How a right-wing political party crafted the legend of Mumbai’s most famous snack

As seen in San Francisco.
As seen in San Francisco.
Image: Gary Stevens/Flickr
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The vada pav wasn’t always Mumbai’s favourite snack.

In 1971, from a nondescript food stall outside the city’s Dadar railway station, Ashok Vaidya started serving a gastronomic invention for hungry train commuters.

His recipe wasn’t rocket science: The vada is essentially a spicy potato ball, dipped in a coating of spiced-up chickpea batter and deep fried in hot oil. It is then tucked inside a soft bread called pav and served with green chillies and red chutney.

But the concoction worked—and as the queues snaked around Vaidya’s stall, it caught the attention of workers from the Shiv Sena, Maharashtra’s right-wing political party that has flitted in and out of power since its formation in the 1960s.

Around the same time, the Shiv Sena itself was grumbling against two south Indian delicacies that had become Bombay (as it was known then) staples—the dosa and the idli.

That’s because “Bal Thackeray, the founder of the Shiv Sena, accused south Indians of taking jobs that ‘rightly’ belonged to the Marathi manoos,” Harris Solomon, a professor of cultural anthropology in Duke University, wrote in a paper last month.

So, Shiv Sena workers began encouraging members to set up stalls around the party’s outposts across the city.

Solomon’s study—”The Taste No Chef Can Give: Processing Street Food in Mumbai”—is based on 18 months of field research in India’s financial capital, and is an attempt to understand how the Shiv Sena branded the vada pav as its own.

By the 1980s, as Mumbai’s textile mills began to shut down, the Shiv Sena made a cunning culinary manoeuvre. Mill workers who lost their jobs to the closures had begun putting up vada pav stalls around those factories that were still running. And their colleagues in these establishments reciprocated by buying from them. The Shiv Sena swiftly capitalised on this sentiment.

“The Shiv Sena stepped in and offered unlicensed hawkers protection from city officials and police, for a price. It began as a few rupees each day, but over time would indebt street vendors to the Shiv Sena in amounts of hundreds or even thousands of rupees a week,” explained Solomon. ”It was this milieu that gave birth to the Shiv Sena’s own origin story of the vada pav: the authentic snack that sustained workers in times of labour trouble.”

But not every snack that had right-wing backing became a rage. Shiv Sena’s success with the vada pav in the eighties, for instance, is in contrast to its failure in the nineties to claim ownership over a rural Maharashtrian dish, zhunka bhakar. 

The party had wanted to create employment around this porridge-and-bread offering, but the vendors didn’t stick to it for long. Instead, they turned to Chinese food.

In 2008, Shiv Sena attempted to boost employment in the state using vada pav. It wanted to train people to make the snack and sell it on the streets of Mumbai.

The party teamed up with McDonald’s and Coca-Cola to lend “slick consumer appeal to their logo and food-cart design,” wrote Solomon. Ironically, only a few years before that, the Sena had violently opposed McDonald’s for allegedly mixing beef extract in its French fries.

At a convention, Thackeray’s son, Uddhav, invited 27 vendors at Shivaji Park to prepare thousands of free vada pav. “The winning recipe would become the official one of the Shiv vada pav,” Solomon reported. 

Next, the Shiv Sena forced its vada pav plans through Mumbai’s municipal administration—where some non-Sena members claimed that those carts would violate street hawking regulations—and got 125 carts out on the streets to sell “Shiv vada pav.

Opposition parties, predictably, tried to counter. But the Congress’ poha, a snack made out of beaten rice flakes, could do little to blunt the fiery vada pav.

Other historical versions

Yet, like every great Indian snack, even the vada pav‘s origins are disputed.

Food writer Vikram Doctor credited different settlements in the region to the origin of the humble snack. In Solomon’s conversation with Doctor, the latter told him the pav belonged to either the Portuguese, or the Goan and Irani immigrants who opened the first bakeries in Maharashtra’s capital. Vada, however, comes from the state itself.

Another version attributed the invention to Hindu immigrants to Bombay from Pakistan’s Sindh Province during Partition. They often carried a Sindhi’s staple—spiced potatoes and bread—during the long rail journeys.

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