If you grew up in the Mumbai of the 80s, you will know the term maca paav. It was used (mind you, in a very matter-of-fact way, with no malice intended) to describe any football-loving, churchgoing Goan girl or boy who resided anywhere from Mahim creek to the outer edges of Santa Cruz. What or who maca was held no interest for us. It was the ‘paav’ part that we were fascinated by.
You see, while the rest of us ate chapatis or rice at every meal, rumour had it that these lucky lads and lasses, whose great-uncles and grandfathers had moved from Goa to Mumbai along with their bread-making skills, ate paav with everything. Paav with omelette, paav with potato bhaaji, paav with mutton curry, paav with soup, paav with kheema, paav with rassa, paav with fried prawns, paav with cutlets. You name it and they sopped it up with paav, much to our envy.
In our ‘ghaati’ household (another Mumbai moniker for locals from the Western Ghats), paav was rationed. Not because it was expensive (at 25 paise for a laadi or slab of 6, it was not) but because my grandmother didn’t consider it suitable food. For a woman who lugged back 5 kilos of the choicest ground wholegrain wheat flour from the mill and transformed it into robust, brown-flecked chapatis, this paav made from insipid white flour was an absolute affront.
She would rather we ate batate poha for breakfast, but the fact that lunch for the officegoers in the family had to be ready to be picked up at 8.45 a.m. by the dabbawallah meant there was no time to cook breakfast. So, with a pained look and much clucking of the tongue, she resigned herself to watching her ‘junglee’ grandchildren falling over themselves to get at the paav, which she served with a pat of her homemade butter and a cup of extra milky tea to compensate for its lack of sustenance. As you might have guessed, we loved paav. And what was not to love? White all around and pale brown on top. We could have eaten them by the dozen. Instead, we got two each for breakfast. As an incentive, the cousin whose turn it was to wake at 5.30 a.m. to fetch the paavs would be allowed one extra paav. When my turn came, I would eat my extra paav on the way back, tearing eagerly into its warm, pillowy insides.
The bakery where we lined up at dawn was just across the road. A small shopfront with no signboard, it had soot-laden walls and one flickering lamp hanging from a cracked ceiling. A pink and green icon of baby Jesus was nailed to the back wall and flour covered most of his cherubic face and body. Actually, flour covered most of the counter, the aluminium trays and the neatly stacked sheets of old newspapers. Under baby Jesus’ watch was a dark cavern from which another boy, his face and singlet also covered in flour, would pop out and thump down a large tray of plump paavs. The man at the counter would push the change you placed on the counter into an open drawer, tear off the paavs, wrap them in a newspaper and shoo you away.
Back then, nobody had ovens at home, so what exactly went on inside that black hole aroused immense curiosity. It was rumoured that drunkards were hired to knead the dough through the night and that they kneaded it with their dirty feet. Once, it seems, a child had stayed back to watch and he got kneaded right in.
But mostly we were preoccupied with the paav’s life story. How did it fluff up like this? We had heard whispers of some germs called ‘yeast’ that were fed in. We also knew there was a ‘bhatti’ into which wood had to be constantly fed. Our requests to see the bhatti were never taken seriously.
More to bread
Later, as reforms started trickling in, came the Sandwich Breads. Unlike paav, these didn’t need to be bought fresh daily and you didn’t need to queue up at the crack of dawn for them. It wasn’t long before the bakery opposite our house shut down and a dry-cleaning shop took its place.
Soon we grew up and went to college. And then a new kind of bread arrived in our lives which displaced our affections yet again. This hand-span sized disc of thick white bread was sold in twos for a rather princely amount. On the plastic cover was written ‘Pizza Base’ but for the longest time, we knew it simply as pizza paav, and there was a colourful picture of what you could do with it once you took it home.
So we took it home and recreated the picture faithfully. On top of the pizza paav, we shook a bottle of tomato sauce till its surface was covered in red blobs. Then came one layer of onion rings, one layer of capsicum rings, one layer of tomato rings.
Over this heap of balancing vegetables, were grated two cubes of cheese, their streaky stringy bits rendering the entire surface white. This wobbly thumb-high arrangement was delicately transferred to a heating tava and covered with another large upturned vessel till the cheese melted completely. For the next 15 messy minutes or so that it took us to devour it, we were in raptures. We finally knew what America tasted like.
It would be another 10 years before I would travel to Italy and finally know what a pizza tasted like. And another 10 years more before I would muster up the courage to buy an oven and try my hand at bread-making.
But when it came to baking my own breads, I found I had inherited my grandmother’s distrust of ‘white flour’. Maida just wouldn’t do. Well, learning to make bread from chakki-ground whole grain atta wasn’t easy. It required a certain amount of naïveté, patience and a family that would stoically put up with frequent disasters.
A decade and thousands of loaves later, there are many lessons to share. First and foremost, real bread needs no maida, no sugar, no oil, no improver. Bread is just whole grain flour, salt, yeast and water. And the reassurance that bread-making is like every other thing we do in life. Breads turn out terrible at first, they get better and better with practice, till finally a day comes when your loaf sings, the crust crackles, and your family cannot stomach store-bought bread ever again.
Photo: Getty Images/ iStock
3 cups whole wheat atta, preferably ground with its husk
1 tsp salt
1 tsp yeast (instant or active)
2 cups water + a few tbsp more
1. Knead it all, adding 2 cups of water. (If using active yeast, first proof it as per the packet instructions and then add it to the flour.) The dough will be sticky, so pour a few tablespoons of water in a plate. Now, dip your sticky palm face down in the water, lift it and shake off the excess water. Using the wet palm, get back to work with the dough, which will behave better now. Whenever it starts becoming sticky again, wet your palm again in the plate and knead it. When it comes together into a ball and your fingers are clean of all stickiness, your dough is ready. Keep it in a large bowl and cover with a plate.
2. Come back after 90 minutes and check on the dough. It will have doubled in size. Make a fist and knock it gently back into the bowl. Now shape it gently into a ball or an oblong depending on the shape of your bread pan. Handle it like a baby. Grease the pan with butter and drop the dough in the pan. Put the bread pan in the cold oven for another round of rising and come back after 50 minutes.
3. Take out the bread pan. Preheat an empty oven on toast (top and bottom rod on) mode to 250ºC for 10 minutes. Now change the settings to 220ºC, 30 minutes and bake (bottom rod on) mode. Take a small pair of scissors and with a light hand, quickly make 3 equidistant snips on the surface of the dough and put the bread pan in the centre rack.
4. After 15 minutes, open the oven door and turn the bread around. After 15 more minutes, remove bread from pan and knock on its bottom. It should make a hollow sound; that means the bread is done. Let it cool for 4-5 hours before serving
The writer lives in Bengaluru with herself, one husband, one daughter and one oven.