and it was invented in Britain
"This dish does not really exist in Indian cuisine in the Indian sub-continent, but it has shot to fame, courtesy of the numerous Indian restaurants in the West. It seems there is a definite taste for these strange-looking objects, without which I know many people would feel an Indian meal to be incomplete." Khalid Aziz - The Encyclopedia of Indian Cooking.
Now that statement sounds pretty definitive, although elsewhere I have seen many people saying that it is a popular street food snack everywhere in India. The author is referring to onion bhaji, which he quite rightly says is on the menu of just about every Indian restaurant in existence in the west. Indeed on Sunday we are celebrating my son's birthday at his favourite local Indian - Curry Café in Northcote, and I just checked out their menu to find that of the only three starter dishes they have, onion baji is one.
That gorgeous photograph above is what started me on this. I now see why it is so gorgeous - it's styled by Steve Pearce, who styled virtually all of Donna Hay's magazines and who is possibly Australia's top food stylist. And he does like blue. Look at those artfully scattered crumbs and flakes of salt. Just too wonderful for words. I looked for other classy pictures of onion bhaji with which to illustrate this piece, and I have to say that this is the best. You can almost feel the crunch. The recipe - Onion bhajis with lime dipping sauce - is by Curtis Stone and so it has the imprimatur of a top chef - Michelin star indeed - as well. All for free in your Coles Magazine. High class food for the people. It certainly made me want to rush out there and make some. Which I may yet do next time we have curry, which might be tomorrow. David bought me yet more onions today, so I have an abundance of them at the moment. The only problem is that deep fried stuff in batter is really not healthy.
Actually although that photograph was my starting point, I thought there wouldn't be anything to say really, except how pretty and how much of a sucker I am for glamorous food photography. So I first of all thought I would write about battered things in general, which I rapidly saw was far too large a subject, so I narrowed it down to Indian battered food and again, rapidly saw that this too was far too big a subject - Amritsar fish, bhaji, pakora, dosa and other kind of pancakes, jalebi ... and that was before I really looked into it.
I also thought I might veer in the direction of why we like battered food so much but found an SBS article called Batter always makes everything better which listed the principal battered foods and also offered a few reasons why we like it. Fundamentally they saw the reason as:
"Gently coating any food in batter and lovingly baking or frying it seems to put the world to rights for a moment. A little crisp crunch, or buttery flake or puffy melt activates all the right happiness areas in our over-wrought brains. Batter creates the ultimate comfort food to soothe these troubled times." SBS Food bite-sized
And there's also an element of daring about eating battered food isn't there? Daring because we know we shouldn't. All those carbohydrates, all those fats. Oh dear. Not quite as bad as oodles of sugar I think but not far off. Besides some of the battered delights are sugary too.
So I went back to onion bhajis and rapidly got myself confused. Initially my confusion arose from that statement at the top of the page from one of my Indian cookbooks. And indeed it seemed to be borne out by the lack of recipes for bhajis in the books of Madhur Jaffrey and Charmaine Solomon. Obviously not a big thing for them, although they had lots of recipes for things like dosas and jalebi. I later also found, to add fuel to that particular fire, a statement about a Heston Blumenthal series on British food from the curry episode:
"Heston discovers that British curry house classics such as masala, as well as bhuna, vindaloo, phal and onion bhaji, were all invented in Britain."
I take that with a bit of disbelief though, because surely vindaloo is really Indian, and masala is just the word for a spice mix isn't it? Must look into vindaloo some time. Still yet another reason to think that bhaji are not Indian. But then again there were various internet sources that seemed to think they were common Indian street food. Maybe they are Pakistani? I actually don't think I shall solve that one. Rather fascinating though isn't it - the love affair of the British with Indian food?
The second confusion was between bhaji and pakora. Which is which? Are they same, or are they different? Below, for example on the left are some Vegetable pakora from Nabin Tuladhar on the SBS website and next door to that are Red onion bhajis with minted raita from Lee Holmes on the same SBS website. The pakoras look wispy and crunchy like Curtis Stone's bhaji and the bhajis look more like what I expect pakora to be - a bit more solid I suppose.
Actually if you then look further I think the majority would say that bhajis have no spices in the batter mix. Indeed one Indian chef says:
"a Bhaji is any vegetable cut into small pieces and dipped into Gram (chickpea) flour and then deep-fried, and not forgetting that there is no spicing whatsoever in a bhaji"
So not even any batter involved there. And yes I did know that bhajis can be made with any vegetable. The same chef went on to say:
"Pakora on the other hand is a much wider description and can include protein rather than just vegetable, meat, fish and shellfish, alongside vegetable, are all acceptable; as a general rule the Pakora also includes spices, chilli, turmeric, salt, pepper etc are all common, added to gram flour and a little water and sometimes an egg to create a thick batter that is usually refrigeratated before use, and then mixed with the main ingredients, formed into a ball and then fried….."
Which is absolutely what Curtis Stone does with his bhajis - other than forming them into a ball.
In his case the onion is just thinly sliced, stirred into the batter and dropped in spoonfuls into the hot oil.
"So there you have it an Onion Bhaji is therefore really a Pakora as they contain Turmeric, salt, pepper, chilli, etc" Curry Demonology
As witness these Onion and potato bhajis from Parveed Ashraf on that SBS website
Anything goes I reckon, particularly if they are indeed a British invention, and on the whole the Indians don't seem to get quite as uptight over what people do with their classic dishes as others - like the Italians and the French, even the British. It's onions, it's a chick-pea batter - actually often a chick-pea and rice flour mix, fried in wispy bits. Felicity Cloake, of course, will take you through the options in her quest for the perfect onion bhaji, noting that:
"At their best, they're almost ethereally light and addictively crisp. At their worst, they're stodgy and bland ... For me, the difference between a great bhaji and a merely adequate one is in the crunch – as with all deep-fried foods, it should fight back" Felicity Cloake
That's her result and I have to say they look a tiny bit more solid than Curtis Stone's. Pretty crunchy on the outside though.
Then there's Jamie - who stuffs them in burgers, and also 'deconstructs' them to make Vegetable bhaji salad. Incidentally he also calls the bhajis 'a curry house classic' which implies that he too doesn't think it's an authentic Indian thing, but one of those Anglo-Indian dishes. For his dish he has fundamentally just separated out his vegetables into thin strands before dipping them into a spiced chick-pea/plain flour batter and then served them on a salad. Looks almost healthy doesn't it?