Meatless Monday: Pav Plus Bhaji Equals Party in Mouth

A lively thread in last week’s chat about Oscar-themed parties inspired Suman, a reader in Detroit, Mich., to suggest Pav Bhaji as a culinary tribute to nominated film “Slumdog Millionaire.” The dish, which she described as a veggie Sloppy Joe, is classic Mumbai street food, a highly spiced tomato-based vegetable mash that gets bookended by two halves of a griddled and buttered bun.

(Kim O'Donnel)

I was so excited by Suman’s suggestion that I set out to find a recipe and to have my very own Pav Bhaji experience.

While researching the dish, I received an e-mail from Suman, who reports that “any combo of vegetables can be used and you can play with the recipe as you like” and she recommends mashed potato chips as a garnish (“sounds strange, but is REALLY good!”). Fellow Pav Bhaji enthusiast Vani in Seattle recommends the Everest brand of pav bhaji masala and echoes Suman’s thoughts about using what you have on hand: “I put in whatever vegetables I have in the pantry, but potatoes are necessary.”

Becca in Dupont Circle gives high marks to a recipe from Fat Free Vegan, which calls for not a stitch of oil or butter and offers a strategy for replenishing the Bhaji reservoir:

“When I have leftover beans, veggies, etc., I squirrel them away in the freezer," she writes. "Then I use them up when I make this -- the texture of the dish works perfectly with the soggy frozen veggies, and that way I don't waste food.”

As you may have already surmised, Pav Bhaji is ripe for kitchen improv, which means you’ll find as many versions online as there are days in the year. With my Pav Bhaji council’s suggestions close at hand, I settled on a recipe from “660 Curries” by curry wizard Raghavan Iyer, whose collection continues to hit a home run here at Casa Appetite. Regardless of which version you ultimately decide upon (or create), there are some common denominators: potatoes, cauliflower, peas, a tomato-based gravy, the heat of chiles, pav bhaji masala (aka spice mix) and buns. In fact, the word “pav” means bun and “bhaji” means vegetable mixture.

In his recipe, Iyer mentions the convenience of using commercially prepared Pav Bhaji masala, but I decided to follow his lead and make my own masala (recipe details follow after the Pav Bhaji recipe). After all, it was an opportunity to play with mango powder (aka amchur or amchoor) for the very first time! If you’re intrigued by the idea of playing spice chemist but don’t know where to source the stuff, take a look at Seattle-based World Spice Merchants, which offers online ordering for all the same goodies.

Rather, if the idea seems tedious to make your own masala, head to the nearest Indian grocer or check out online merchants such as Ethnic Grocer or Indian Blend.

A few notes to keep in mind: Iyer’s recipe makes enough Bhaji for 10 servings, but don’t let the quantity stop you. You most certainly can half the recipe, or you can make it as is and have incredible leftovers all week that you can spoon onto griddled bread or mix into rice.

We were a group of six, including the father of a dear friend, who believes a meal is incomplete without some kind of meat. Guess what? Mikey liked it.

DO try this at home!

And to all of you Pav Bhaji veterans out there, share your favorite way to make this mash in the comments area. I’m so tickled by this discovery I can hardly sit still!

Pav Bhaji (also spelled as Paav Bhajee)
From “660 Curries” by Raghavan Iyer, with a few minor adjustments (see KOD notes in parentheses)


1 pound russet or Yukon Gold potatoes, peeled, diced and submerged in a bowl of cold water to prevent browning
8 ounces cauliflower, cut into florets
1 large green bell pepper, stemmed, seeded and coarsely chopped (I substituted an orange bell for its sweeter results)
½ cup frozen green peas – no need to thaw
KOD add-on: 2 medium carrots, peeled and coarsely chopped
1 large red onion, coarsely chopped
4 fresh green Thai, cayenne or serrano chiles, stemmed (I also removed seeds, for a less fiery result)
8 tablespoons salted butter, plus more for spreading on the bread (I used unsalted and think a range of butter amount – 4-8 tablespoons – is acceptable)
1 can (about 15 ounces) tomato puree
1 tablespoon ginger paste (I substituted equal amounts of coarsely chopped ginger)
1 tablespoon garlic paste (I substituted equal amounts of 3-4 peeled smashed garlic cloves)
1 tablespoon Pav bhaji masala (available at an Indian grocery store or you can make your own – recipe details below)
1 teaspoon coarse salt
¼ cup tomato paste
½ cup finely chopped fresh cilantro leaves and stems
10 hamburger-style buns (I used potato buns with tasty results)

Optional garnishes
1 cup finely chopped red onion
1 teaspoon cayenne
1 large lime, cut into wedges
(Let's not forget Suman's suggested mashed potato chips)

Drain potatoes. Combine potatoes, cauliflower, bell pepper, peas and 4 cups water in a large saucepan, and bring to a boil over medium-heat heat. Lower heat to medium and stew vegetables, covered, stirring occasionally, until tender, 18-20 minutes.

While vegetables are cooking, combine onion, chiles, ginger and garlic in the bowl of a food processor and pulse to form a paste (will be potent!)

Preheat a wok or a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add 2 tablespoons of the butter; it will instantly melt and start to bubble. Add onion-y paste and cook, stirring, until mixture is honey-brown with a light purple hue, 5-8 minutes (You’ll also notice how the water evaporates and mixture gets drier.)

Add tomato sauce, pav bhaji masala and salt to skillet. Lower heat to medium and allow sauce to simmer, partially covered, stirring occasionally until a thin film of oil forms on the surface, 8-10 minutes. You will have to stir more frequently as the sauce thickens because it tends to stick.

Meanwhile, drain the vegetables, reserving 1 cup of the cooking water. Transfer to a medium bowl, add tomato paste and coarsely mash the vegetables with a potato masher.

Add mashed vegetables, ¼ cup of the cilantro and reserved cup of cooking water to the sauce. As the curry warms, it will start to bubble, geyser-like, because of its thick consistency. Reduce heat to medium-low and cook, covered, stirring frequently for about 15 minutes. Add 2 tablespoons of the butter and allow it to melt. Stir butter into sauce and cook, uncovered, stirring frequently for about five minutes. Repeat twice more, add 2 tablespoons butter each time (This adds up to a lot of butter! While it does add flavor and thickness, I think if you want do this 1 or 2 times total, the bhaji will not suffer.)

Sprinkle remaining ¼ cup cilantro over the mixture and keep it warm.

Preheat a griddle or skillet over medium heat. Butter cut side of each slice of bun and place them butter side down, on the griddle. Cook until underside is browned, 2-3 minutes, and remove the buns.

To serve: spoon bhaji on one bun half, add garnishes, if using, and eat while hot.

Serves 10.

Paav Bhajee Masala
From “660 Curries” by Raghavan Iyer

1 tablespoon coriander seeds
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
½ teaspoon black peppercorns
½ teaspoon fenugreek seeds
½ teaspoon anise seeds
¼ teaspoon cardamom seeds
6 whole cloves
2 tablespoons ground cayenne
1 tablespoon mango powder (aka amchoor or amchur)
2 teaspoons coarse salt
1 teaspoon black salt (I omitted, as it’s hard to find)
¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg

Place coriander, cumin, peppercorns, fenugreek, anise, cardamom and cloves in a spice grinder or coffee grinder used only for spices, and pulverize until texture resembles that of finely ground black pepper.

Transfer to a small bowl and mix in remaining ingredients.

Store in tightly sealed container, away from light, heat and humidity, for up to two months.

Makes a scant ½ cup.

By Kim ODonnel |  February 16, 2009; 7:00 AM ET Meatless Monday
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I am totally going to try this, Kim! (May have to tone the heat down a bit for the hubby.)Thank you for this!

Posted by: DianaAbujaber | February 16, 2009 8:54 AM

I'll be using my success with the black bean burgers last night to convince hubby to try this. It sounds FANTASTIC!

Posted by: earlysun | February 16, 2009 10:42 AM

AWESOME! I'm so glad one of my favorite foods made it's well-deserved way to the Post :)

Posted by: rchitale | February 16, 2009 12:27 PM

hi kim! this is suman, the original poster. so glad you liked the's a staple in our household. just for the record though, you kept referencing me as "he" in your article...i'm female :)

Posted by: sp1103sd | February 16, 2009 1:27 PM

SUMAN!! So sorry. I'll get that fixed pronto. And thanks again for all of your tidbits!

Posted by: Kim ODonnel | February 16, 2009 1:30 PM

Can anyone comment as to whether the mango powder is critical to the recipe? I'd love to try this, but we are committed at the moment to a "use what you have" approach. I'd like to understand how the mango powder works (both for flavor and, if applicable, chemical function (e.g., gumbo file/sassafras has a functional use more than a flavor use in some foods... wondering if this might be similar).


Posted by: Agathist | February 16, 2009 3:00 PM

Agathist, it adds to the complexity of flavor to the spice blend (with its sour-kind of sweet aroma and flavor), but it's not critical. Try it when you're ready to add to the spice rack. Cheers.

Posted by: Kim ODonnel | February 16, 2009 3:04 PM

i do like the mango powder in the recipe as well. If you have an indian store near by, it is easy to find. It is a good spice with indian potatoes dice/cubed sauteed in a pan with onions (optional).

Posted by: k1omal | February 16, 2009 5:48 PM

hi Kim,
loved your post on indian "Slumdog" street get the real flavour check out this video...people with real concerns of carbs and fat u can definitely omit the potatoes and even the butter for that matter and still you will have a heart warming comfort food of india. ENJOY

Posted by: nutsforpastry | February 17, 2009 3:41 AM

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