A Personal History of Pav Bhaji

In my oddly patriotic, yet uncomfortable red, white, and blue uniform, I left English class and made my way to the hall where individual desks became long, social tables. I picked up my sectioned plate and stood behind other matching 12-year-olds. Inching forward, I hinted the aroma of something amazing. It reminded me of my naniji’s (maternal grandmother) kitchen, which I only experienced every couple of months - something like fresh ginger and garam masala. This part of the day was always drool-worthy because I could finally stop dreaming of lunchtime.

I moved my red tray up to the lunch lady and a colorful vegetable medley-turned-sabzi was placed on my tray. Huh? Was it international day? No, this was just India. Two months of living here and counting. This was the fifth school in my whole nine years of life. But this one was different. I went from PB&Js with Ms. Castellano to Indian lunches with my professors who mandated the titles “Ma’am” and “Sir”.

Two toasted buns were placed on the side of my tray and I was thoroughly confused. If this was India and it smelled like naniji’s kitchen, where was the roti? Why did my food resemble a Sloppy Joe? I sat my semi-confused, mostly-didn’t-care-self down at a table, genuinely ready to dig in.

In what at first seemed to be a familiar surrounding, I was quickly reminded of my reality when I heard mutters of “no friends” and  “pav bhaji” around me. I decided that the former was referring to the girl sitting alone and the latter was the food on her plate. As I broke off a piece of bread, I looked around the room as if I was waiting for my friends to join me. I figured if I turned my head around enough, the hour would pass and I could fool my classmates into thinking I wasn’t alone.

The girls around me gushed in Hindi over High School Musical and the latest episode of Lizzie McGuire; I remember thinking, “gosh that is so 2005!” My moments of solace at this school revolved around knowing how behind on American television they were. I at least had that. I guess to them, I didn’t make sense. I was the girl who looked Indian but sounded American. I was in red, white, and blue, eating pav bhaji for lunch.

Pav bhaji, a dish I soon realized would become my new favorite. The crunch of the toast went far too well with the heartiness of all the vegetables. An random amalgam of the familiar and the unfamiliar, I found myself right at home.

The story of pav bhaji dates back to the mid-1800s in Maharashtra, India. The Portuguese had long settled there and brought about a great influence (“pav” actually stems from “pao”, the Portuguese word for “bread”). The story goes that when textile mill workers would come home late, restaurant owners would feed them whatever was left at the end of the day. They would mash up leftover vegetables, cook them in butter and spices and serve it with a hot, toasted bun.[1] A comfort food at it’s simplest.

-Kirenjot Kaur
Buttermilk Blog Writer
Kirenjot is a clinical researcher by day and Buttermilk enthusiast by night (and day). She is a foodie and an adrenaline junkie. Bucket list? Skydiving and learning how to make dosa.

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  1. History of Pav Bhaji. (2018, March 23). Retrieved December 11, 2018, from

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