Eight years ago, when I first moved to Bengaluru to be an analyst, I had no clue that I'd end up analyzing buns passed off by street food vendors in the name of vada-pav.
What's the difference, you ask? A bun is only as different from a pav as chicken is from turkey or paneer from tofu. But, you could be the rare breed of human that finds tofu and paneer practically interchangeable. And for that, I'm truly sorry, and I want you to know that it's not you; it's them.
So, returning to our topic, not all bread is made equal in the eyes of God, or in this case, a Mumbaikar. We clearly distinguish bread into three key formats - sliced bread, pav and everything else that is either too fancy to pronounce or too expensive to pair with a batata vada.
Some people may argue that 'pav' is nothing but a kind of bun. But that presumption is valid only as far as the origin of the item is concerned. Historically, it had the moniker 'bun pav', but thanks to the fast-paced life in the busiest city in India, the 'bun' got dropped in the interest of efficiency. Now, it's just pav.
At first glance, you may think that this vehement differentiation purely stems from nostalgic sentiment. While that's true, there is enough technical difference between the two to warrant the debate.
A bun is traditionally round, while a pav is essentially a rounded square. The underside of a bun is almost as blonde as a polar bear, but the top has a rich caramel-brown shade of baked goodness. Bun's can tend to be dense in the interiors, but a pav is flaky pillowy light from within, almost to the point that if agitated extensively, the integrity of the bread might just come apart like bits of candy floss. And the last and probably most important difference between a bun and a pav - the fulcrum. A bun is always sliced through, and the two halves merely rest on each other thanks to gravity. A pav is sliced right up to the edge so that the two halves open up like a hinged casket. If you're finding it particularly difficult to visualize that, then think of a rectangular Pacman or Nearly Headless Nick from the Harry Potter franchise, only less bloody.
But who cares about the technical differences, right? This blog is all about the passionate debate on food that we love and hate. So let me point out the real reason why I can never accept a bun as pav.
The first fragment of nostalgia that screams at me whenever someone tries to pass a bun as a pav is the stark mismatch of texture when paired with its rightful companions. For instance, if someone gives you a bhurji with a slice of bread or a bun, it is just a scrambled egg with spices. Similarly, a vada with a bun is a potato burger. And for obvious reasons, a 'dabeli' is practically non-existent without a legitimate pav, thanks to the critical fulcrum action that serves as a make-shift pita pocket for the sweet-savoury goodness stuffed withing. What's more, the soft crumbly texture of pav goes the extra mile to absorb and enhance the flavours of all these signature dishes.
Secondly, pav carries decades of hyper-local association that a bun or bread just can't match up to! For instance, have you heard the story behind the origin of the name itself? Apparently, in the olden days, the dough for pav was so glutenous that to knead it at scale, the bakers trampled on it with their feet, and guess the Hindi translation for foot? 😛
Another association with pav is 'laadi', which, when roughly translated, means 'tile' in Marathi. And this term that still finds use in Maharashtrian households makes sense because pav is never produced as individual pieces but always as a matrix of 4x6 or 4x8 that resembles a mosaic of square tiles! So, it goes without saying that one never buys a solo pav. Six is the minimum acceptable quantity to buy, while one can get truly adventurous with a complete 'laadi' of 24 or 32!
At the other end of this nostalgic walk down memory lane are fine culinary associations with pav that should not go unnoticed. Unlike bread or a bun, a pav can never survive the mutilation inflicted by a serrated bread knife. The pav is built for a swift slice with a sharp thin blade that resembles a miniature katana or a very squarish flat-edged filleting knife. This knife is so localized to Mumbai that neither have I spotted the knife outside the city nor have I felt the need for it anywhere else. I've probably got at least thirty unique stories and anecdotes related to pav for thirty years that I've walked this planet, but by now, I'm sure you get my drift.
Short of dragging you to Mumbai and making you have a fresh pav, I don't know if I can ever capture the true essence of this Mumbai foundation that I'd taken for granted for the first two decades of my life. My move to Bengaluru taught me two invaluable lessons that I've carried with me ever since.
You may never know the importance of something in your life unless you are suddenly deprived of it
No amount of copy-cat gimmicks and tricks can fill the gaping hole that is left by the absence of a true loved-one
Also, both the lessons mentioned above are related to food and have no connection to any people, real or imaginary.
So, in closing, I'd only say this -
Although the Portuguese Christians introduced this brilliant product to the Goans years ago, it was the coastal belt of Maharashtra and Gujarat, which developed it into a multi-faceted street snack that we all cherish today.
But, don't take MY word for it! Just ask the 150 million people who've been feasting on a vada-pav, dabeli, or pav-bhaji for the past hundred years and more!