What Mumbaikars owe to the American Civil War: ‘pav bhaji’

Aakar Patel in Mint Lounge:

Snack food in India is the product of its urban centres. The first community to settle in Bombay’s Fort area, in the 1660s, was the traders of Surat. Now Gujarat has been an urban state for centuries. While Bombay, Delhi, Calcutta and Madras were settled by the British, Ahmedabad and Surat existed as urban centres before the British arrived in 1608, their ship docking on the Tapi’s right bank near my house. When the Tapi silted over later in the 1600s, Surti traders were cajoled to move to Bombay. They brought with them their afternoon food—khandvi, dhokla, patra—and their breakfast snacks, fafda, thepla and khamni.

This, of course, isn’t street food. That would have to wait for a couple of centuries. Street food is very recent in Indian cities and its origins can be dated to around 1840. This is when a group of Gujaratis began trading in the area now known as Dalal Street, starting Asia’s first stock exchange a few years later. They traded mainly in cotton, and many made fortunes in the period 1861-65 when global supply of the stuff was affected by the American Civil War. Abraham Lincoln’s navy blockaded New Orleans and the Mississippi and Manchester’s looms came to a halt, sending cotton prices shooting. The Gujarati merchant is one of the world’s finest managers of uncertainty and he made a lot of money. These early globalizers worked, as today’s call centre workers, late into the night when rates were wired in and orders wired out at American and European times. By then everyone would be quite famished and the wives would be asleep at home.

This demand for regular food at an unusual time created a unique supply. The traders were served by street stalls that invented a late-night special: pav bhaji. This is mashed vegetables (all the leftovers) cooked in a tomato gravy and served with buttered loaves. The loaf came from the Portuguese Jesuits, who settled in Bandra around the mid-1500s. It has been neatly absorbed into Indian fast food, soaking up the oil and gravies that Indians love. More:

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