A non-native might be surprised to learn that amidst the sea of fantastic breakfast dishes that Indian cuisine has to offer—dosa, idli, upma, and the like—the most commonly consumed breakfast item among Indians is probably toast. It’s nothing fancy or artisanal, just regular old sliced sandwich bread, the kind that comes in a plastic bag with a twist tie. Indians do really fantastic things with toast—like putting bhujia (fried potato strips) on it, or frying it into a spicy fritter (bread pakora)—but the most wonderful variation of them all is a savory French toast-esque breakfast dish called Bombay toast.
Bombay toast, a spicy—though sometimes sweet—cooked piece of bread, usually served with vegetables, is eaten in some version pretty ubiquitously around India, though its origins are difficult to pin down. Some say it was a product of Irani hotels, the roadside cafes in Bombay established by Persian immigrants over a century and a half ago. Others say that Bombay toast was born in households in southern India, and it was called “Bombay toast” because Bombay was, for southerners, a far-away, foreign city that they perceived as trendy and cosmopolitan.
The most common preparation of Bombay toast is this: Dip slices of bread (day-old is preferred) into a mixture made of egg, green chilies, salt, and turmeric, cook it on both sides, and top with sabzi (vegetables), or a sautéed mixture of onions, turmeric, garlic, and chilies. In households like mine, we make a slightly different variation—nixing the egg and making it more like a panini, stuffed with whatever leftover sabzi from the night before (potatoes and cauliflower work particularly well).
Yet another variation looks very similar to the sweet French toast we’re accustomed to in the US, but with butter swapped out for ghee, lending a rich, butterscotch-like taste to the end result. Bombay toast is usually consumed with chai, and for the savory preparations, ketchup and chutney are almost always in the mix as well.
The unifying thread among all Bombay toast recipes (aside from the bread) is that they are products of necessity. When your fridge is practically bare and you need to put breakfast on the table, you can take old bread, leftovers, eggs, and common household spices, and make a hearty, complete meal. Growing up, I did not know this. Bombay toast was my special weekend treat. I loved the way the ends got crispy like a pizza crust, and the innards squished up against the soft sandwich bread. Plus, the sabzi filling always tasted better as a leftover, since the spices had time to fully settle. I didn’t even know what French toast was until I was much older. (I’ve tried it, and I still prefer Bombay toast.)
These days, I don’t eat Bombay toast as much. Sabzi is, sadly, not as much of a staple in my fridge in New York, my spices are always running out, and I am often too lazy to make chutney. The occasion I eat the dish most often is the day after Thanksgiving. While most Americans are making themselves turkey and cranberry sauce sandwiches, I take my mom’s leftover spicy potatoes from our Indian-themed Thanksgiving meal, put them in between two pieces of Pepperidge Farm bread, press the sandwich in the panini press until the edges are slightly burnt, and wrap it in foil. I take it with me first thing in the morning to the Black Friday sales to eat for breakfast while I shop. I house it like a wild beast as I delve into the sales racks.