In light of the recent Budget, Oliver McKinley offers fortnightly recipes to sooth the soul and reinvigorate the pocket. Austerity cooking at its most delicious.
Rage washes over me so often. There is much in this world which does not need to be so awful and yet is; the inability of the Labour Party to produce an electable leader, tuition fees, ineptly made bhajis.
An Onion bhaji should be wonderful. The prospect of a crisp shell of delicate batter yielding to a mess of soft, sharp yet sweet onion which is somehow toothsome sets my small world aflame. Yet they are so very often rotten. They arrive on a platter lukewarm and grease sodden. They arrive on a platter dense and heavy. They arrive on a platter heralded in great glory and yet bearing only horror. In this matter, I’m with Salome.
Yet whilst the idea of a bhaji is simple, the execution is, given the number of failures, not. First we might consider the flour. Gram flour, made of chickpeas, has a delicious flavour. It is nutty and is also the flour which would be used across the Indian Subcontinent. Yet I find it just draws oil into the batter and becomes leaden with grease. Rice flour is wonderful for coating things for frying as it completely rejects both oil and water; properties less wonderful, then, for the creation of a batter. Cornflour happily will blend and produces a batter which is ethereally light. Yet a bhaji should have a slight weight so a simple wheat flour fortified with cornflour is what we need.
However, flour is only part of a batter. Elizabeth David for her frying batter separates and beats eggs whites into an airy froth and then incorporates them into the mix. This is one way of getting air into the bhaji, but is too much faff for too little gain. Far better to use, as for a Tempura, a little soda water.
It might be surprising but I think that the onion element of the bhaji is relatively unimportant. It is very hard to find a spectacularly bad onion. So long as you treat it right it will produce a bhaji which has the right onion fire, and is cooked sufficiently.
So take an onion per person, and slice it into half-moons which are thin enough to see the grain of the wood on your chopping board. I have no time for plastic chopping boards which are far too easily cut into and which grease far too easily clings too. Moreover any surface is only as hygienic as the person who uses it. An onion of reasonable size can be made to go quite far, reserve to one side.
Bring a very large saucepan of oil to temperature gently. The pan needs to be huge and the amount of oil liberal but the pan should only be half full of oil. I would use vegetable oil, because it is cheapest, heats well and inoffensively flavoured. I suppose one could use ghee but you shouldn’t use Olive Oil. Jamie Oliver has much to answer for in popularising olive oil as the cooking fat of choice to this nation. Its delicious flavour has no place here in the cuisine of India, nor in many other places. But whilst this pan of fat comes gently to heat you should quickly make the batter.
Take a table spoon of self-raising flour, and a dessertspoon of cornflour and beat together with a very large pinch of salt, vegetables require more salt than would be thought, and some whole spices. My tablespoon is a very large and old one, and is probably closer to an American cup. I buy a bag labelled Panch Phoron which contains a blend of onion, fenugreek, mustard, fennel and cumin seeds. A significant amount of dried Chilli would be particularly wonderful as well, a little caraway is also pleasant as would be many other whole spices. Powdered spice here would burn too quickly and give a bitter flavour. Then beat in an egg and enough sparkling water to make a batter with the texture of double cream. It should be thick enough to bind the golden strands of onion together into a savoury nest but thin enough to only clothe rather than cloak them.
Once made you should quickly fold in the onions and fry them. You will know the oil is at temperature when a little batter dripped in floats and fries at the surface with vigour but not fearful spite. It should not be smoking. If it does smoke turn the heat down low immediately. A dessertspoonful of the mix is sufficient for a bhaji. They will need turning once during cooking but they will not take very long and will be done when they have taken on a little colour, a light tan rather than a deep brown.
You should extract them and let them drain on kitchen paper, and continue frying in batches until the mixture is used up. They are particularly good with a light lager, a group of close friends and the delicious light of an approaching summer evening.
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