Saturday, July 18, 2009

Jai Maha-Pav

The Shivaji Flavour

The Shiv Sena has launched its own brand of Mumbai’s favourite street food, under the brand name Shiv Vada Pav, after the Bombay HC on Friday disposed of a petition challenging the Sena’s plan.

They will be sold through 125 special carts all over the city.

An estimated 2,00,000 vada pavs are sold every day in Mumbai, by 7,000 vada pav sellers
The Congress, having lost this culinary battle, is now contemplating appropriating another popular Maharashtrian snack, and selling it as ‘Congress Kanda Pohe’.

Take a mound of boiled potato sexed up with green chillies, coriander, garlic, turmeric and curry powder. Knead it well, dip a palm-sized ball in the standard besan-bhajiya coating, and slide it into bubbling hot oil. Then, flatten this humble vada ever so lightly to let out the steam, layer both the inner sides of the equally humble pav with butter, green chutney and perhaps tamarind chutney too, and slip the vada in between. That’s the vada pav, that’s all there is to it...honestly!

Now, there’s an added ingredient; it goes by the colour saffron. The vada pav, under the command of the Shiv Sena-run Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC), has been endowed with select ingredients from history, culture and politics.

Indisputably Maharashtrian by birth, but happily cosmopolitan by acceptance, the vada pav is now Shiv vada pav. At least, that’s how the Shiv Sena has rechristened it, in the process appropriating a tiny portion of culture. The BMC, where a bitter battle ensued for months between Sena corporators—who bulldozed their way through meetings—and the Congress which tried every trick in the book to stall the politically branded vada pav, is now preparing to issue 125 licenses for Shiv vada pav handcarts.

The licensing process was held up by a PIL in the Bombay High Court last year that challenged the Shiv Sena’s dream on grounds of hygiene, occupation of pavement space, and Supreme Court orders on street food and no-hawking zones. But with the HC having disposed of the petition last Friday, a couple of Shiv vada pav stall prototypes have already appeared at Shivaji Park, not far from Sena Bhavan. The vada and pav are handled with gloves, the oil looks less rancid than at streetcorner stalls, and the vada pav-wala is strictly Maharashtrian.

Actually, a Shiv Sainik. Through the latter half of 2008, the party, through its Vada Pav Vikreta Sangh, held a festival inviting 27 sellers to woo Mumbaikars with their individual recipes. One was chosen as the ideal vada pav, in taste, aroma and satisfaction. That recipe will now be the standard one for all the 125 handcarts.

Sena executive president Uddhav Thackeray believes “this is a step towards globalisation of Maharashtrian food and employment of Maharashtrian youth”. The NCP state president R.R. Patil, on the other hand, was offended—branding vada pav after Chhatrapati Shivaji would be “an insult to the great emperor”, he declared. He obviously overlooked the fact that Shivaji beedi and Sambhaji beedi are the most popular beedi brands in the state. And, the Congress, having lost the culinary battle, hit upon the idea of branding kanda pohe, an onion and puffed rice snack that’s as Maharashtrian and popular as the vada pav, after itself. “We are not against the vada pav, we are against the Sena making it theirs,” commented a veteran Congress leader.

Over some eight decades, the vada pav has been the staple, affordable, calorie-unconscious, grab-it-and-go streetcorner meal across Mumbai. Last known, an estimated 2,00,000 vada pavs are served daily to Mumbaikars—from suited executives in business districts to rickshaw drivers. Some 7,000 vada pav-walas prepare them on the spot, at mobile kiosks that often spill over to pavements and roads. And yes, Mumbaikars across education, income and class have their own favourite vada pav-wala.

You could say vada pav is something of a religion in Mumbai, an intensely personal one at that. That’s why branding was a question mark until the Jumbo King chain challenged the traditional vada pav-wala eight years ago. Says Dheeraj Gupta, Jumbo King co-owner, “Shiv vada pav is welcome, there’s enough place in the market for three more branded players”. The chain, through pricing policies, caters to the higher end of the vada pav worshippers.

Its prices range from Rs 6 to Rs 25, while a street stall will give you the most delicious one for around Rs 7. More recently, the poor man’s meal was elevated to an exotic culinary experience during the annual Mumbai festival. The maida pav was replaced by a diet-friendly wholewheat bun, the potato was ‘carbed down’ with millet powder, spices were adjusted to sophisticated palates, and of course the gloves were in place. But a vada pav junkie would have scoffed at this five-star version.

The Shiv vada pav marks yet another attempt by the Sena to play food politics. Veteran ad-man Prahlad Kakkar observes, “The Shiv Sena started zunka bhakar stalls to offer wholesome food to poor Mumbaikars ten years ago, but zunka bhakar and poor man were soon forgotten. The Sena’s attempts fizzle out because they are insincere about it, and they are goons”. He has a point there. The zunka bhakar stalls, occupying prime space on pavements, quietly transformed into “Chineez” food stalls, many run by Shiv Sainiks.

The vada pav certainly did not need the Shiv Sena’s patronage to boost its popularity; it’s another matter that the Sena, having added its chauvinistic flavour to this typically Maharashtrian snack, is now counting on it to boost its political fortunes.


Article written by Smruthi Koppikar - Outlook India Magazine.

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