The world's best fast food
Never heard of the vada pav? I won't judge you but Anthony Bourdain would. He is the celebrated chef, bad boy of the culinary worldand author of books such as Kitchen Confidential and A Cook's Tour, not to mention a handful of crime thrillers. On No Reservations, his hugely popular television series, Mr Bourdain, an ardent meat lover, visits Bombay and bites into a vada pav. The rest, as they say in food television, is history.
The vada is a deep-fried, mashed-potato fritter. Of course, the spice mix that flavours the potato is at the heart of its taste. However, the chutneys that are put in the pav (or the bread), which is a miniature version of a burger bun, are just as important. The pav is lightly buttered and toasted on a griddle before the sauces are drizzled, the vada slightly crushed, then it is handed over for your epicurean pleasure.
For Bourdain to compliment a vegetarian dish was huge. Calling it the "Bombay burger" he said, "doesn't sound all that promising in theory, but it's the best thing I've ever eaten." The best thing by favourite chef had ever eaten- I had to try it. My holiday to Bombay to celebrate the new year was not entirely dictated by Bourdain's reaction. I had been to the city (and the state of Maharashtra) several times before but as I had a visited as a child, there were restrictions on what I could not eat. Street food was definitely out. And the vada pav is the definitive Maharashtrian street food. A close second is pav bhaji but we'll get to that another day.
As an adult, returning to Bombay meant many things, including a disposable income to shop as I pleased, ride as many "tuk tuks" (auto rickshaws) as I wanted but most of all, throw caution to the wind and dive into the city's street cuisine. I am no foodie but I can tell when it's important not to miss a good bite. My friend and his wife who I stayed with were polar opposites in their praise for the vada pav. He ate one every day, at 5.30 pm, with a cup of coffee. She had yet to taste one.
For five days, I scoured various parts of the city and had a vada pav from as many neighbourhoods as possible (including the airport - the worst). They were all different and delicious in their own way. There is no one way to make the vada and certainly no one recipe for the sauce. Some vadas filled your mouth with a garlicky burst of goodness while the mystery sauce in others made you crave more.
Back in the UAE, the search has started anew. I hear there's a joint in Dubai that serves a mean vada pav. I'll keep you posted.