Joyously messy, and positively vibrating with gutsy flavor, India’s beloved pav bhaji is an exercise in economy. Built from frugal pantry staples like potatoes and onions and green bell peppers, this Mumbai street-style “sandwich” is the answer when you need to clean out the pantry or want to feed a crowd on a dime.
Thought to have originated as a quick but filling and nutritious meal for Mumbai’s textile workers, pav bhaji has become a revered Indian street food practically synonymous with Mumbai itself—perhaps just as iconic as Juhu Beach and Bollywood. Vendors usually set up massive cast-iron griddles on portable stove tops roaring with fire. The bhaji cooks in the center while the pav (derived from the Portuguese pao) toasts in puddles of butter along the edges of the pan.
In this pav bhaji recipe, we enhance the dish’s affordability, ease, and quickness by scaffolding the stewy filling with frozen vegetables, keeping both the cost and prep time down. Its bright red color comes from a mix of tomato paste and smoky paprika (you can swap in more traditional mild Kashmiri chile powder if you have it). As good as the veggie mixture is—with its lush risotto-like texture, bold spices, and rich, buttery flavor—the final garnishes are what make it excellent. The shower of sharp, juicy raw chopped onions, fresh cilantro, and a squeeze of lime (which we prefer to lemon juice) is imperative. And finally, the buns. Toasted pav from a dry pan doesn’t do them any justice, so simply do not forgo the step of griddling them in (too much) butter.
If you happen to have a box of premade pav bhaji masala powder, use 2–3 Tbsp. of that in lieu of the dry spices listed here (add it along with the tomato paste).
For even more Indian snacks, try our recipes for aloo chaat, Vada Pav, Dahi Puri, or Bombay Sandwiches.
Check out food editor Shilpa Uskokovic’s column, What a Steal, for more highly craveable recipes that save some $$$ along the way.