It's 6.30 am. Today, as on all days, the skies hang grey over the silent streets, the sunlight dim and watery, as far from the bright, shining Goa of vacation commercials as could be. A distinctive honk pierces the gloom. And then another, louder this time. The sparrows, startled by the sudden noise, chirrup and shriek as the whole neighbourhood is forced awake.
The poder is here.
A basket filled with bread sways precariously as he swerves, making his way through the gullies, liberal in his use of the horn. He stops at each house, stuffing loaves of fresh bread into the cotton sacks that hang from the gates. Lured by his call, children swarm to his rusty bicycle to pick off a few pieces. He is generous with them--they will be loyal (and more importantly, paying) customers in a few years, and the Goan poder is nothing if he isn't in it for the long run--his bakery's been standing for generations, passed from father to son to great-great grandson, whole families dedicated to protecting this precious culinary tradition, through occupation and political unrest, through recessions and rebellions.
India's introduction to leavened bread began with the arrival of the Portuguese on the Konkan coast. Desperate for the soft, fluffy bread needed for communion, and in short supply of the yeast needed to make it rise, the Portuguese used sura, an alcohol made from palm sap, to ferment it, giving it a uniquely sweet flavour.
Traditional bakeries make many different types of bread, the most common one being pav, a pull-apart bread that's dusted golden on top, its smoke-sweet sponge ideal for soaking up kaalchi kodi (literally, yesterday's curry, which is cooked overnight until it thickens). Other varieties include the poli, which is flat and coated with bran, the undo, a denser version reminiscent of Tuscan ciabatta, and kankon, rings of bread that are served with tea. Some bakers also serve poderanche bol, a sweet bread filled with coconut that's only offered to long-time customers during festivals.
Pav, especially, will be familiar to many people, from its use in popular Indian street foods like pav bhaji. As Goans migrated to Bombay in search of jobs, pav became more popular, but was still seen as an impure food, due to its use of alcohol.This view changed with the arrival of Asia's first stock exchange. Gujarati traders made their fortunes by staying up late at night and into the morning, waiting for the New York cotton exchange. Forced to stay up late in order to serve this flood of affluent customers, vendors found it easier to use pav instead of expensive sandwich bread. Served with a mixture of vegetable scraps and mashed potatoes (also bequeathed to us by the Portuguese), and topped with onion and lemon, pav bhaji became the quintessential Bombay street food.
Today, as India enters into a time of greater religious divides and rising violent nationalism, pav serves as a bittersweet reminder of colonisation. Initially introduced as a comfort for upper-class despots, and having made its way into even the poorest households through the passage of centuries, it becomes increasingly harder to separate its two identities: the legacy of brutal religious persecution, and the eagerly-awaited indulgence that cuts through class, creed, and religion to feature in so many childhood memories.
When people call for a return to tradition, even aggressive patriots don't know where to draw the line. How much do we cut out and still retain our identity? How much of our true self even remains with us, if it remains with us at all? To what extent are we influenced by our oppression?
These questions are debated on television and in Parliament, over chai and at dinner tables. We may never have an answer. It'll be a long time before we look at our history objectively, if we ever do.