Make Ahead

Mumbai 'ishtyle' Pao Bhaji

May 19, 2011
Author Notes

If there ever is a classic Indian recipe that defines 'dirt cheap', this would be it. The dish originated in the streets outside the textile mills, that were a mainstay of Mumbai's manufacturing base in the 1950's. 'Blue collar' Mill workers, who could not afford having their lunch sent to them fresh or return home to eat, frequented these vendors, who would whip up a vegetable dish with whatever vegetables they could get their hands on. The veggies were cooked and mashed up thoroughly in a heavy cast iron concave griddle and served up with rustic 'pao', a Portuguese bread that has since happily domiciled itself in India even after the Portuguese rule ended.
Unlike the numerous selection of 'chaat' (palate teasing snacks, with a wonderfully complex taste & texture profile), The pao bhaji is a complete substantial meal. Not something that will send you into a hibernating state, nor will it be digested & gone within the hour, leaving behind revived hunger pangs. The curry is served with the bread, slit in the middle, toasted (nay, drowned) in salty melted butter on the same griddle & raw or pickled onions with a wedge of lime.

Pao Bhaji has come a long way. These days, this street side fare is listed on the menu's of some of the well known Indian restaurants, the world over.

The versatility of this dish can be likened to one of those cheesy TV ads advertising cars & homes even with a terrible credit rating. "Wilting head of cauliflower? NO problem, Geriatric looking carrots? Toss it in".

The flip side, one can never really make it just for one or 2 individuals. Even when using one or two of each vegetable, (try describing the recipe with terms like 1/4 of a potato, 2 florets of cauliflower, 2 inch piece of carrot!!)
It cooks up into a HUGE batch. and is sure to be a party fave and it makes for a great lunch offering the next day, even cold, straight out of the refrigerator!
The closest in taste and texture to the rustic pao in the US is the Portuguese saloio roll. Another great alternative is to serve it with sourdough roll. Please do NOT pick up one of those Pav offerings found in Indian grocery stores.

  • Serves 8 regular or 6 large appetites!
  • Bhaji
  • 2 Large potatoes, peeled and quartered
  • 1 small Cauliflower (only the florets)
  • 2-3 carrots peeled & cut into 2
  • 1 cup frozen peas
  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil or vegetable oil
  • 2 cloves garlic, finely minced
  • 2 tablespoons fresh ginger paste
  • 1 large onion (red or white), finely diced
  • 1 green bell pepper finely diced
  • 14 ounces crushed tomatoes (appr. half a large can)
  • 1/2 teaspoon Turmeric powder
  • 2-3 tablespoons pav Bhaji masala ( from any Indian grocery store)
  • Salt to taste
  • 1-2 cups water as needed
  • 1/2 - 1 cups finely chopped cilantro (as per taste)
  • garnishing accoutrements!
  • 8- 12 Saloio or sourdough rolls cut in the middle like a hamburger bun
  • 'pats' of salted butter (as much as needed!)
  • 1 Large red onion
  • Juice of 1 lime
  • Salt to taste.
  • 1 lime cut into wedges
In This Recipe
  1. Boil the potatoes, cauliflower, carrots and peas till very soft and begin to disintegrate when squeezed
  2. Drain the vegetables and mash together ( I use a pastry dough cutter, seems to work very well) thoroughly. Set aside.
  3. In a large pan ( I use a heavy bottomed wide roasting pan), heat the oil and butter till the butter has melted but not browned. Add the ginger and garlic and give a quick stir for about a minute till the garlic softens.
  4. Add the finely diced onions and stir to combine all the ingredients. Allow the onions to become soft & translucent and to lose the 'raw' smell.
  5. Add the bell pepper and saute till the pepper is cooked well (just beyond the 'crunchy' stage).
  6. Add the crushed tomatoes and the turmeric. Allow to cook till the tomatoes begin losing their 'raw' smell (~ 3-4 minutes).
  7. Add the mashed vegetables, salt and the pav bhaji spice mix. Combine thoroughly, add about a cup and a half of water and allow to cook on a medium low heat until the water is completely evaporated. Stir in cilantro, mix in and serve hot. If making in advance, transfer to a serving dish, place in a warm oven till ready to serve.
  8. To make the pickled onions, thinly slice the red onion into rings and add the lime juice and salt.
  9. On a hot griddle, drop a 'pat of butter' and let it sizzle, place the roll cut side down on the butter. Swirl the roll to absorb all the butter and allow the cut side to crisp ever so slightly.
  10. To serve: Ladle some bhaji onto a plate, top with a generous 'pat' of salted butter. (decadent, but can be optional if you're health conscious!) Serve with the toasted rolls, pickled onions and a wedge of lime.
  11. Alternatively, brush thin slices of a sour dough baguette with melted salted butter, toast in an oven till slightly golden, top with a spoonful of the bhaji. Garnish with bits of pickled onions and serve as an appetizer. Just don't ask me how many servings that will make! Neither I nor my guests have counted, I just make it till I run out of either bread or bhaji!

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A biomedical engineer/ neuroscientist by training, currently a mommy blogger on a quest for all things food - Indian Palate, Global perspective!