Taste of Life: World War 2 air raid shoots Pune street food into public acclaim

Food traditions are often messy, complicated, and mostly a confluence of other varied traditions. There is usually little by way of purity or simplicity.

In April 1942, Pune was preparing itself to face an aerial attack. When war seemed inevitable and it was realized that aerial attack would be the greatest threat posed by any coming conflict, the British government established a volunteer organization – Air Raid Precautions or ARP – that would stand at the centre of the wartime civil defence. Members of the ARP in Britain distributed gas masks to the population and policed the blackout. After the war started in September 1939, they played a vital role in shepherding people to shelter, reporting on damage, and rescuing people from wrecked buildings.

In India, ARP Law came into force in 1939. Each city had multiple ARP wardens, and they had a troop of volunteers to help them with their wartime activities. Regular drills were carried out by the ARP wardens in conjunction with the police, local hospitals, and the fire department. There was a provision to arrest people who did not cooperate with the ARP volunteers.

When Vishakhapatnam, Kakinada, and Colombo were bombed in the first week of April 1942, Pune panicked. A black-out was enforced, and the Municipal Corporation supplied each house with jute sandbags. Several practice drills were held, and air-raid sirens would wail at ungodly hours. The local populace was supposed to rush into air-raid shelters upon hearing the sirens. But since there were only a handful of them in Pune, and almost none for the common public, it was expected that people would rush into their homes instead.

One such drill was held in Sadashiv peth on April 10, 1942. Though it was supposed to be a routine affair, there was an unusual commotion on the streets that day because a gentleman refused to obey. His name was Mr Gopal Thakur, and he sold “Bhel” in an open cart.

According to a report published in “Jnanaprakash” on April 11, 1942, when the ARP volunteers requested Thakur to move his cart immediately to a “safe” location, he not only refused to listen to them, but also manhandled the volunteers, and later, the police.

The next day, he was ordered to spend a day in jail, and pay a fine of 50. Thakur refused to pay the fine, and as a result, had to be imprisoned for a month.

It is unclear why Thakur did not obey the ARP volunteers. Maybe he did not want to go home and lose his earnings. Or he did not want to obey the volunteers who were helping the British.

“Jnanaprakash”, a month later, reported that a small crowd had gathered outside the jail to welcome him when he stepped out. It seems that Thakur was known for his “Bhel” because the newspaper referred to him as “Bhelwale Thakur” in all the reports. The last one about his release also mentions something very interesting.

One Mr Narhari Shintre was released from jail 4 days prior. He too was imprisoned for not obeying the ARP law. Shintre sold “Santosh Wada” near SP College. The report mentions that his regular customers crowded at his roadside cart once he was back.

I wouldn’t have been able to find out what “Santosh Wada” was, had Mrs Lakshmibai Vaidya not written the recipe in her cookbook “Paakasiddhi”.

Vaidya’s cookbook, first published in 1969, has a recipe for “Breadcha Wada” where a chutney sandwich is coated with a seasoned gram flour batter and deep-fried. There’s another version where the sandwich is stuffed with a savory potato filling. She mentions that bread could be replaced with pao, provided the crusts are cut. “Santosh Wada” is a slight modification of the recipe where the gram flour batter also has soaked bread. Vaidya states that the gram flour batter could be replaced by a mixture of eggs, milk with salt, and pepper.

“Santosh Wada” and “Breadcha Wada” seem to be inspired by various versions of the French toast. There are several savory versions of the same in the UK, of which “Gypsy Toast” is a close relative of “Santosh Wada”.

It is unclear when “Breadcha Wada”, and “Santosh Wada” lost their identity to “Bread Pattice”, the now popular snack in Maharashtra, which is also known as “Bread Pakoda” in the north of India.

Though called ‘pattice’, this dish has nothing to do with, perhaps, the more popular Indian chicken and mutton “pattice”. The “Chicken / Mutton Pattice” made famous by Irani bakeries and cafes are a version of French puff pastries. Their resemblance to Cornish Pasties is striking. The humble “Bread Pattice” is not a pocket pie. It is not baked, but deep-fried in oil. The word “pattice” comes from “patties”.

During World War II, after the rationing of food grains, sugar, and kerosene came into effect, many men resorted to eating out while their wives were working in offices. Dishes like Misal, Samosa, and “Bread Pattice”, which were never cooked at home, gained popularity. The opening of bakeries operated by Hindus also played a role. Vaidya has included these in her cookbook. “

I wonder who came up with the name “Santosh Wada”. Was it cooked in a restaurant named “Santosh”? The famous eatery in Pune, “Santosh Bhuvan”, did not serve the dish in 1942. Mr Ratnakar Soman, who ran “Maharashtra Bhuvan” in Budhwar Peth told me in 2014 that their restaurant served “Breadcha Wada” in 1950. He had never heard the name“Santosh Wada”.

Where exactly did the dish originate? Did Shintre himself come up with the name, and the recipe? Did he use sliced bread or pao? Which chutney did he smear the bread slices with? And did he use potatoes? Were there others who sold the same dish around that time? I wish I knew.

No dish is ever “authentic”. The origin is always obscure. Within a few years, at the most decades, culinary origins become blurred, and are lost in the mists of time.

May be because of our motley heritage, there is a tendency to fixate and obsess over foods that have a more clear lineage. It would help if we understand that the history of food is the history of invention in times of necessity and inheritance from diverse cultures.


Trisha Anderson

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