How to make pav bhaji, an Indian street food

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In her stellar first cookbook, “Amrikan,” Khushbu Shah takes aim at one of the tropes of Western food writing: describing a foreign dish by tying it to an American equivalent, however much of a stretch it might be. Take pav bhaji, toasted bread (pav) topped with mashed, seasoned vegetables (bhaji), for example. She writes: “People like to describe it as ‘Indian sloppy joes,’ and while visually they have similarities, the taste could not be more different.”

There’s nothing necessarily wrong with using something familiar to describe something unfamiliar, but the choices involved do often say more about the writer — and the intended, assumed audience — than they do about the food itself.

Get the recipe: Pav Bhaji

Shah is no purist. In a Zoom interview, she stressed that the idea of “fusion” has gotten a bad rap, mostly because it’s often not done with intention and respect. “You see people say, ‘Oh, look, I’m just going to take this one thing and this other thing and we’re really just going to mash them together,’ without thinking about how they might actually really work together,” she said. “But fusion is really the intersection of culture. And when cultures intersect, that’s how cuisine evolves, you know?”

Shah’s book is a paean to the cooking of the Indian diaspora that defined her upbringing in Michigan. “I grew up eating quesadillas, but I also grew up eating aloo paratha and stir-fried cabbage and things with a lot of turmeric and Kashmiri red chili powder,” she said. “All of these foods feel equally of my upbringing, of my palate. And so it makes sense for those to start to intersect, and not just on my palate but also on the plates of other people who are part of this diaspora.”

Shah’s book reflects her personality: vibrant, creative, outspoken, thoughtful, fun-loving. (Consider the title, which represents the way Indian Americans say “American.”) She grew up in a vegetarian household, so the book is mostly vegetarian, but it includes some meat as a reflection of the “complicated and complex relationship with meat” Indians have historically had. “Many diasporic Indians hail from upper caste cultures, which tend to be vegetarian,” she writes.

Before she left Food & Wine magazine, Shah was the first person of color to be a national restaurant critic, so she spent years crisscrossing the country in search of the best places of all types to eat. And along the way, she tried Indian restaurants everywhere she could. That research, along with nostalgia about her childhood, informs the wide range of recipes, including such classics as dal makhani and chana masala and such inventions as saag paneer lasagna, green chutney pizza and jalapeño popper samosas.

But as Shah points out, some things that might strike a purist as nontraditional are standard in her world. She uses Bisquick to make her gulab jamun, for instance, something that would confuse Indians in India. “No one in the American diaspora is surprised by that,” she says. “They’re like, ‘Oh, yeah, my mom does the same.’”

Pav bhaji, meanwhile, is one of the classics in the book, treated traditionally because that’s how people in the diaspora tend to still make it. And it’s already the product of fusion; it was born, Shah writes, when Portuguese colonization brought pav, a soft bread roll, to India’s western coast. Shah uses grilled potato rolls or hamburger buns for ease.

The dish is refreshingly flexible in other ways; while it usually includes potatoes and peas, it’s perfectly acceptable to use whatever vegetables you have on hand, as long as they’re mashable. Shah includes cauliflower in hers, but the first time I made it, I took it as part of a meal train to a friend who can’t stand the crucifer, so I doubled up on the peas instead. At home, where my husband is an avowed pea hater, I doubled up on the cauliflower.

Either way, the enduring appeal of pav bhaji lies in its riot of flavors and textures: a deeply spiced tomato-onion gravy coats the mild vegetables, while the chunky-but-soft mash contrasts with the griddled bread and, as Shah prefers, “a mountain of raw onions.”

Pav bhaji, in fact, is one of Mumbai’s most famous street foods; Shah calls it “the ultimate late-night snack.” The main connection to the retro American sandwich is in its sloppiness. So the next time I come across a sloppy joe, I plan to refer to it as “American pav bhaji.” Loudly and proudly.

Get the recipe: Pav Bhaji

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