I've had an age-old love affair with Indian food, even as a chilli-averse child. There is something so alluring about those spices, the heady aromas and exotic flavours. Even though the food we had at home was considered alien by most of my school friends, foods from the Indian sub-continent was a world apart: it is seductive with its completely foreign taste sensation. That love of spices has stuck to me throughout the years.
I've been meaning to post this recipe for so long that I had begun to think it was done and dusted. Unfortunately, when I tried to link back to the recipe in this post, I couldn't find it... Oops, my bad. The following recipe is my own version of a long-time favourite, and has absolutely no basis on tradition, so if there are any purist out there, please do not be appalled if you notice any unconventional ingredients. The recipe is for bajis: also known as pakora when a vegetable other than onions are used, these little Indian fritter are a delightful introduction to spices and neophytes of Indian foods. Well, it's not rocket science really, dip veggies in batter and deep-fry it: who can resist? As much as I love deep-fried foods, frying can be a hassle at home, so I usually pan-fry my 'bajis', resulting in a kind of bite-sized pancake.
The key ingredient to baji and pakora is gram, or chick pea, flour. If you do not have an Indian shop in your neighbourhood, all is not lost, as you probably have ready access to a natural health food or other store that caters to coeliacs and gluten-intolerant people: gluten-free all-purpose flours are most often composed, in part or entirely, of chick pea meal, and can be used in place of actual gram flour.
Any vegetable can be incorporated into the batter, but at this time of the year, I like to go for foraged greens. Nettles are particularly scrumptious when treated this way. If you are going to forage for your own nettles, make sure you bring along a pair of heavy duty gloves: either leather-lined work gloves or a thick pair of rubber gloves, as anything else will not protect you from the nettle's sting. If, on the other hand, you prefer someone else running the gauntlet for you, your best bet is to search for nettles at the farmers' market.
Nettles need to be boiled for a few minutes to rid them of their sting: strip the leaves from their stalks, and drop into boiling, unsalted water (or dump the leaves straight from the plastic bag: nettles are usually sold picked through). They only need to be blanched for a little over a minute, or until the leaves and the water turn a bright green. Drain the leaves -keep the cooking water!- and leave to cool, before squeezing any excess water from the nettles. Whatever you do, do not throw out the jade cooking water: it is high in iron, and is the perfect spring tonic for anyone coming out of hibernation. At the very least, let the water cool down and use for your plants, if you do not want to drink it yourself. Once cooked, nettles are perfectly harmless, and can be used in stead of spinach.
Yields about two dozen bites
150g/1 cup gram flour, or gluten-free all-purpose flour
5g/1 tsp baking powder
5g/1 tsp ground coriander
5g/1 tsp cumin seeds
2g/½ tsp black mustard seeds
5g/1 tsp salt
2 eggs, beaten
water or milk
1 onion, finely sliced
Nettles, boiled, squeezed dry and chopped
6-8 button mushrooms, quartered
Whisk the flour, baking soda, spices, salt and a grind of pepper.
Gradually mix in the beaten eggs.
Add just enough water or milk to obtain the consistency of a pancake batter, about 100mL/ ¼ cup.
In a frying pan, heat a generous slick of oil.
Drop the battered vegetables by the teaspoonful, and let fry until the edges turn golden brown, about 2 minutes.
Flip the pancakes over, and let the other side cook for another 2 minutes.
Keep in a warm oven until the batter is used up.
Serve piping hot with raita.
Any vegetable can be mixed into the batter, and you can also substitute chopped, raw spinach for the cooked nettles. Additionally, the batter can be thinned out to the consistency of a crêpe batter and used as a tempura-like coating for vegetables.