Vada: spiced, mashed potatoes deep-fried in a batter of chickpeas.
Pav: the ubiquitous white bread rolls.
Put these two simple foods together with some spicy chutney (sauce) and it transforms into Mumbai’s iconic street food: vada pav. The idea is said to have originated from a street vendor named Ashok Vaidya who worked outside of the unceasingly chaotic Dadar train station in the 1960’s and 70’s. In search of a way to fend off the commuters’ hunger, he devised a simple snack that could be eaten on the go. Needless to say, his idea was a success, and it has since been elevated to one of Mumbai’s favourite street foods. But the interesting part of the story is the simple sandwich’s deeply political history.
Observing the vada pav’s meteoric rise in popularity in the early 70’s, the Shiv Sena, the Marathi-Hindu nationalist party, decided to grab the tasty snack and make it their own. They promoted the sandwich as a Marathi, working class snack. Vada most likely originated in Maharastra (after the British brought potatoes in the 19th century) and vada pav most likely originated in Mumbai itself – so the Marathi aspect of their story is certainly true. And while the working class made up an outsize proportion of the buyers (10 rupees is the average price), the Shiv Sena also did some work to further promote it as the working man’s food.
The Shiv Sena actively encouraged and supported party members to set up street stalls. When a factory laid-off workers, for example, the Shiv Sena would help the newly jobless set up vada pav stands outside the factory, using their political clout to bypass the need of a license. The scheme was very successful: it provided jobs, cheap food for workers and street muscle for the party. Through their efforts, they were able to adopt the vada pav as their own and create their own story around it: Maharastrha’s authentic snack that sustains workers in times of labour trouble. In 2008, Shiv Sena staged a recipe competition between 27 professional vada pav vendors from Mumbai. The winning recipe was named “Shiv Vada.”
To try out this deliciously political snack, our recommendation is Jain Sabkuch in Churchgate Station. It is ironically a Jain establishment, but they have managed to cook up a delicious vada pav despite not being able to enjoy it themselves. We have recently added it as the first stop on our Mumbai Street Food Tour!
What’s your favourite Mumbai Street Food? Tell us in the comments.