Bhajiya: India’s Gift to the World
Batter coated, deep fried and enjoyed across the globe, the bhajiya is one dish for which India can take full credit. If you thought all Indian food originated in India, you’d be very wrong. As it turns out, as the Indian subcontinent was conquered, invaded and colonised throughout its millennialong history, many of the classic dishes we associate with Indian cuisine were actually adopted from distant empires. Curries, roti, fried snacks and sweets have left an edible mark on Fijian cuisine thanks to the early Indian indentured labourers and are enjoyed by everyone today regardless of their heritage. The very mention of Indian food for me conjures up spicy aromas of crispy samosas, spinach bhajiya, naan, vindaloos, dhal and rice, butter chicken, and who can resist the sticky sweets of gulab jamun and jalebi. However with the exception of bhajiya, all of the dishes mentioned came from outside of India. The heritage of many of India’s dishes can be traced back to through their turbulent history of conquering and assimilation since ancient times. The quintessential samosa and jalebi came from the Middle East, butter chicken or chicken tikka masala was a Scottish creation, vindaloo curries are Portuguese in origin, whilst biryani and gulab jamun were introduced to India from Persia. When it comes to enjoying an Indian curry with naan, in reality the Persians who colonised the nation introduced this famous Indian bread to India. We might think of paneer naan as thoroughly Indian but it is actually a gift from the Mughal occupation. And the simplest of dishes, dhal with rice, is in reality a dish from neighbouring Nepal. Arab traders brought even the filtered coffee and chai found in the famous coffee houses of South India from East Africa via Yemen. Potato-filled samosas are a quintessential snack found at roadside stands and cafeterias that just shouts out its Indian heritage – right? Surprisingly wrong. This is one food that has travelled far and wide, and like any seasoned traveller, has left its footprints along the way. From Egypt to Libya and from Central Asia to India, the stuffed triangle with different names has garnered immense popularity. In South Asia, Middle Eastern chefs introduced it during the Delhi Sultanate rule, although some accounts credit Central Asian traders
for bringing the fare to India. Nevertheless, from its humble beginnings, people would cook the mince-filled triangles over open fire and eat them as snacks during travel. After having earned the blessings of the Indian royalty, the snack soon became food fit for the king. Whilst the samosa’s true heritage is less than Indian, bhajiya is 100% Indian-born. Whether it is bhajiya, bonda or pakora, the batter-coated snack of vegetables was created as a way to enjoy eating more vegetables. In its most basic form, it is commonly a shredded or mashed vegetable that is mixed in a besan batter and then deep fried. Rice flour is often added to give the fried snack an even crispier texture. In Fiji its more popular variation is with green leafy vegetables like moca, spinach, moringa or just curry leaves, but as a batter the possibilities are endless The bhajiya is also the one great Indian culinary export that has gone around the world without anyone even recognising that it is an Indian dish. In the sixteenth century, Spanish and Portuguese ships would stop in India on their way to Japan. They would pick up their cooks from India and experiment with Indian dishes. It is these Indian cooks who taught the Europeans how to love vegetables and bhajiyas. When the ships got to Japan, some of these cooks got off and stayed on. It is believed that the Japanese first encountered the dish they would later call tempura. In fact there is no trace of tempura in Japanese cuisine till the Portuguese arrived as traders. And while the Portuguese were creators of pork dishes and Port wine, bhajiyas were never part of their cuisine. So historians think the only way they could have taught the Japanese to make tempura was if their Indian cooks introduced Japanese chefs to pakoras. Even now, tempura is something of an anomaly in Japanese cuisine. The Japanese shallow-fry some dishes but deep-frying is not normally part of their culinary tradition. The Japanese use it exactly as Indian cooks do, as a means of cooking vegetables. Of course as Japanese cuisine has become more and more refined, they have evolved bhajiya into a sophisticated tempura replacing pea besan with wheat flour. The Indian love-affair with the bhajiya/pakora has led to much innovation by top restaurants. The tempered-spiced, pea besan batter offers a crisp and flavoursome coating to most vegetables, but also adds an aromatic flavour and texture to meats and seafood. The Punjabi-style chicken pakora is hugely popular in India and is notably their version of KFC, and prawn pakora are equally delicious when dipped in a minted coriander yoghurt. One of the great advantages of the dish is that it’s inexpensive to make. All you need are a few simple vegetables and some besan. That’s why pakoras are such inexpensive favourites at home and on street corners. So forget about the samosa. Take pride in the bhajiya. It is India’s gift to the world.
Brocolli bhajiya - the possibilities are endless
Get creative - lobster, bacon and corn bhajiya
Go fancy with this pakora stack with fruit chutney
Not so Indian - fried snacks at an Indian railway station
LANCE SEETO is a multi award-winning chef, media personality & food writer. He is currently the head chef at Malamala Beach Club, Fiji