Let us accept it. Certain kinds of food do not ooze romanticism, and never have or will find a place in classical literature. Ever. There is a reason for that.
Of course, Mumbai street food has a lot beyond all this. Maharashtra being a neighbour of both Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka, it has its own abundant supply of dosas, idlis and vadas — enough to support its perpetual supply of poha and upma; you also get sweet (yes, I repeat, sweet) panipuris — something I have never seen any phuchka connoisseur ever come to terms with — and its various cousins (sev puri, ragda puri and the likes); bread pakora, which was often referred to as katlis (cutlet?); and of course, chaats of all sorts.
However, if you really want to have the real thing, you need to turn to paaw — the undisputed emperor of Mumbai street food.
Paaw. The word that sends a tingling sensation down the spine of every bonafide Mumbaikar. The soft bifurcated yeasty hemisphere of persistence that has made its presence over decades to form the culinary spine of the city and help it reach today’s lofty heights. Magic.
Before setting my foot in The City That Never Sleeps, I was under the perpetual idea that paaws are meant to serve a dual purpose: to be wrapped around weird balls of potato to form more widely accepted versions of McAloo Tikki, and to be served alongside extremely perverse-looking red gravy containing bits of vegetables.
Mumbai opened my eyes completely and made me see things in a different viewpoint altogether. Of course, there was the ubiquitous vada paaw; it’s just that vada is not the only component that goes inside paaws. Bhajiya paaw, for example: four or five slices of potato fried in pakoda batter, sandwiched inside a butter-smeared paaw; anda-paaw: boiled eggs, sliced in half, inserted inside; samosa-paaw: whole samosas accommodated inside paaws (how is someone supposed to hold the thing?); and the most innovative of all — Maggi paaw: a dulcet existence of oily Maggi noodles, stuffed inside the brown-white version of bread that so enriches The Cultural Capital of India.
And then, there is misal paaw: a rather incredible blend of ghugni and chanachur served alongside paaws; and its half brother, usal paaw: an inimitable product made of boiled potatoes, peas and coconuts to accompany the paaw. And then you get the dabeli — a dish that can be found in Mumbai, is extremely overhyped, has a mysterious larger-than-life image and has managed to trick Abhishek into believing it is actually good — in other words, extremely similar to Aishwariya Rai.
Postscript: Tired and frustrated of the word “paaw”, I had finally managed to acquire a baai. Of course, this meant that I would stop eating out and get her to cook. I went to the greengrocers, and asked rather innocently, “bhaiya, bhindi kitne ka?”
“Dus rupya paaw”.