Misal, Vada Pav, Why Mumbaikars Like Their Breakfast Spicy, Explains Kunal Vijayakar

At 3.46 am, there is a surge of humanity on the railway platform at Virar Station as the first set of bogies rumble out on their cast iron wheels heading for Churchgate. The local compartments are packed, and the passengers are hungry as most of them have not eaten breakfast yet.

While the 3.45 local pulls out noisily, the platforms of the railway station and the stations ahead are already coming alive with the hissing of stoves firing up to make tea and heat oil for frying, and the clang of aluminium and cast-iron utensils. Cyclists carrying loaves of bread descend upon the stalls at the stations where preparations are afoot for the classic Mumbai breakfast of Misal Pav, Omlette Pav, and Vada Pav.

Breakfast on the streets of Mumbai, be it vegetarian or non-vegetarian, is full of onion, chillies and, masalas, unlike anywhere else in the world. And the stormiest one of them all is Misal Pav. It’s a daringly robust combination of deep fried ‘sev-ganthia’, soaked in a soupy-gravy made with moong beans, potato, onions, tomatoes, ginger-garlic, garam masala, and (traditionally) coconut. Topped with a fiery red oily kat, tarri, or rassa, garnished with chopped onions and coriander. Most Mumbaikars want their Misal-Pav to kick you in the rear with its fire and make your eyes and nose water in rapture. Step onto any railway platform or Vinay Health Home in Thakurdwar or Anand Bhuvan Hotel, Lower Parel or the several newly opened Misal joints in the city like House of Misal or Marthanda Misal and it’s a breakfast that wakes up most weary early morning commuters.

It won’t be long before the rays of the sun hit the buildings and the sounds of frying, stirring and sizzling start filling the morning air. Mumbai is awake and really hungry. Along with Batata Wadas frying to put into bread for Vada Pav, and flat chilly and onion-laden omelettes, a new phenomenon is Kanda Batata Poha and Sabudana Khichdi made by local ladies and sold on nearly every corner of the older parts of the city like Dadar, Parel, Mahim, Prabhadevi and Worli. Ladies in nearby ‘chawls’, all in the need of supplementing their family incomes have started putting their culinary skills to use to make business. Kanda Poha, soft flattened rice cooked in a mixture of spices, onions and potatoes, and Sabudana Khichdi, sago pearls cooked with green chillies, jeera, potatoes and peanuts. For those with a sweet tooth, Sweet Sheera, a semolina pudding is a very accepted breakfast meal also made by these enterprising housewives.

At the posher end of the city, walkers, cyclists and elders have stepped out to welcome the first light. Mini vans parked on the sea front at Worli and Carter road sell these thirsty heath freaks, fruit and vegetable juices of every conceivable kind.

But as a Mumbaikar, and I daresay an Indian, there is no better way to satisfy this early morning hunger than with a gloriously heavy spicy breakfast.

Next in line of spicy breakfasts is the Keema Pav. My preferred Keema Pav for breakfast will always be Olympia at Colaba. Hugely popular for their Biryani, which honestly is awful, Olympia’s Keema Pav though is truly a great breakfast meal. It’s cooked in green masala, with an overwhelming flavour of green chillies, coriander, onions and whole spices. It comes to the table piping hot with a thin film of oil, and on an indulgent morning, you should ask them to top it with a fried egg sunny-side up. Mop up the yellow runny yolk and the green mince with a hot pav and it’s a breakfast for the gods, but rush, because after half-past nine in the morning, there is none left.

Of course, the Udupi Restaurants in Mumbai open pretty early in the morning, especially the ones in Matunga, Mumbai’s mini-south India. The breakfast queue at Madras Café is longer than its substantial menu. Pessarattu Dosa, Bisibili Bhaat, Raagi Masala Dosa, Malgapudi, Idli Podi, Rasam Idli and above all Filter Coffee.

I’ve never understood how we all consume deep fried food at breakfast. Samosa, kachori, chole bhature, or even the that huge crisply fried puri with a bowlful of daal, served with chopped onions and chutney called Sindhi Daal Pakwan. For those unaware, Dal Pakwan is a puri made from maida and deep-fried, crisp and golden brown and is similar to the outer crust of a punjabi samosa or a kachori. The daal is yellow and simple. Made from mashed Bengal-gram and spiced with bit of turmeric, hing, cumin and occasionally green chillies. Dal Pakwan is always served with a green chutney made with fresh coriander and chilli and a sweet chutney of tamarind and jaggery, and then garnished with finely chopped, raw, red onions.

For me, however, nothing gives me greater pleasure than to walk into an old Irani joint, and order a plate of sweet bun slathered with butter, a cup of Irani chai, dip the bread in the chai, and watch the city wake up all around me.

Kunal Vijayakar is a food writer based in Mumbai. He tweets @kunalvijayakar and can be followed on Instagram @kunalvijayakar. His YouTube channel is called Khaane Mein Kya Hai. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not represent the stand of this publication.

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