“If you’re trying to cultivate the yeast culture for Parbhi pav, you have to keep it a secret. Disclose it to anyone and your pav is doomed,” Soumitra Velkar tells me the old wives’ tale over the phone as I request him to let me come and watch him bake the indigenous bread, “I have to get the starter right, now that I have told you,” he chuckles.
A small paragraph about the Pathare Prabhu pav in Saee Koranne-Khandekar’s book Crumbs! piqued my interest in this lesser-known bread. Parbhi pav is fluffy and soft bread, akin to muffin in texture, traditionally eaten with aamras. The starter – made with chana dal, potato peel, milk and water fermented overnight – adds a mysterious charm to the bread. The foam that forms on the top of this mix along with the fermented liquid is used to leaven the bread batter – an idli batter like mix of maida, butter/ghee, honey and salt.
Velkar who hosts Pathare Prabhu meals with Authenticook – a start-up run by a bunch of food enthusiasts to promote the Indian regional cuisines through home dining experiences – has been trying his hands on baking a perfect Parbhi pav since past 3-4 years. “It’s all about the timing; the proofing (the process of yeast working on the dough/batter to help it rise) takes around 4-5 hours which results in perfectly fluffy pav,” he says. The hot and humid months of April and May are the only time when the bread is baked and so, sweet aamras is the perfect foil for the savoury bread. If you find the combination too radical, just dunk it in your evening tea and munch on.
The starter for Parbhi Pav in the process of making.
The Pathare Prabhus were one of the original settlers of Mumbai who came to the city from Rajasthan and Gujarat. The community was highly educated and advanced which helped them secure high profile government jobs and close proximity with the British. It’s this closeness which largely influenced their food habits hence you see a lot of breads, pies and other bakery stuff in the Pathare Prabhu cuisine. A 120 year old book, written by Laxmibai Kunjvihari Sadashiv Dhurandhar, chronicles every Pathare Prabhu recipe and is considered a Bible by the purveyors of the cuisine. The Prabhus were pro at baking even when they didn’t have access to high end baking equipment. “My dad tells me about the copper kiln my grandmother had at their home on Marine Drive. She used to fill it with a layer of sand before baking the pavs,” says Aneesh Dhairyawan, co-founder of Authenticook.
While the end result is a glorious, fluffy and buttery pav, it’s not easy to sit through the process of baking it. The starter gives out a strong smell which is similar to overly sour buttermilk or ghee being made at home. The people from outside the community often find the aroma a bit strange or even unpleasant, “during the summer just after our marriage, my wife – a non Pathare Prabhu - and I were invited for dinner at a relative’s house. The pav was being baked in the kitchen and my wife attributed the smell to some food gone rancid. Later at the dinner table she was shocked to see the reason for the offensive smell on her plate,” says Velkar. However, once you get past the smell, the pav is a complete revelation and I say this from experience.
The ingredients for making the starter.
Recipe for Parbhi Pav (shared by Soumitra Velkar)
For the starter
1/2 cup chana dal
Peel of one potato
A pinch of soda
1 cup lukewarm milk
1 cup lukewarm water
For the pav
3 cups maida
1/4 cup melted butter/ghee
1 tsp honey
½ tsp salt
Making the starter
1. Take chana dal, potato peel and soda in a container with narrow mouth. A small steel kalshi/handi will be perfect for this.
2. Top it with lukewarm water and milk and cover with a bowl.
3. Place this kalshi in a bigger container with a lid that shuts tightly.
4. Leave it undisturbed for at least 10-12 hours in a warm place (preferably overnight).
5. At the end of this period, the mix will have fermented yielding a sour smelling frothy mix.
6. Collect the fermented liquid and the froth on top in a large glass bowl. Discard the potato peels and chana dal. Ensure that not a single peel or grain of dal gets into your batter.
Making the batter for the pav
1. Into the fermented liquid (which should be approximately 2 cups), fold in 3 cups of refined flour (maida) and mix till you have a thick batter (slightly thicker than idli batter).
2. If you think you need a little more liquid to get the right consistency, add some lukewarm water to the chana dal and rinse off – use this to adjust the consistency of batter.
3. Add honey, salt and butter/ghee to the batter.
4. Grease the bread tin or muffin moulds and fill them half with the batter. Leave it for 3-4 hours to rise; it should be double the quantity after rising.
5. Bake the pav in a preheated oven at 180 degrees for 25-30 minutes.
6. Once they are a lovely golden colour, take the moulds out of the oven and brush the tops with some melted butter.
7. The resultant bread should be airy and resemble the texture of a moist light muffin.
8. Serve these with aamras or have them with a hot cup of chai with butter, sprinkled with sugar or smeared with jam.
The author is a freelance food and travel writer and shares her stories on Foodchants. She is on a perpetual quest to learn about the history of regional food.