I went back to Mumbai's most famous vada pav stall & it was worth the trip. Ashok or Kirti College Vada Pav

The legendary Kirti College vada pav.
The chura and chutney make it distinctive
Once upon a time at a vada pav stall in Mumbai

The first time I went to the Ashok vada pav stall near Mumbai's Kirti College at Dadar  was way back in the early 2000s.

I worked in an ad agency in South Mumbai then. We were on our way to Andheri East for a pitch presentation. Someone in the team suggested we stop there on the way for vada pav. 

We had the vada pavs and then moved on. In those days I didn't obsess much about food. I would try to find a good meal, and when I did, I told folks about it. If I didn't, I never came back to the place and would warn my friends about it. 

End of story.

I didn't try to find out about the history of the place or analyse the authenticity of the food or try to trace it's ingredient sourcing etc etc.

I was not a food blogger then!

Mr Ashok Thakur at the Ashoka vada pav stall,
March 2017
A Mumbai food legend

By now I know how legendary Ashok Vada Pav is though. 

Many say that it is the best vada pav in Mumbai. It is also said that vada pavs were invented here!

I am a bit wary about calling something the 'best'. Tastes are personal after all. Moreover, how can one say something is the best without having tried every possible option? 

The other issue is that of where vada pavs were invented. The truth is, it is always a bit tough to distinguish between folklore and fact. Given our paucity of written history, I leave these issues to historians and hope they do the rigour expected from them on these issues.

What is a vada pav?

This is for those who might not have come across the dish before. The vada pav is without doubt Mumbai's most famous street food dish. It is to Mumbai what hot dogs are to New York and rolls are to Kolkata. 

Simply put, a batata vada is a deep fried croquette with a gram-flour casing and a spiced mashed potato, turmeric, chilli, garlic, mustard seeds and fresh coriander infused mix. The thinness of the casing and the balance of spicing makes a vada pav good in my books and this was spot on at Ashok's. Plus, you should have it fried fresh. The batata vada is a Maharashtrian family staple which when put into pav, the local bread which is a Portuguese legacy, became the vada pav. 

Funnily enough, it seems that vada pavs didn't exist in mumbai till the 1960s or so from what I have read. 

I have read that Mr Ashok Thkaur claims to have started the trend. I can't vouch for that as I said earlier. He didn't say this to me during our conversation when I was at the stall. I didn't ask him
about this to be honest. I was just happy to be there. 

What seems to be the case is that combination of vada pav is a fairly new phenomenon and yet has become Mumbai's food icon today. 

That's quite a remarkable story to me. Sometimes I wonder that the young folks who had taken the batata vadas out of their moms kitchen, stuffed it in pav which was apparently not as commonly used then, and sold it on the streets faced the derision then that experimenters with Indian food sometimes face today. Well the merry vada pav boys of the 60s and 70s evidently continued unfazed as they had hit on a successful formula and pricing and I am sure there is a lesson hidden somewhere in that.

When chefs lead you to good food 

I was very keen to go back to Ashok's Kirti College stall for the vada pav as I didn't have much memory of it from my first visit. It is is a modern Mumbai urban legend and as a local food blogger I felt that I should try it out. From my early days when I stopped at the vada pav stall outside the LIC building on my way back from work to my recent love for Sri Krishna at Bandra east, I have been quite the vada pav fan.

I got the opportunity to return to Ashok's when I went to the Institute of Hotel Management at Dadar recently. This was for the Cornucopia fest. I was part of a panel discussion where the topic was 'Will travel for food'. My co-panelists were model turned TV chef Amrita Raichand, chef Vicky Ratnani and Sameer Malkani of the FBAI who all had interesting anecdotes and perspectives to share. 

I spoke about how food can be a great way to know people different from us and from other cultures and thereby help break the walls coming up in today's world. The panel agreed too. I was in great company for sure.

With the IHM students after the panel and from L to R beside me:
Sameer Malkani, Vicky Ratnani & Amrita Raichand

The IHM at Dadar, is the oldest IHM and many accomplished chefs, including the very talented Vicky Ratnani, are its alumni. It was a pleasure meeting the future generation of chefs here and I tasted some lovely food at the stalls, specially the pulled chicken burger by Diganta Chakraborty and his team. I got to learn so much about food by talking to the budding young chefs in a very short while.

Going back to Ashok's for vada pav after 17 odd years

Once done Sameer Malkani of the FBAI, who had invited me to the panel, and I headed to Ashok's vada pav which is close to the college. It's obviously a favourite haunt of the students at IHM as both Vicky and the current day students told me about it being located close to the college.

Kebab stalls at the start of the Kirti vada pav lane

Sameer and I asked around and everyone around knew the vada pav place. We soon  found the stall in a lane which had a couple of street-side kebab stalls at the start.

We saw that the Ashok vada pav stall, also known as Kirti College vada pav, had a crowd around it. This despite it being 8 pm on a Saturday. Plus the stall was in a secluded lane. 

We went up to the stall and placed our order for two vada pavs. The batata vadas served were hot as they were being freshly made.

So how were the vada pavs? Were they the best I have ever had?

Mr Ashok doling out vada pavs

The default vada pava option at Ashok's was different from the average vada pav that I have had. What distinguished it was that it came with a mix of three chutneys added in - sweet, spicy and tangy. 

They also add in something called choora/ chura. This consists of the gram flour batter bits/ crumbs which are left in the oil when you make batata vadas. The stuff that kids make a beeline for when pakoras are made at home! The choora makes the vada pav more filling. Let's not talk about 'health' though and this is surely not the place to look for baked oil-free batata vadas made with organic sweet potato and gluten free bread and a crushed quinoa batter casing.

In most other batata vada places that I've been to in Mumbai, instead of the chura, they sometimes add alu bhajias or onion pakoras with the vada. At Ashok, I think they only make batata vadas.

Ashok dishes out chura pav
He is 58 years old would you believe it!
He ascribes his glow to his love for his job

Capitalising on a business idea, they also sell just chura pav, without batata vada, at Ashok's now. 

The prices as of today are Rs 20 for the fully loaded vada pav, while a choora pav, with no vada, costs Rs 15

The chutneys ensure that your vada pav eating experiences cover multiple tastes. Sweet first, then chilli heat, a bit of garlic after that, then salt and tangy too.

Blogger and friend and recent Aurveda fan, Amrita Rana, was telling me the other day that food should have multiple tastes according to ayurveda. That seemed to be happening here.

The owner and founder, Mr Ashok, who was at the shop, took pride in using refined oil and some 44 odd masalas in his chutneys including the very expensive khuskhus (posto or poppy seeds). While one can't consider vada pav 'health food', Ashok's attempts to use the best ingredients possible was worth appreciating.

Mr Ashok Thakur putting together his vada pav
An artist loves an audience after all
Is the vada pav at Ashok's worth the hype and the hike?

My advise is to try to have the vada pav at Ashok if you can as it gives you a taste of the history of modern Mumbai. As batata vadas go, his matches with the best I have had in the city. The gram-flour casing here is thin as it should be, the potatoes flavour packed, the vadas are made fresh and can singe your mouth if you are not careful. The pav is nice and soft and has a distinctive glaze to it. 

 You might want to skip the chutneys though if you don't like food which is very sweet. Also do have at least one bite of the salted and fried green chilli when at a vada pav shop.

Salted fried chillies are a must with vada pavs
I was surprised to find out that Mr Ashok is 58 years old. He looked much younger to me to be honest. When I asked him what his secret was, he smiled and said that it was his passion for what he did and the love that came back to him from customers. He told me that he had originally wanted to join the navy. Things didn't work out and then he started this vada pav stall. The rest is history.

Well, Mr Thakur has surely turned 'poison into medicine', and his love for what he does ensures that even today the stall that he opened in the mid 1970s remains such a crowd puller.

Taking stock

The outing made me quite feel philosophical about life. 

The last time I was at Ashok's, I was new to Mumbai and excited about being an account planner in an ad agency. Amrita Raichand who was part of the IHM panel discussion this time was then the mascot of Whirlpool, a brand handled by the same agency, FCB Ulka, where I worked at. Today she is a popular TV and YouTube chef. IHM alumni, Vicky Ratnani went from working on cruises to opening restaurants and is now one of the top celebrity chefs around and is a great cook too and I recently had a brilliant meal cooked by him at Korner House.   It was Vicky's advice in the panel to the budding chefs to start by exploring the diverse food cultures around their Institute, till they got to travel, which made me realise that Ashok Vada Pav was close by. Sameer Malkani who joined me, and his wife Saloni, were in the education business and now run the very successful FBAI (Food Bloggers Association of India).

Goes to show that you never know what life holds for you next and that it often has a way of pleasantly surprising you.

So don't stress too much about the future. Keep calm and have a vada pav instead.

PS: Would love to know if you have a vada pav place and if you do, please let me know in the comments section.

A phone video that I shot at Ashok's with Sameer Malkani of FBAI doubling up as the camera man:

That's Sameer Malkani

A loyal customer at Ashok's
Some pics from IHM:

That's Diganto of IHM in the middle.
 A fellow Bengali and a Jacobean too

The pulled chicken burger at Diganta's stall. The chicken was incredibly juicy,
the 'vegetarian' bun soft, and the dish oozing with flavour. Mumbai's culinary future is
in the safe hands of these budding young chefs

With Furqan Meerza of IHM who was one of the key organisers and
Sameer Malkani of FBAI who invited me to the panel
Some people call it the Kelfie!