December 31, 2011
I am quite a good cook. I don't say that in a conceited way, because it wasn't that long ago that I didn't know how to do much more than boil an egg, but over the last 15 or so years, I've learned to cook reasonably well, and I know what goes with what in order to make a meal that most of the time, tastes good. I think it's an intuition thing, and I realise now that it's just inexperience that has let me down in the past, and now that I cook all the time, it's mostly good. Except, that is, for Indian food.
And that's a bit odd because my mother and her mum, my nonni are great cooks. I know most people say that about their mothers but I have my husband to vouch for my mother's obsession with making things just right and knowing how to turn a simple main ingredient into something so delectable. She hasn't ever followed a recipe (except for the odd cake, and even then she thinks she knows better) and if I ask her how to make something I know she does well, her response is usually 'well, you just throw everything into the pot'. She's not trying to be difficult, it's just how she cooks. And she cooks the most sublime Indian food that I find myself daydreaming about. Thing is, while I've learned most of what I know about western food from watching cookery shows and reading books, I never spent any time in the kitchen watching my mum - she always insisted school work was more important, and I suppose it was pretty important and has stood me in very good stead but it's not that useful when there's an aubergine and an onion in the fridge and I can't remember how to make them taste the way she does by just 'throwing it all into a pot'.
When mum came to stay just after Max was born last year, she cooked almost every day. Wait no, she cooked almost every meal, and I was determined, even though I was exhausted from the new baby fug, to learn how to cook Indian food, at least a couple of dishes, so that I could expand our repertoire and satisfy our cravings for home-cooked Indian food. I watched her cook and wrote down exactly what she was doing in order to elaborate on her rather loose instructions. I think she thought I was a bit crazy, who needs to write this stuff down? Everybody knows what to do! I wish I'd done it sooner as we've been able to enjoy some fantastic food since she was here, almost as good as she'd produce herself.
This dish is one I decided to try without having really observed the master in action, just rang her one day and accepted her instructions were never going to be that helpful, but broadly worked out what to do in order to come up with a version that I think is arguably better than hers. I mean I wouldn't say that to her outright. Well, ok, I probably would. But only because I'd be so proud to feed it to her. It's bhajia, or pakoras, or bhajis as they are known in balti houses... except in balti houses they are over-battered, soggy oniony balls of grease, so to give them the same name would be wrong.
Anyway, I'm sharing the recipe as it goes in my head. Unlike it's restaurant counterpart, it's wholesome, full of vegetables, totally kid friendly (in our house, anyway) and snacktastically moreish. It's also crispy, a feature I often look for in food. I have no qualms with serving it with ketchup, although the kids prefer it with plain yoghurt (also good). Try it. It seems a hassle to do all that deep frying, but I love that my children eat it happily, and that Will always says 'this is great' when I cook it. But as I said, I'm quite a good cook so that happens all the time. Hah!
Bhajia (these quantities make a lot, and as it's best fresh, it may be best to halve these quantities unless you are feeding lots of very hungry people.)
3-4 medium potatoes, thinly sliced
1/2-1 whole cauliflower, depending on how big and how gassy this makes you, cut into small florets
250g (or a big bag) of spinach, shredded
a tablespoon or so of minced ginger (I add a little more as I love it)
about 3-4 cloves of garlic, crushed
a green chilli, minced (as much as you want - I often use none because the kids don't like it)
1 1/2 tsp salt
1 heaped tsp ground cumin
a couple or three good handfuls of chickpea (gram) flour
a couple or three tablespoons of natural yoghurt
lemon juice - from maybe 1-2 lemons
1 tsp of baking powder
Put everything into a big bowl (I don't have one big enough so I use the biggest saucepan I have), and mix together with your hands. Add more chickpea flour if needed to bind everything together, but I think less is more as you want to eat crunchy vegetables, not soggy batter. You may need a splash or two of water as the yoghurt and lemon juice might not be enough to moisten the chickpea flour into a batter. You don't want the batter too loose, it needs to be thick enough to keep the vegetables together but then you also don't need much of it.
Heat a large pan of sunflower oil. Drop spoonfuls of the batter into the oil (I do this, like my mum, with my hands so you can make sure you get a good mix of all the vegetables in each piece but it's hazardous) and fry until golden brown. Serve hot, with ketchup, or natural yoghurt, or a minty chutney. Ring your mum and tell her how great she is.