“Tak-tak-tak-tak-tak” went the metal potato masher against the tyre-sized pan. The fire beneath it was roaring and the smell of kerosine in the air was only making the lava-like Pau Bhaji smell more delicious. The skilled street vendor was hand pounding the spicy vegetable curry within an inch of it’s life whilst juggling another giant cooking vessel to his left. On top of the second pan was foaming butter, ready to become one with the fluffy white rolls, known locally as Ladipav. After a few seconds, they would be sporting a crisp, golden crust ready to be served with yet more butter, finely-diced onions, tomatoes and coriander. A wedge of lemon would complete the dish. I was about to dive in to my first Pau Bhaji on the streets of Old Town, Mombasa. With the bustling crowds and honking horns of oncoming traffic, I could have easily been in a buzzing Mumbai back street.
For me, the Indian food of East Africa is some of the most delicious food that exists. There’s no shying away from scorching hot chillies and the tang of lemon. This combo seasons everything you eat, wherever you go and whatever you order. From raw mangos on the beach, to fire-roasted maize and fried cassava chips on the salty-aired streets, it’s the typical seasoning Kenya’s rustic coastal towns. I hope to visit India to enjoy street-style Pau Bhaji in its birthplace of Maharashtra, India, but my first experience of eating this iconic street dish was in Kenya, the home of my Indian immigrant grandparents.
Pau Bhaji is a great dish to make for big get-togethers. It’s easy to scale the recipe up to feed more, since the rolls (pav) are almost always shop-bought and making more curry (bhaji) simply requires doubling up the veggies and sliding in some more masala.
My Pau Bhaji masala is magic dust. Not only is it a beautiful blend for this buttery vegetable dish, it also makes daal more delicious and peps up any Pulao (Indian fried rice). I often make up a triple batch of the masala recipe below and store it in an airtight container for using in other dishes. For this recipe, just work with the measurements below and use it all in the Bhaji recipe. It might look excessive but trust me, your buttery veggies are crying out for some spice.
The beauty of Pau Bhaji is that you can use any vegetables you like, since they’re all getting mashed like crazy anyway. The most common ones are potatoes, cauliflower, peas and carrots. This also happens to be my favourite combination but feel free to add red peppers, aubergine and green beans if you like those. I typically add in some sweet potatoes for colour and sweetness without having to add sugar or food colouring. It’s very common for some street vendors to add red food colouring to their Bhaji for a rich appearance. I find a combination of tomato passata (sieved tomatoes), sweet potatoes, turmeric and Kashmiri chilli powder do a great job of giving my bhaji a deliciously-deep colour without having to do that. Use your judgment and add it if you like though.
This is one of those dishes where the garnishes are as important as the main component of the food itself. Don’t skip the lemon wedges, finely diced red onions, tomatoes and coriander topping. And don’t skip the extra butter on top either. It adds the special, indulgent touch that separates good Pau Bhaji from average Pau Bhaji. Nobody likes average Pau Bhaji.
Lastly, the bread must be soft, white and most importantly, cheap rolls. Don’t get fancy with artisan rolls from a French bakery. The rolls are going to get bathed in salty butter anyway (the best kind of bath, IMO). In the end, they’re a crispy carrier for spicy, melt-in-the-mouth vegetable lava and erm… even more butter.