Pao bhaji is a popular street food in India, particularly Mumbai, said Vikram Sunderam, the executive chef of Washington's two Rasika locations in Penn Quarter and the West End, as well as the newly opened Bindaas in Cleveland Park. "Pao" (also known as pau or pav) comes from the Portuguese word for bread (the Iberian nation had a foothold in India for four centuries), and "bhaji" refers to vegetables, Sunderam said.
The chef serves the dish at Rasika West End (brunch only, $12) and at Bindaas ($10). It's made with such vegetables as cauliflower, carrots, bell peppers, green peas and potatoes. They're cooked with onions, tomatoes and a special blend of spices that includes cumin, black pepper, red chili and black salt. Then the whole thing is pretty much beaten to a pulp with a potato masher. "It's like a vegetarian sloppy Joe," Sunderam said.
What really seals the deal for Sunderam is the bread, which at his restaurants resembles an unsweetened Parker House roll. It's griddled with a substantial amount of butter. Sometimes in India, he said, vendors will sell you an extra pat of butter to melt over the top of the vegetables.
To counteract that richness, you need something acidic. Lemon juice is key, Sunderam said, and his roughly chopped relish of raw tomatoes, cucumbers and onions helps, too.
Chatpat adds another kick to the dish (only on the truck, $7): garlic chutney.
But how exactly should you eat it?
"When we were kids, we definitely ate it like a sloppy Joe," Shah said. But she and Sunderam said there's also a school of thought that suggests you eat it by breaking off pieces of the bread and dipping it in the mash.
Just give it a try. Shah said she thinks a lot of people don't even know what it is -- some days not a single person will order it from the truck. This cannot stand.
Maybe just don't wear white while you eat it.
Bindaas, 3309 Connecticut Ave. NW. 202-244-6550.
Rasika West End, 1190 New Hampshire Ave. NW. 202-466-2500.
Chatpat, follow @ChatpatTruck on Twitter for food truck locations.