September 16, 2014
Several months ago, Saveur Magazine (to which I am a subscriber and of which I am generally a big fan) tweeted about vada pav, linking to a recipe and calling the sandwich “Mumbai’s answer to the hamburger.”
I took issue.
One culture’s dish is not necessarily an “answer to” another, and to imply so betrays bias—in this case, a Western one. To say that a vada pav is “like” a hamburger–or, more accurately, a veggie burger–would make sense as far as providing useful context for your audience. But the language “answer to” implies that Indians developed vada pav in imitation of the hamburger, which is ridiculous; we’re talking about a country with one of the richest food traditions of all time, built through the process of repeated foreign invasions and the influence of vastly diverse cultures, none of which give a shit about American hamburgers.
But it’s just wording, you might be saying. Why get so angry over semantics?
Because semantics matter. Because semantics are about more than just semantics. I’m certain that whomever at Saveur (a food publication that usually tends to be much more sensitive than some of its peers about positionality and exoticizing and assuming audience) tweeted that seemingly innocuous comparison, they were not thinking about any of the implications that later got hashed out on Twitter after I responded to the tweet and my response caught the attention of folks in the Houston food community and beyond. That’s my point, though; they didn’t think.
It’s easy not to think about these things when they don’t affect you. It’s easy to say, “Oh, it’s not that big a deal!” when the language in question is not reductive of you or your people. It’s easy to think that someone’s just making a fuss when you aren’t the one feeling dismissed or discounted.
I’m an English teacher and a writer, so of course I believe that our words matter; but I’m not the only one. Nearly every religious tradition the world has ever known invokes the power of language: in their creation myths (think of “In the beginning was the Word”), in their ritual (Hindus & Buddhists, among others, utilize mantras), and in their practices (many Jews will not write out God’s name, out of respect for the power that it wields).
Shiv, who turned two in July, has exploded with language in the last month or so. It’s been incredible to watch, a marvel really, how quickly his brain acquires and connects and makes meaning. I am reminded of the Old Testament scene from Genesis, where God gives Adam the authority to name the creatures; as my son walks and names what he sees, it is almost as if he grants things their very being. His world comes to life through his speaking, and he relates to that world in a completely different way now that he can speak about it.
They say that one reason for “baby amnesia,” the fact that most of us have little-to-no memory before the age of two or three, is also related to language; without language, the structure through which humans make meaning of their surroundings, we are unable to record our experiences.
Speech carries great weight—we’ve all experienced this in our own lives. Just a few words, the “right” ones or the “wrong” ones, can stick with us forever, can cause us to shut down or open up, to decide in an instant to change our life’s path or join our life with someone else’s.
So yeah, it matters to me when our culture casually perpetuates sloppy, harmful language, reinforcing dangerous forms of “normality” and turning a blind eye to stuff that really matters. Would we care about “domestic” violence more if we simply referred to it as violence? Why am I a “lesbian writer,” when all of my straight friends are just writers? How is it okay call Shiv my “adopted son,” but would be weird if I talked to a colleague about his “conceived-by-IVF daughter”?
The good news is, I’ve found, most folks—at least the ones I’m lucky to know—are willing to engage with another perspective, to look and see if something they’ve said might have a host of implications they hadn’t considered. We’re all guilty of it, myself included.
It’s easy not to think about these things. That’s why it’s so important that we do.
MY MOM’S PAV BHAJI
I’ve never been that big of a fan of vada pav, but pav bhaji–that’s a different story. More vegetarian sloppy joe than hamburger, pav bhaji is a delicious, delicious comfort food that works perfectly for colder weather months and is one of those meals you can make mostly ahead/eat throughout the week.
My most distinct memory of this meal is working at the kitchen table in my parents’ house growing up (the table where I sit right now, in fact, as we inherited it from my mom when she moved here) on weekend afternoons. During junior and senior year, when I was working my butt off on Calculus and college applications and my World History II term paper and Physics and Mock Trial, my mom would deliver chai and pav bhaji to the table; I could eat & drink with one hand, and keep working with the other.
Because my mom is basically the best (as is clearly demonstrated by the story above and about a zillion others), she took the time to measure out the ingredients and write down the method for her pav bhaji recipe, a thing so rare that we should consider it a great gift indeed. And just as delicious as I remember from high school.
one large red onion, diced
1 T finely minced ginger
2 cloves garlic, finely minced
½ cup fresh cilantro, chopped
half a head of cauliflower, cut or broken into 1-inch pieces
4 large, ripe tomatoes, diced (substitute 14 oz. can of diced potatoes)
2 medium-sized Russet potatoes, peeled & diced
1 cup cubed fresh carrots
1 cup frozen peas
¼ cup butter
2 T canola oil
small pinch asafetida
generous pinch ground turmeric
2 T pav bhaji masala (mix is available for purchase at Indian grocery stores, or you can make your own)
salt, to taste
Place potato and cauliflower in a pot with enough water to cover. Add cubed carrots and bring the vegetables to a boil, cooking until potatoes are tender. Mash vegetables gently with a potato masher, not to a pulp but in order to create a “sloppy joe” kind of texture. Do not discard the leftover water.
In a separate, heavy-bottomed pan, add butter and oil and head over medium. Once hot, add asafetida and turmeric—they should sizzle. Immediately add onions, garlic, and ginger, and sauté until the onions have browned slightly. Next add the tomatoes and pav bhaji masala; cover the pot and allow the mixture to simmer for 3-5 minutes. Add the mashed vegetables and any accumulated liquid, along with frozen peas and salt to taste.
Cook uncovered over medium heat, stirring regularly to make sure that the mixture does not stick to the bottom. Continue to cook until all water is evaporated and the mixture is thick. Stir in half the cilantro and garnish with the rest.
sliced sweet onion
bread of your choice—soft rolls or hamburger buns are traditional
pav bhaji masala
When ready to eat, melt a little butter in a skillet over medium heat. Add a pinch of the pav bhaji and swirl the pan, then toast your bread in the pan, flipping to season both sides. Repeat as needed.
Pile the pav bhaji mixture onto the bread to eat as sandwiches, or use the bread for dipping. Squeeze lime on top of everything and enjoy bites of onion in between bites of bhaji. Best enjoyed with a proper cup of chai.