come by, they experimented with the recipe and used toddy to ferment the dough. The pav then made its way from Goa to Mumbai and other parts of the country.
What’s in a name?
Another curious thing about the pav is the origins of its name. Perhaps the most logical explanation would be that it is a form of the name that the Portuguese had for this small bread – pao. However, there are quite a few other origin stories out there. The favourite one is the Gujarati idea that the name is derived from the part of the body used to knead the dough – pav or feet! Food historian KT Achaya hypothesises that the name originates from the size of the bread as being one-quarter or pav of a full loaf.
So many ways to love the pav
The food of the hardworking mill workers in Mumbai in the 1850s—pav bhaji which was first sold in stalls at the old Cotton Exchange, the quintessential Muslim kheema pav , the Maharashtrain staple vada pav, the Kutchi classic dabeli, and the inimitable Goan delicacy choris/Goan sausage pav— so many street food classics that would be soulless without the humble pav.