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Pav bhaji is a saucy, spicy Indian classic to riff on at home

Pav bhaji is a spicy Indian classic.  (Scott Suchman for The Washington Post/food styling by Lisa Cherkasky for The Washington Post)
By Joe Yonan Washington Post

In her stellar first cookbook, “Amrikan,” Khushbu Shah takes aim at one of the tropes of Western food writing: describing a foreign dish by tying it to an American equivalent, however much of a stretch it might be. Take pav bhaji, toasted bread (pav) topped with mashed, seasoned vegetables (bhaji), for example. She writes: “People like to describe it as ‘Indian sloppy joes,’ and while visually they have similarities, the taste could not be more different.”

There’s nothing necessarily wrong with using something familiar to describe something unfamiliar, but the choices involved do often say more about the writer – and the intended, assumed audience – than they do about the food itself.

Shah is no purist. In a Zoom interview, she stressed that the idea of “fusion” has gotten a bad rap, mostly because it’s often not done with intention and respect. “You see people say, ‘Oh, look, I’m just going to take this one thing and this other thing and we’re really just going to mash them together,’ without thinking about how they might actually really work together,” she said. “But fusion is really the intersection of culture. And when cultures intersect, that’s how cuisine evolves, you know?”

Shah’s book is a paean to the cooking of the Indian diaspora that defined her upbringing in Michigan. “I grew up eating quesadillas, but I also grew up eating aloo paratha and stir-fried cabbage and things with a lot of turmeric and Kashmiri red chili powder,” she said. “All of these foods feel equally of my upbringing, of my palate. And so it makes sense for those to start to intersect, and not just on my palate but also on the plates of other people who are part of this diaspora.”

Shah’s book reflects her personality: vibrant, creative, outspoken, thoughtful, fun-loving. (Consider the title, which represents the way Indian Americans say “American.”) She grew up in a vegetarian household, so the book is mostly vegetarian, but it includes some meat as a reflection of the “complicated and complex relationship with meat” Indians have historically had. “Many diasporic Indians hail from upper caste cultures, which tend to be vegetarian,” she writes.

Before she left Food & Wine magazine, Shah was the first person of color to be a national restaurant critic, so she spent years crisscrossing the country in search of the best places of all types to eat. And along the way, she tried Indian restaurants everywhere she could. That research, along with nostalgia about her childhood, informs the wide range of recipes, including such classics as dal makhani and chana masala and such inventions as saag paneer lasagna, green chutney pizza and jalapeño popper samosas.

But as Shah points out, some things that might strike a purist as nontraditional are standard in her world. She uses Bisquick to make her gulab jamun, for instance, something that would confuse Indians in India. “No one in the American diaspora is surprised by that,” she says. “They’re like, ‘Oh, yeah, my mom does the same.’ ”

Pav bhaji, meanwhile, is one of the classics in the book, treated traditionally because that’s how people in the diaspora tend to still make it. And it’s already the product of fusion; it was born, Shah writes, when Portuguese colonization brought pav, a soft bread roll, to India’s western coast. Shah uses grilled potato rolls or hamburger buns for ease.

The dish is refreshingly flexible in other ways; while it usually includes potatoes and peas, it’s perfectly acceptable to use whatever vegetables you have on hand, as long as they’re mashable. Shah includes cauliflower in hers, but the first time I made it, I took it as part of a meal train to a friend who can’t stand the crucifer, so I doubled up on the peas instead. At home, where my husband is an avowed pea hater, I doubled up on the cauliflower.

Either way, the enduring appeal of pav bhaji lies in its riot of flavors and textures: a deeply spiced tomato-onion gravy coats the mild vegetables, while the chunky-but-soft mash contrasts with the griddled bread and, as Shah prefers, “a mountain of raw onions.”

Pav bhaji, in fact, is one of Mumbai’s most famous street foods; Shah calls it “the ultimate late-night snack.” The main connection to the retro American sandwich is in its sloppiness. So the next time I come across a sloppy Joe, I plan to refer to it as “American pav bhaji.” Loudly and proudly.

Pav Bhaji

This easy Indian dish consists of mashed vegetables cooked in a tomato-onion gravy, heavily seasoned, then spooned over soft rolls and topped with raw onions. One of Mumbai’s most famous street foods, it is what cookbook author Khushbu Shah calls “the ultimate late-night snack.” While potatoes and peas are the default veg combination, anything mashable is fair game. Here’s where leftover and/or frozen vegetables can come in handy for an on-the-fly meal.

Adapted from “Amrikan” by Khushbu Shah (W.W. Norton & Co., 2024).


For the pav bhaji masala

1 tablespoon garam masala

2 teaspoons Kashmiri red chili powder

2 teaspoons amchoor powder (green mango powder)

1 teaspoon ground turmeric

1 teaspoon ground coriander

1 teaspoon ground cumin

1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/2 teaspoon ground cardamom

For the pav bhaji

1/2 teaspoon fine salt, plus more to taste

4 medium red potatoes (1 pound total), scrubbed

1/2 small head cauliflower (8 ounces), cut into large florets

1 cup frozen green peas

2 tablespoons neutral oil, such as vegetable

1 large white onion (12 ounces), chopped, plus sliced onion for serving

4 or 5 large Roma tomatoes (1 pound total), chopped

1 tablespoon unsalted butter

12 potato rolls or 6 hamburger buns, lightly toasted

Lemon wedges, for serving


Make the pav bhaji masala: In a small bowl, whisk together the garam masala, chili powder, amchoor powder, turmeric, coriander, cumin, cinnamon and cardamom until well combined.

Make the pav bhaji: Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add the potatoes (left whole) and boil until a skewer meets only slight resistance, 20 to 25 minutes. Add the cauliflower and cook until almost tender, about 10 minutes, then add the frozen peas and cook until tender, about 2 minutes. Reserve 2 cups of the cooking liquid, then drain the vegetables. Let sit until the potatoes are cool enough to handle, then use your hands to slip the peels off the potatoes (and discard or compost the peels).

While the vegetables are boiling, in a Dutch oven or other large pot over medium heat, heat the oil until shimmering. Add the onion and saute until translucent, 4 to 5 minutes. Add the tomatoes, and cook until jammy, 7 to 8 minutes. Turn off the heat and let the tomato mixture sit while you finish boiling the vegetables and peeling the potatoes.

Add the potatoes, cauliflower and peas to the tomato mixture and gently mash them into the gravy, leaving some small pieces so the mash has some texture. Add the pav bhaji masala, salt and 1 cup of the cooking water, and stir to combine. Bring the mixture to a simmer and cook until it thickens and the flavors meld, about 10 minutes. Turn off the heat, cover and let sit for 5 to 10 minutes. Stir in up to 1 cup more of the cooking water if needed; you want the texture to be like sloppy Joes – scoopable but not stiff. Add the butter and stir until it melts.

Transfer the mixture to a serving bowl and serve hot, with the rolls or buns, lemons for squeezing over and lots of sliced onions for topping.

Yields: 6 cups

Storage: Refrigerate the mashed seasoned vegetables (bhaji) separately for up to 4 days.

Make ahead: The vegetables can be boiled and refrigerated for up to 3 days, then proceed with the rest of the recipe.

Where to buy: Kashmiri red chili powder and amchoor powder can be found at Indian markets, well-stocked international supermarkets and online.

Active time: 45 mins; Total time: 1 hour 5 mins

Substitutions: Don’t want to make the pav bhaji masala? Look for a premade blend at Indian grocery stores. (You might want to add more turmeric and/or chili powder to taste.) To make it vegan? Use vegan butter or more neutral oil. Can’t find Kashmiri chili powder? Use conventional chili powder. Can’t find amchoor powder? Use 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice.

Notes: If you’d like to add richness to the bread, brush it with melted butter and griddle it until lightly golden brown.

Nutrition | Per serving (1 cup bhaji plus 2 rolls): 445 calories, 76g carbohydrates, 5mg cholesterol, 11g fat, 8g fiber, 13g protein, 2g saturated fat, 643mg sodium, 13g sugar