How to make a damn fine onion bhaji


One of my great interests is cookery, and I have had a vague idea to type up my recipes and create a vegetarian cookery site (I have two 160-page notebooks full of mostly my own inventions and experiments and adaptations of authentic word-of-mouth recipes, though only a handful really cut the mustard). Haven't got round to it yet. But I thought I'd write up another one here and perhaps make the job easier later on (my previous recipes plonked in the journal: merjumet chorba, aloo paratha, and bruschetta).

I used to invite groups of friends round and I'd cook, such occasions were a great pleasure for me, particularly on seeing the faces of those who never quite believed I could cook have to eat a hefty slice of humble pie on being wooed by the latest little finger delicacy from the Arab peninsula, but lack of money and an increasing desire for a peopleless tranquility got me out of the habit of entertaining. Style-wise, I like to think of myself as the Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall of simple vegetarianism. Although I haven't had a squealing piglet under my arm or stuffed a mackerel with gooseberries for a good many years, I did once make Shaggy Inkcap soup, my brief flirtation with bottled tamarind chutney is still talked about eleven Christmases on by the six lucky recipients, and my pickled damsons and walnut and onion loaf have attracted admiration and jealousy from a fat man who fries Cumberland sausages in the nude, invariably drops his spectacles in the stew as they slide down his sweaty nose while stirring, and otherwise got me interested in cookery in the first place, sharing a North London house two decades ago when he was a corporation tip weighbridge clerk bringing back condemned cherries by the crateload, making fine use of otherwise being a barrister. 'There's nothing wrong with them! European directive that's all.' Cherry stones and cigar butts piled high in all the ashtrays in the house. It was decadent. It was in that house on homegrown psilocybe cubensis mushrooms one time that I plunged my hand in a sink full of cold water and realised for the first time in my life that water wasn't actually wet, that was just something we'd been told.

Enough of these tangents, to the recipe!

Some while ago a friend visited from America and wanted to try some of the excellent Indian restaurants in London, which I know quite well. I was telling her how easy onion bhaji was to make and said I'd give her my recipe some time. Thing is, I hadn't actually made onion bhaji for quite a few years, so I thought I'd make it this evening (well, at 2 o'clock in the morning to be precise), after going in search of a bag of gram flour in Indian grocery shops this afternoon. And much to my surprise it was the best onion bhaji I'd tasted for ages.

I no longer deep-fry anything, so I made shallow-fried flat bhajis. Here's what you need for my own particular recipe. For the batter, place in a bowl:

Now add water slowly and make a batter halfway between thick and runny, but definitely not runny, more gloopy. Mash clumps of flour against the side of the bowl. Take one large onion, top and tail it, halve it and skin it, slice it thinly and separate the semi-circles. Chuck it in the batter and mix in.

Heat a quarter inch of extra-virgin olive oil in a frying pan (I use no other sort of oil, even for Indian cookery, other sorts of oils are rancid even by the time you buy them). When it's hot enough, perhaps a smidgeon off smoking, take tablespoonfuls of the onion and batter mixture and drop into the oil and flatten down a little. The bottom will seal over quickly and by the time you've dropped in the sixth or seventh spoonful, the final spoonful, filling the pan, start turning over those you put in first, which will now hold together. When golden brown, lift out onto kitchen paper on a plate to dry off excess oil and serve with chutneys, and minted yoghurt, or a simple lettuce, cucumber, and onion salad soaked in lemon juice, freshly squeezed of course. Eat them while they're hot and the onion melts in the mouth. A squeeze of lemon over them wouldn't go amiss. If you've got a bunch of fresh coriander handy, you could add some shredded leaves to the batter, and chopped fresh green chillis instead of chilli flakes.

And that's it, remarkably easy. The bicarb of soda I saw mentioned in Madhur Jaffrey's recipe for her 'favourite bhaja batter'. I'm not entirely sure it's necessary. But I've not yet been willing to risk a bad onion bhaji on an experiment, particularly when I'm starving at 2 in the morning after a hard day translating a four-line Tang dynasty poem from the Chinese. Where has the day gone? Where do the days go? Still, I understood something about an obscure Chinese literary allusion to swallows this evening and was very happy on account of it. That's been four months brewing away in the background that one. About the length of time a prospective publisher expects me to take on writing the entire book. I don't think so.

I just saw a gorgeous moon in the clouds through the trees over the reservoirs when I went to make a pot of tea, through the open bathroom window still open to let the smoke out into the cold night air, reminding me that there's a total lunar eclipse coming up this week. Fred Espenak as usual has done a brilliant job of providing the details.