For me, onion bhajis are one of the things I get most excited about when I go for an Indian meal. Their like a little explosion of everything I love about Indian food- the staples of a great curry paste (onion, ginger and chilli), carefully selected and delicate spices, and plenty of fresh coriander. In India, bhajis are more commonly known as pakora (fritters), and don’t exclusively contain onion. Some have potatoes, spinach, peas, chicken, or anything you fancy.
The Onion bhajis that we know and love in this country have a distinctive taste and smell from ajwan and nigella seeds, and can range from big boulders served in chip shops to tiny delicate nests. In any case, When done properly they have a crisp fried onion shell and perfectly cooked batter and soft onions in the centre.
I recently had the opportunity to learn how to make Spinach and Onion Pakoras with head chef Rakesh at Cinnamon Kitchen. His trick was to combine the chopped onions and spinach with spices and salt before leaving it to rest for at least 30 mins. The salt starts to break down the onions, softening and draining their liquid. This makes the insides much softer and helps the onions to crisp up when frying. (Using a pinch of salt is also handy to use when frying onions for the base of a curry, or for using as garnish, as it helps the onions to crisp up and brown quicker.)
I have researched and tried lots of different bhaji recipes in the past – some leave the insides soggy with uncooked batter and raw onions. Others drink up too much oil and become greasy and unpleasant. Variables such as oil temperature, type of flour, consistency of batter and thickness of onions can all affect the final product. Here i’ve tested out a few different techniques in order to create the perfect bhaji recipe.
The guardian’s How to make the perfect onion bhajis recipe suggests to use a little baking powder in the batter so that the bhajis puff up when cooking. This I completely agree with and I even use self raising flour instead of gram flour, so that they crisp up like tempura batter (plus, selfraising is much easier to find than gram.)
I use leeks (of course I do), not only because I am Welsh and that’s what we do, but the mixture of onion and leek makes the most delicious bhajis, gives a gentle flavour and a lovely, light texture. So here it is…
Leek & Onion Bhajis
My recipe makes about 40 little bhajis. You can halve the recipe to serve 4 people as a starter.
- 750g white or red onions, around 6 medium/large onions
- 2 heaped tsp sea salt
- 2 trimmed leeks
- 3 inch piece ginger
- a good bunch of coriander
- 3 hot green chillies
- 3 tsp cumin seeds
- 3 tsp nigella seeds
- 3 tsp fennel seeds
- 3 tsp garam masala
- 1 tsp turmeric
- 1 tsp red chilli powder
- 1 tsp ground black pepper
- a large pinch asafoetida
- 500g self raising flour
- 1 tsp baking powder
- 2 pints water
- oil for deep frying (sunflower, groundnut or vegetable)
Chop all the onions in half, cut out the root and stalk and take off all the peel. Now slice them as thinly as possible, going with the grain (the root facing you). The trick is to use a really sharp knife.) Now add the onion slices to a large mixing bowl, sprinkle in all the salt and give a good mix. Leave the salt to draw the moisture from the onions while you prep the other ingredients.
Peel the ginger and grate finely. Finely chop the coriander and green chillies (keeping in the seeds.) Add everything to the bowl on top of the onions. Top and tail the leeks, slice in half vertically then into thin strips the same thickness as the onion and add to the mixing bowl.
Pour over all your spices and aromats and give everything a good mix. Leave to stand for at least 30 minutes for all the flavours to develop and the vegetables to start to soften and break down.
Now heat up your oil slowly in a deep pan. The temperature should be hot enough so that your bhaji mix rises up straight away when plopped in, and doesn’t stick to the bottom of the pan. Trial with a small tsp of mixture- it should sizzle and go crispy in about 2 minutes (if using a deep fat fryer, you need the oil at about 180’c, and make sure the basket is submerged in the oil before dropping in the mix.)
The batter quantities I use are vague as I kept adding flour, then water, then flour until I had a thick (but not too thick) batter. Add the flour first and mix to coat the onions, then slowly mix in the water, bit by bit. Once the batter is double cream consistency, take a tablespoon full and drop into the oil. I like to use my hands to grab a small amount, squeeze between your fingers to bring the onions together into a rough ball then carefully plonk into the oil, pulling your hand away quickly to avoid A&E!
Try a ‘tester’ bhaji in the hot oil for around 4 minutes, turning halfway through until the outsides are light golden brown, then cut it open and give it a taste. You want the batter thick enough so that they stay together in the oil but not so thick that they are still doughy and uncooked in the middle when the outsides are crisp.
Fry your bhajis in small batches for around 4-5 minutes, then drain on kitchen paper. the temperature of the oil will decrease quite a bit if you overcrowd the bhajis, then they will take longer to cook meaning soggy bhajis (nobody likes a soggy bhaji.) Make sure you don’t fry to many at once.
Serve warm with mango chutney, fresh chopped coriander and raita.
If you want to make them in advance, leave to completely cool and heat in a hot oven just before serving!