Bha­jiya: In­dia’s Gift to the World

mailife - - Contents - Words and pho­tos by LANCE SEETO

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.

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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

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