The waiter at Dos Amigos, a restaurant in central Sao Paulo, is a patient man. And I seem to be doing my bit to stretch that patience. He speaks English, rare on the streets of Brazil; rarer still in the confines of an eatery. So I’ve lapped up this opportunity to take a crash course in Brazilian food.
With thumb squashed against an aquarium-like case, I point at food containers . The waiter is as quick as my moving finger. “That’s Contrafile — beef, rice and beans.” “Picanha — rump steak.” “Salsicha — sausage.” “Queijo Calabresa — pork and cheese.” Then I point at a dish that looks like Bombay’s Batata Pao and smile. The waiter smiles as well and says: “That’s something of a national dish here, top on the street — food chain. We call it Pao de Batata .”
A tear of pure ecstasy escapes my eye.
I’m not big on food. Or on finding an Indian eating joint in a foreign country. But here’s the thing. This isn’t an Indian man in an Indian restaurant selling me my staple food. No, hell no. This is a purebred Paulista, pointing at a Batata Pao and calling it one. And the joy I feel at this moment is insurmountable.
Batata, I realise with a quick Google check, was never an Indian word in the first place. Like pao, which is far more common parlance and far more pan-Indian (if not in taste, in name at least), the Portuguese brought it with them and we borrowed it. Unlike back home (home in this case being Bombay), the Batata isn’t solid, but mashed and mixed with a decent helping of cheese until its texture resembles mayonnaise. The pao, however, is just the same. And that’s saying a whole lot.
“The biggest problem with moving out of Bombay is that the pao just doesn’t taste the same anywhere else,” a colleague is often caught saying. I agree wholeheartedly. The pao in Bombay cannot be replicated elsewhere in India. How could it? The Bombay pao is neither sweet nor sour nor tasteless. And it is at its freshest when it looks terribly stale.
Once, not too long ago, my wife, a Delhi girl, dragged me to Dilli Haat with the promise of ‘pao just as good as Bombay’s’. I spat out my only bite. “It tastes too sweet and looks too fresh. This can never be Bombay pao,” I remember saying. Sighing, she told me that the problem wasn’t the pao but my head.
And something to do with a Bombay obsession.
Nine thousand miles away, Sao Paulo proved her wrong.