My first taste of that nice little bonda and the pao, or to give it a fancy name as per American standards – the crisp, chickpea battered potato slider seasoned with mustard seeds, onions, turmeric and asafetida served sandwiched between house-baked bread garnished with tamarind chutney served with salted, caramelized padrano peppers was when my rickshawalla took his school kid gang out for a treat after the end of a term.
Being tied up with a strict dietary regime for all these years due to god’s choice of bestowing me with some wondrous health problems, my parents were shocked when they heard that I had the common snack of the common man. Till now my diet included high end ingredients perfectly weighed and balanced evenly with specific amounts of proteins, fats, carbs and starches cooked to my taste into some dish that is a replica of some continental fare in a highly sterilized environment using double boiled water, specific salts and selective brands of products….
So for me tasting the wada pao was like tasting freedom. And truly it was just that. I had finally overcome all immune deficiencies to be able to digest all the millions of microbes and god-knows-what else in the water used to mix the batter, the high cholesterol in the recycled fat that is used in frying, the germs and bacteria mingling with the salty sweat clad hands of the vendor that tears the bread to slide the bonda, not to forget that the bread has been sitting outside exposed to the smoke, the air and the flies around….
But ……. I didn’t taste all that, I didn’t see all that. The spice notes in the mashed potato were playing hide and seek with my tongue, the mustard crackled with a pungent-bitter taste in my mouth while turmeric opened all my senses with its earthy smell. The onions crunched adding symphony to the crumbling of the chickpea crust as my teeth worked their way through both…the bread disintegrated into my mouth with layers of simplicity, the browned yeast and flour reminding me of the the smell of wet soil during rains; it cleaned my palate toning down the impact of the first swallow while the tamarind chutney spiked my taste buds refreshing them for another bite making every morsel enjoyable. The heavily salted green chillies enhanced the experience making my mouth water, the heat of the little green monsters teased my tongue as if involving it in a foreplay for foodgasm – I felt like a virgin losing my virginity in an ecstatically perfect sexual play.
It was the simplicity of it that overwhelmed me.I had thought that my very first incredibly memorable dining experience would be in a Times Rated Five Starrer breathing in air conditioned, perfumed air, white table cloth, wine in crystal glass and a white gloved waiter serving food from the left side in an imported china-ware proudly announcing the dish with a ‘voilà!‘ However it was right beside a small canal in Pune, while inhaling the polluted air, standing in the summer breeze, leaning against the cool metal of the rickshaw with a sweaty palmed vendor thrusting a paper ball that contained my first delicious Wada Pao in my hand.
After that I have had wada paos countless number of times, some good, some bad – the joshi wada walas I feel are simply well marketed than delivering the necessary taste while the Diwadkar ones are the epitome of the humble sliders, well worth the run to jump into your train compartment as the train leaves the Karjat station while you are engrossed in making it through the crowd to grab atleast a dozen to last for the remainder of your journey to Mumbai; but the taste of the first one has always lingered…has always inspired me as a chef.
Thousands, no, millions of people have fond nostalgic memories attached to this Indian potato slider; it has been made in homes, at roadsides, presented in high end hotels and restaurants and even used as a political symbol in India’s one of the biggest cosmopolitans, and now it has reached international standards as renowned chefs and aspiring ones like me have presented with different versions of Wada Pao to the global clientele. We have deconstructed it, reconstructed it, fried it in bacon fat or wrapped it in Focaccia, served it in china or custom made plates and have glamorized it with various names and descriptions equating its value from four rupees for one the size of your palm to four thousand rupees the size of an egg…..but yet, to me it has still been a symbol of humbleness, a reminder that food, as much as you may glamorize it as art has roots in simplicity. Rephrasing Lincoln in culino-politics, it has been and will always be the food of the commons, for the commons, by the commons… this Wada Pao.