There are countless urban legends as to how the Vada Pav came to be. Some say it was an experiment by Ashok Vaidya, a snack vendor outside Dadar Railway Station in Mumbai thirty-six years ago at the behest of a customer. Others say it evolved as a 'poor-man's food' in response to the demand from workers in Mumbai's erstwhile cloth mills for a filling but inexpensive meal. This much is known - the Pav or Pao is a contribution of the Goans to Mumbai (Pao is Portuguese for 'bread') and the Vada is the humble potato 'bonda' or dumpling inherent to many parts of India.
Frequently labeled the 'Indian Hamburger', the Vada Pav is indeed structurally a burger, but with a spicy twist. 'Pav', a cushion-shaped piece of bread, is sliced horizontally part of the way and a spicy tangy chutney with a garlicky tinge is slathered on the inside. 'Batata Vada', a spiced potato dumpling coated in batter and deep-fried, is flattened and placed in the split, chutneyed bread. The finished product, served hot, is the Vada Pav.
One could call the Vada Pav, Mumbai's great leveler. Vada Pav vendors are commonly found in high traffic stretches like near suburban railway stations in Mumbai, catering to the multitudes of commuters. Salesmen on client visits through the day, working women getting ready for a long commute back home to resume domestic chores or even children trudging home from school – the Vada Pav satisfies appetites across Mumbai as no other street food has. It's not uncommon to find the swankiest of cars lined near the stalls, with a wealthy patron inside, having his Vada Pav fix for the day. At prices as low as Rs. 5 a piece, it's no wonder it's Mumbai's most popular any-time snack.
Today, the Vada Pav's popularity continues, prompting an enterprising Dheeraj Gupta to begin Jumbo King, a chain of Vada Pav outlets. Here the staff is uniformed, dressed in aprons, caps and gloves fulfilling their promise of selling a more hygienically prepared Vada Pav than their wayside counterparts. There are variants too – Cheese Vada Pav, Diet Vada Pav and Jain Vada Pav. The last is in response to the particularity of Jain community of not consuming onions or garlic.
However, no true-blue Mumbaiite's childhood memory of a Sunday game of cricket at Shivaji Park is incomplete without the nostalgic taste of a Vada Pav from his favourite wayside vendor. Just ask Sachin Tendulkar!
(an edited version published in the August 2007 issue of At A Glance)