Updated: Jul 19, 2022
I grew up in Mumbai loving this street food, we would drive down late at night past Haji Ali to Sardar's for a loaded buttery plate of this dish. It is my favorite street food. I recently got to have this again from Sardar's, rich, flavorful and so soul-satisfying.
Pao bhaji was originally made for the around-the-clock mill workers in the early 19th century, pao bhajji was a cheap dish that could be made fast and cheap and quickly became a favorite in the city. Today, a load of motorbikes and scooters park next to BMWs and Mercedes, each waiting for their order loaded with butter to be called out in turn in front of Sardar's. More on the history of Sardar's and the dish here.
I have been making this dish for a few years and have adapted the recipe to include more vegetables, the standard being potatoes, tomatoes and cauliflower, to enhance the flavors. I also reduce the amount of potatoes, for health reasons and use cauliflower stems that give the same creamy texture.
The dish stays true to its core, bright, spicy and delicious. The buttered, toasted pao is the perfect vehicle for the bhajji. The lime juice and cilantro freshen up the dish.
This wonderful cookbook is filled with modern interpretations of traditional Indian dishes. The book highlights the creativity of the chef/author, with amazing dishes like this one. This book comes out when I want to truly impress my guests. I highly recommend this cookbook, and also the restaurant in Washington DC.
For more amazing recipes from this cookbook, click here.
For the vegetable base:
1 large potato, peeled and cubed
1 small red bell pepper, seeded and cubed
1 small green bell pepper, seeded and cubed
1 small head cauliflower, 3 cups, diced with stems
15 green beans
1/4 teaspoon ground turmeric
Salt, to taste
1 bay leaf
4 green cardamom pods
2 whole cloves
1 1-inch cinnamon stick
3 cups water
For the bhajji:
3 tablespoons butter
1/2 teaspoon cumin seeds
2 onions, finely diced
3-4 green chilies, finely minced
2 teaspoons ginger paste
4 garlic cloves, finely minced
3-4 teaspoons pao bhajji masala, commercial variety
4 tomatoes, finely diced
1/2 cup peas, frozen ok
Salt, to taste
Juice of 1 lime
4 tablespoons cilantro, minced finely
Pao bread, halved
Scallions, fine slices
Add all the ingredients for the vegetable base to a pressure cooker or Instapot and cook for 20 minutes till the vegetables are very soft and mushy. Remove the whole spices, bay leaf, cinnamon stick, green cardamom and cloves. You can now choose to purée the mix in the cooking liquid for a smooth pao bhajji, or, I prefer to mash it by hand with a potato masher for a chunkier version. Set aside. NOTE: I use the cooking liquid as the flavors of the vegetables are in the stock.
Heat the butter in a large pot, one that will hold all the ingredients, and add the cumin seeds. They will crackle in 10 seconds , add the onions and green chilies and fry on low heat till they are golden and very soft.
Add the ginger and garlic and cook for 1 minute till the aromas are released. Add the pao bhajji masala and cook for 10 seconds. Add the tomatoes and cook for 15 minutes till the tomatoes are completely broken down and you have a thick sauce with the butter floating to the top. Add the peas and the mashed vegetables and simmer for 15 minutes on a medium flame. The bhajji will reduce down to a thick curry, adjust to the consistency you prefer. Remove from the heat. Taste and adjust for salt and spice, if not spicy enough add extra pao bhajji masala or chili powder to your liking. if adding more pao bhajji masala, simmer for an additional 5 minutes to cook the spices and integrate them.
Add the lime juice, and cilantro and mix in. Taste and adjust for tartness.
Make the pao bread by cutting the bun in half and adding a dollop of butter to each side of the bread and heating it on a frying pan or tawa till crisp and toasted. Serve immediately.
Serve hot with all the accompaniments and buttered pao.