How European breads became a part of India's street food heritage. A tale of reverse cultural appropriation.

Misal pav, Aaswad, Mumbai airport. When a Portuguese bread met a Maharashtrian staple

Portuguese street food in Mumbai?

“Let me now show you a Portuguese dish,” said Dr Kurush Dalal, an archaeologist, food historian and caterer from Mumbai, while out on a food walk in the city. He took us to a food hawker stall by the streets, placed his order, and came back to us with a bag full of vada pavs!

The vada pav is modern Mumbai’s most famous and popular street food dish. It (the combination and not just the vada) is said to have been invented in the 1960s. The dish consists of a batata vada (chickpea flour batter coated turmeric, fresh coriander, whole mustard seeds, green chillies spiked mashed potato, deep fried balls) stuffed in a pav (a rectangular cube shaped soft bread) and served. A wet green chutney made with crushed coriander, freshly ground coconut, green chillies, and a dry red chutney made with roasted crushed red chilli and garlic, and a salted and fried green chilli are the accompaniments given with it.

Vada pav, Fashion st Khau Gulley, Mumbai

Calling the vada pav 'Portuguese,' seemed as strange as calling the Taj Mahal an Italian palace but Dr Dalal held his ground.

“Potatoes were introduced to India by the Portuguese, as were chillies, AND the pav,” concluded the professor with his characteristic impish style.

By that logic, the pav bhaaji, which is the second most popular street food dish of Mumbai, could be called Portuguese too! Here, the pav is served with a slightly runny vegetarian mash where the stars are boiled potatoes and fresh tomatoes. Both of which were introduced to India the Portuguese in India in the 16th century. This was after the Portuguese explorer, Vasco Da Gama, first came to India on 20th May 1498.

Pav, poi. ITC Goa

The Jesuit priests who came to India in the years that followed are said to have introduced the art of western bread making in India. This was in Goa in the mid 1500s. 

Yeast was not locally available at that time and sur or toddy was used as a rising agent instead. Thus, was born the pav (which comes from the Portuguese word ‘pau’) and myriad other Goan breads such as poee (a puffed up pita bread like bread covered with husk), katricha pav (a crusty bread which is soft inside) and so on. The bakers of Goa are called poders after the Portuguese term padeiro.

And a British high tea too?

Toast sandwich. Fort, Mumbai

The British were the ones who introduced white (sandwich) bread to India, says acclaimed journalist and food writer, Vir Sanghvi.

The famous ‘Mumbai sandwich’ is where the sliced white bread comes into play. A British influence that has made its presence felt on the streets of Mumbai. The Mumbai sandwich consists of slices of boiled potato, cucumber, tomato, red onions, beetroots, green capsicum, sandwiched in butter, green wet chutney and red sauce (made with pumpkins pretending to be tomatoes) slathered on to white bread. The sandwich can be had saada (plain) or as a toast. In the latter case, the street corner vendor toasts this in a handheld toaster over a small coal fired oven.

These breads were not part of the mainstream food palette of Mumbai earlier it seems as the bakeries that made them were run by Goan Christians or Irani Muslims and Zoroastrians. The majority Hindu community of Mumbai avoided these at first. This changed in the 1960s with the growing popularity of vada pav and pav bhaaji and pav and bread is now had at homes across the city too and in restaurants and cafes as well. The pav of the Portuguese is made with yeast and not toddy in Mumbai today and this makes them more 'acceptable'.

Interestingly, the popularity of the breads of the Portuguese did not extend to north India where traditional Indian breads such as rotis, puris, parathas and bhatures, as well as naans from tandoors (introduced by the Turks and Arabs) dominated the local food culture though bread has made its presence felt now. In the south, it is the fermented rice flour based dosa and uthapa, along with idli and dosa, which are popular snack items and which score over pav.

The spread of the popularity of dishes such as pav bhaaji and vada pav from Mumbai across the country is changing this though.

With some stew on the side in Kolkata

Pound ruti. Chittoda's Kolkata

Apart from Mumbai and the state of Goa in western India, it is in Kolkata in the east, where breads formed an important part of the city’s street food culture. Calcutta, as it was known then, was the first capital of the British when they ruled India before they moved the capital to Delhi, after all.

The iconic chicken stew, made famous by Chitta Babu’s stall at Dacres Lane, a grimy but iconic street food lane in the original business district of Kolkata, and by the canteens of its football clubs at the maidan, is served with a small loaf of bread called ‘pound ruti.' This was introduced by the Portuguese too.

Another popular dish in the office para (CBD) of Kolkata is the deem pauruti. A savoury version of the French toast, which is spiked with finely chopped green chillies and red onions, red chilli powder and black pepper. The pound ruti of Bengal is used in place of the brioche of France. The deem pauruti of Kolkata is known as ‘anda bread’ across north India.

Toast makhon chini, toasted and buttered sliced bread with sugar crystals sprinkled on top, is a popular road-side tea shop snack in Kolkata. A city that runs on tea. And, let us not forget the pound ruti and ghoogni (white peas curry) that are so popular in these tea shops. Just as misal and pav is on the street corners of Mumbai.

Reverse cultural appropriation for a change

Dacres Lane, Kolkata. Pound Ruti coexisting with bhatoore

One could say that in a form of reverse ‘cultural appropriation’, we Indians have made the breads once introduced by our former ruler rulers, the pavs and the white sandwich breads, our own today!

India is changing rapidly these days and is adopting many global trends when it comes to food.  Its big cities today have modern bakeries, cafes and five star hotels, the owners or chefs of many of whom have trained in pastry making in Europe. France in particular.

Sourdough breads, gluten free breads, bagels, croissants, baguettes and brioches have all made their appearance across these and customers cannot seem to be getting enough of them. Some Indian pastry chefs, who have trained abroad, are now experimenting with using Indian grains, millets in particular, in making western style breads.

These are exciting times indeed for bread in India. It seems as if this is the second coming of bread in the country. Once again, with a strong European influence.

Croissant and cappuccino, La Folie, Mumbai

This is an article that I wrote for HOST Milano, an international Horeco conference of which I have the honour to be the HOST ambassador from India. Here is the link to the HOST site where it first appeared.


1.     Krutika Behrawala, Livemint
2.     Vir Sanghvi, Hindustan Times


Alka said…
A delight to read, as always, this post made me wonder how and exactly when did bread (Laadi pao)found its place in Sindhi cuisine. If you remember we had discussed about Chola dhabhal i.e Sindhi style chole curry served with chunks of pao dipped in the simmering gravy, topped with green chutney,sliced onions and sev (optional). The dish is popular from pre partition era and there is even a song mentioning the dish in an old Sindhi movie, Abana (though released in 1958, but the dishes mentioned in the song were popular way before that).
It is yet another well admired street food in Sindhi dominated areas!
Kalyan Karmakar said…
@Alka thanks for your comment and fo introducing me to the moong dal sandwich. Is it possible that given Sindhis are a very practical and hardworking community and were in a sense displaced folks too in Mumbai, they tried to make the best of what was around rather than be too fussed about what is allowed and what is not?