“Each bhaji is individual, they’ve all got character and I love a bhaji with character!” says Parveen Ashraf, as she cooks up a batch of light, crunchy golden fritters. The secret to a better bhaji, she says, lies in the batter – and paying attention while you fry!
Golden, crunchy bhajis have been a staple all her life – the cooking teacher, author and TV host has rich memories of the onion and spinach bhajis her mother used to make when she was a child (and the onion bhaji sandwiches she and her siblings loved to make with them!); onion bhajis were on the menu at the very first dinner party she gave, years ago; and – of course - they feature in the first episode of her TV show, Parveen’s Indian Kitchen.
Onion bhajis, she says in the show, are “the easiest of crowd-pleasers”. Here are her tips for mastering the ultimate light, crunchy bhaji – and how to enjoy it in one of her family’s favourites, the bhaji sandwich.
The spice, the slice
A great bhaji gets flavour from the spices in the batter; Ashraf uses fenugreek leaves (also called methi); ground coriander (“that gives a sort of lemony, gingery-type flavour. Very subtle,” says Ashraf); pomegranate seed powder (which gives a little bit of sourness to the bhajis, she explains); cumin; and chilli powder (just enough to add flavour she says – her bhaji aren’t meant to be fiery). And when it comes to the vegetables, she uses a mixture of sliced onion, potato and spinach. Her tip here – made sure the potato is thinly sliced: “really small, thin… I can’t stress the word thinly enough”. And if the skin is thin, there’s no need to peel the potato, she adds. (Get the full recipe for her onion and potato bhaji here).
The looser the batter the better the bhaji
Initially, when mixing up your bhaji batter, aim for something akin to a cake batter, Ashraf says. Then, when you’ve added the sliced onion, potato and spinach (it was in her mother’s recipe she says, and adds lovely green flecks to the bhaji), along with some lemon juice, let it rest. “As it rests, water is drawn out from the onions. My mantra is, the looser the batter, the better the bhaji, and it really works,” she explains in the show. After resting, it’s more like the texture of thick cream.
Make sure the oil for frying is hot enough
Ashraf's recipe says to heat the oil to 180°C - but if you don't have a thermometer, that's okay. “To test the oil, drop in a piece of potato. If it floats to the top within five seconds, perfect. If it sinks to the bottom, the oil’s too cold and if it floats to the top too quickly, it’s too hot,” she explains. One spoonful of batter mixture is all you need for each bhaji, and it will seal instantly when you drop it into the hot oil.
Don’t walk away
“[You] can’t leave bhajis to fry by themselves, you really have to babysit and watch them, and turn them over as they’re cooking so they can cook evenly on both sides,” she says. Watch the heat – if the oil heats up too much, the bhajis will cook too quickly on the outside, without cooking through. If the temperature is too low, oil will seep into the bhajis. And if it takes a batch or two to get it right, don’t worry – “By the time the last batch is fried, you’ll be a bhaji master,” she says.
Discover the onion bhaji sandwich
When she’s cooking bhajis in the show, Ashraf mentions loving an onion bhaji sandwich. Now we’ve seen a lot of pav bhaji – a mixed vegetable stew, served alongside soft buttered bread – at Indian eateries in Australia, but this was a new one for the SBS Food team. Tell us, more we said t the UK-based author and cookery teacher.
“One of my earliest memories of enjoying onion bhajis was when I was a child. My late mum, who was an amazing cook, said the magic ingredient was LOVE, she sprinkled it over every dish she cooked, and her food always tasted wonderful. On a family day trip, she would make a large batch of onion bhajis and us children would make onion bhaji sandwiches out of them – or as we called them onion bhaji butties (the Yorkshire term for a sandwich),” she told us.
“That was over 40 years ago; fast forward to 2020 and I now make onion bhaji sandwiches for my own three children. There are many variations of this comfort food but for me, it has to be freshly fried onion bhaji between white sliced bread with lashings of butter and finished off with a squirt of ketchup. I know you're thinking it needs to be a spicy sauce or mint dip or something more Indian but I like to mix things up a little and have something as British as ketchup. Now that is fusion food at its best!”
She’s not the only one – you might spot it packaged up as a pre-made sandwich option in the UK; British journalist and blogger Emily Clark shares a recipe for onion bhaji rolls made with baked bhaji and baguettes at her blog My Green Feasts; and Jamie Oliver has a twist on the idea with his bhaji burger.
See Parveen make her onion and potato bhaji in Parveen's Indian Kitchen Saturdays at 5.30pm 25 Jan to 28 Mar on SBS Food. Episodes will be available on SBS On Demand after they air.
Moreish as. We serve these in quantities of three or six at the restaurant. People always, ALWAYS choose six. You’ll see why!
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