James Beard Publication of the Year 2017

An Omelet With History Written Into It

An Omelet With History Written Into It

Omelet Pav in Mumbai

The Mumbai monsoon is not a wild and chaotic affair; at least, not always. Sometimes, to be sure, the rains from the Arabian Sea do prove fierce and get the best of the city: streets flood, trains are cancelled, children stay home from school. But often enough, the rainy season provides the city with some of the pleasantest weather it sees all year: gentle sea breezes bringing in brief afternoon and nighttime showers.

This year, the latter mild weather dominated. Most mornings, with the air still cooled from the rain the night before, I would leave my flat in the historically Muslim neighborhood of Mahim and cross the street to the train station. I lived on a busy main road, and there was a footbridge over it, but I preferred to cross on street level, scrambling between motorcycles, giant Tata trucks, and taxis. Just outside the station entrance, next to the roadside barbers and fruit sellers, I would buy what became my usual breakfast: an omelet sandwich (known in colloquial Hindi as omelet pav) and a cup of chai.

The omelet vendor played a frenzied balancing act, serving customers, making change, and scrambling the next omelet’s eggs in a stainless steel cup. He always kept a few sandwiches in reserve on the edge of edge of his tava, the large, concave skillet he used. This had the welcome effect of toasting the bottom of the roll to crunchy perfection, while the inside remained soft and chewy. He would give me one of the sandwiches in a little square of newspaper, which was good for reading about last week’s parliamentary session and the latest Bollywood gossip as I ate. The omelet itself was seasoned liberally with green chili, which made for some potent breakfast fare. The heat from the chilies would rekindle scintillatingly with the first few sips of hot tea. And it was hot. The sweet, milky, ginger-filled brew was served in tiny glasses best held at the rim—very carefully, between thumb and forefinger—to avoid burning yourself.

This breakfast, like so much Indian food, has history written into it: the history of Mumbai, and of the country as a whole. It’s clear enough that the pav, the soft bun of the sandwich, is something of an interloper in a culture of flatbreads. Indeed, it’s a legacy of Portuguese rule in then-Bombay, which began in the mid-16th century. While in Mumbai, pav refers only to this particular kind of bun, the word comes directly from the Portuguese pão, which simply means “bread.”

The less obvious Portuguese contribution to this dish is the chilies, which came to the country via South America. Potatoes, too, entered India this way. These are such central elements to contemporary Indian cuisine that it’s nearly impossible to imagine the country’s food without them. Similarly, the chai that is so ubiquitous in India is not native to the country. It was only in the early decades of the 20th century that it became an Indian favorite, thanks to massive British marketing campaigns.

But then, India has a long history of accommodating foreign influences and making them its own. Its Mughal architecture and Persianate classical music, for instance, both attest to this ability. Each was transformed in some essential way as it was assimilated into the nation’s culture. So it was with this breakfast: hearty masala chai of any sort bears only a passing resemblance to straight-laced British tea. And the pav that holds my omelet has a very active life well beyond the modest fate a few Portuguese bakers might have originally imagined for it. It features in a whole host of Mumbai street foods, perhaps most famously in vada pav, the city’s signature deep-fried and searingly spicy potato patties.

My breakfast finished, or—as was usually the case—half-finished, I would catch a southbound train on the Western Line. If possible, I’d claim a spot just inside the open car doors. An agreeable breeze would blow as the train wound through the city, unhindered by the traffic of the streets. The signs declaring the names of the passing stations—Elphinstone Road, Mahalaxmi—bear a logo closely resembling that of the London Underground. But make no mistake: the ride, and the whole morning, was thoroughly Mumbai.

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