It’s Friday 2 O’Clock in the morning and there is a crowd of party revellers, nocturnal couples and late night shift workers mopping up unctuous buttery bhaji with the white, soft, fluffy bread rolls known as “Pav” outside Amar Juice Centre. As I call for another round of these delectable rolls, a rather serious reflection on the significance of bread is triggered in my mind.
In Mumbai, pav is often used as a discriminatory term: “pav-walla” (bread maker) is an unofficial and derisory moniker given to Christians of low status. Many of my Northern Indian friends also mock the Mumbaikar tradition of eating Pav with everything (Misal Pav, Pav Bhaji, Vada Pav, Samosa Pav etc); it is seen as almost unsophisticated and not proper, “these Mumbai people”, they complain indignantly.
However the origins of bread are much more grandiose than can be imagined. Bread was the most clear symbol of a society that has transformed from hunter gatherers to civilisations that cultivate ingredients. In Gilgamesh, one of the first known great works of literature, a symbolic journey of Enkidu, originally a wild man, is told. He discovers and develops a taste for bread, an allegory for the process of primitive to civilised communities. Moreover, it is in Homer’s magnum opus, The Iliad, where we see bread-eating as the distinction of “man”.
Later on in history, white bread was seen as the domain of the elite and noble and was a pre-requisite in the great courts of the Late Renaissance. The Scalco (the leader of the kitchen) was responsible for ensuring Manchet (fine white bread) accompanied every banquet. However these days, the tide has certainly changed for the stature of bread; a ‘white bread culture’ is now used to describe profound cultural naïveté and blind consumerism. Refined carbohydrates are eschewed, despite the psychological comfort and pleasure they induce.
After all this thought, I am now at the half dozen mark. Tearing the bread, already smothered lavishly in butter, and then dunking it into Amar’s devilishly buttery bhaji is a wickedly decadent experience. This pav bhaji is certainly not “khada” (coarsely cut vegetables) and is very smooth. Eating such food is effortless, almost natural.
For all the social distinctions bread has caused throughout time, there are no rifts outside Amar at this early hour. The fraternity of diners are united by a shared appreciation for Mumbai’s heralded and humble Pav with bhaji. Whether it is the group of swaying women carrying their heels, the call centre workers to my left or that late night couple escaping their family, a range of social classes are brought together in what is a close approximation of a congregation to worship the common man’s food that originated in the textile factories of Parel.