In Praise of the Vada Pav
Childhood, any child will tell you, isn’t all that it is made out to be. All those romantic notions of playtime, no responsibilities, and hour after hour of nothingness simply aren’t true.
They aren’t true, if you think about it from a child’s point of view, for two reasons. One, a child is nothing but a baby who’s stopped being treated as one. Whereas earlier, anything and everything you did was greeted with benevolent smiles and kind words of encouragement, your slightest transgression nowadays is greeted with a bewildering mixture of gravitas and derision. In essence, your days nowadays are one long procession of “What? I don’t even…”
Second, try explaining to a kid that he has no responsibilities, and he’ll likely murder you. This, remember, is a kid who was able to poop in his pants at will just a couple of years ago. Now, your days are an endless parade of waking up on time, getting dressed on time, climbing into a bus full of similarly tortured individuals, and spending hours in the company of one morose adult teacher who, like you, would rather be elsewhere. And your reward for doing this throughout the year, apparently, is the chance to do it all over again. No responsibilities my posterior, the kid is likely to snort in response to your wistful memories of childhood.
And as with all other children, so it was with me. School consisted of waiting for the short recess, then the long recess, and finally that wonderfully welcome chiming of the bell at 3.30 which signalled your freedom until 8.45 a.m. on the morrow.
And the reason the first of those merciful interludes was well worth waiting for lay in a discovery that I cherish until this day – the vada pav. You could (it turned out) walk up to the canteen during the short recess, fork over whatever amount it was, and get for yourself a vada pav. A vada pav, you discovered for yourself, was a snack that consisted of bread without, and the vada within. And the combination, particularly when had with various chutneys, was heaven itself.
Soft, pliant, fresh bread that encapsulated a piping hot vada, along with a spicy red chutney made even school seem bearable in comparison. That magical feeling didn’t last long, of course, and ennui and tedium soon ruled my world in short order – but while I partook of the vada pav, happiness held sway.
And while my memories of childhood have grown softer and rosier over the years, my deep undying love of the vada pav hasn’t changed an iota. It still remains, as far as I’m concerned, food fit for the gods.
What goes into the perfect vada pav?
The pav itself, for starters. It must be fresh – that slightly hard exterior will not do, and the slightly stale pav often gives itself away with that classically tell-tale sign – the bottom portion is very, very chewy indeed.
The vada is slightly more difficult to judge, but that just makes the task more pleasurable. It must, first of all, be fresh and hot. Refried vadas should be shunned, as should cold, clammy ones. The best vadas are fresh out of the cooking vessel, glistening with promise. Bite into one, and two things should happen. A gentle waft should float out gently from the interior, and your mouth should form a surprised O, at how hot it is.
And then your palate should first note the gentle crunch of the exterior. After which, the soft, spicy potato mixture should announce itself. Note the generous use of garlic, along with the occasionally sharp zest that a chopped up piece of chilly provides. There’s a residual hotness that indicates the presence of ginger in the background, and if your vada pav seller is truly dedicated to his art, you’ll pick up traces of coriander as well.
It’s not a two man band, the vada pav orchestra. There also needs to be a supporting cast of the chutneys, and this is where most vada pavs fall short. The ideal mixture calls for a thick tamarind chutney, a spicy green chilly chutney and a thick red chutney that sings of garlic. Most usually provide only the third of these, but a vada pav truly comes into its own when all three play an equal role.
And perfection is attained when the vada pav is accompanied by that masterful final touch – a fried green chilly, coated with salt. Take the pav, then, you lucky so-and-so, and tear it open. Dab some tamarind chutney on it, and top it with the green one. A hefty spoonful of the red chutney on top, please, and then place the vada within. On our tiny green plastic plate, place a couple of those fried chillies. Walk a little away, until you have carved out for yourself your own private space.
Bite into the vada pav, and with closed eyes, experience for yourself that impossible medley of flavours. And at that moment, even school becomes an idea that isn’t so bad after all.