I should have known better than to search far and wide. It was sitting right under my nose and I didn't even detect a whiff. I underestimated Abu Dhabi's capacity to hold in its folds the secrets of Indian street food. A few weeks ago, I even earmarked an eatery in Dubai, determined to brave Sheikh Zayed Road and a trip to Bur Dubai just to enjoy a snack.
The vada pao seemed beyond reach. After a week in Mumbai last year, where I couldn't stop stuffing mouthfuls of this delicious combination of bread, a deep-fried potato fritter and an amazing range of sauces and chutneys, I decided, upon return, to renew my search. The advantage of travel is that you discover new things: culture, history and, in my case, food. The problem with travel is that you end up searching in vain, desperate to recreate all those delicious memories.
It reminded me of my trip to Bali. It's easy to add some ready-made paste of sambal olek to a pot of chicken and call it an Indonesian curry, but to actually know what makes the base of this fiery paste is a challenge - one that led me to fill two notebooks with instructions during cooking classes in Bali. Then came the reality of daily life and, search as I might, the fermented shrimp paste was hard to find. Even after I'd gathered all the ingredients, they did not come up to be the same consistency.
My point is that I've stopped attempting to recreate dishes upon return from my travels. Instead, I now try to find a place with a modicum of authenticity that will deliver. Chapli kebabs from Pakistan? Any self-respecting tiny restaurant in your neighbourhood that caters to blue-collar workers will serve you a delicious version. It may not be exactly what you ate but it will certainly be better than what you attempt to make.
This brings me to the happy accident in Abu Dhabi that led me to a vada pao. This weekend tested my patience as I tried to reach Abu Dhabi Mall. New road closures and clogged traffic put me a lane away from Chappan Bhog behind the ADCB's headquarters on Salam Street. It was time for a quick bite before I tried yet another route, so I stopped for some of my favourite snacks. As I looked through their one-page, laminated menu, the vada pao (called wada pav and priced at Dh4.50) jumped out at me. So I tried it. It was different but it was delicious, and each bite of garlicky goodness was worth the find.
Turns out, if you look closely, the capital can captivate your taste buds.