I sought out my first vada pau as I had been hearing about it for years and couldn’t understand how a potato burger could have so many fans. I was sent to a little roadside stall in Pune, a couple of hours’ drive from Mumbai. I ordered one, paid 10 INR (10 pence/cents) and waited. I was soon joined by a crowd of working men, all placing their orders. It all happened in minutes: balls of the spiced mashed potatoes were dipped in the batter, fried, then, almost faster than the eye could see, they were drained and slapped into rolls already smeared with chutneys and wrapped in paper. They were handed over, the server remembering exactly who had ordered what and how many. The vada pau was so much tastier than I had imagined – light, almost melt-in-your-mouth, with a lightly crisp coating, and the chutneys added so much complexity. My vada pau is inspired by that first experience.
For the filling
500g (1lb 2oz) potatoes (around 2 large ones)
1⁄2 tsp brown mustard seeds
12 fresh curry leaves
11⁄2 tsp finely grated root ginger
1 large garlic clove, finely grated
1 Indian green finger chilli (chile),
finely chopped, or as much as you like
1⁄3 tsp ground turmeric
11⁄2 tsp lemon juice, or to taste
good handful of chopped coriander
For the batter
75g (1⁄3 cup) chickpea (gram) flour
¼ tsp baking powder
8 soft pau, burger buns or baps
8 tbsp Tangy Herb Chutney
6–7 tbsp Dry Garlic Chutney
Bring a big pot of salted water to the boil. Halve the potatoes and cook until soft. Leave to cool, then peel and mash.
Meanwhile, heat 1½ tbsp oil for the filling in a small pan. Add the mustard seeds and, when they start to pop, throw in the curry leaves. Follow after a few beats with the ginger, garlic and chilli and cook, stirring often, until the garlic smells cooked, around 1 minute. Add the turmeric, stir for 10 seconds and take off the heat. Add the cool mashed potato, lemon juice, coriander and salt to taste and mix it all together; I use my hands as I find it all comes together better. Taste and adjust if necessary. Make into 8 roughly equal-sized balls.
Whisk together the ingredients for the batter, adding a good pinch of salt and enough water to make a medium-consistency batter (40–50ml/ 3 tbsp). The thinner the coating, the lighter and crispier it will be.
Slice the buns in half, but not all the way through. I like to toast them in a hot oven or a frying pan, but they can just be at room temperature.
Heat 10cm (4in) of oil in a wide saucepan, karahi or wok over a medium heat; the oil needs to be medium hot. Taking 1 ball at a time, flatten it gently into a burger shape (I like the centre to be slightly thicker than the edges). Place in the batter and, once well coated, place straight into the hot oil. Repeat with another 2. If the potatoes are not completely submerged in the oil, using a slotted spoon, quickly splash hot oil on top so it seals. Cook until golden and crisp on both sides.
Place on kitchen paper and repeat to cook the remaining burgers.
As these cook, spread the herb chutney on one side of the bun and sprinkle the dry chutney on the other (you can also make a paste of this by adding some water). Place the potato burgers on the dry chutney side, close and enjoy.
Tangy herb chutney
This is a lovely, versatile chutney that is tangy and herby rather than sweet. It is the cornerstone of all north Indian snacks. We love it with our samosas, bhajis, pakoras, kebabs and most other things. There are many variations: some will add a little sugar, some raw garlic, and others yogurt. This is how we like it in my family and it is a perfect base from which to experiment if you want. Makes 200ml (¾ cup)
60g (3 cups) coriander (cilantro) leaves and some stalks
2 tbsp lemon juice, or to taste
20g (3⁄4 packed cup) mint leaves
25g (1⁄4 cup) pistachios (shelled weight)
1⁄2 garlic clove (optional)
4 tbsp water
Blend all the ingredients until smooth and creamy; it might take a minute or so. Taste and adjust the seasoning and tang (lemon juice) to taste. Keep in an airtight glass jar in the fridge or freeze until ready to use.
Dry garlic Chutney
1 tsp vegetable oil
1–3 dried chillies (chiles), or chilli (chili) powder, to taste
7 large garlic cloves, peeled
2 rounded tbsp desiccated coconut
2 tbsp roasted peanuts
Heat the oil in a small pan. Add the chillies and, once they darken a little, add the garlic and cook
for 1 minute or until just lightly coloured on all sides. Add the coconut and a little salt. Stir until
the coconut is golden. Pour into a good mortar and pestle (or grinder), with the peanuts, and pound to a fine powder. Season to taste.
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