I remember my first visit to an Indian restaurant so well. It was my then boyfriend’s sixteenth birthday and my parents had given me the money to take him out for a meal. I felt so sophisticated! Our food at home was very traditional British, so a curry house seemed exotic and slightly overwhelming. Fortunately my boyfriend was more experienced than me in Indian cuisine, and advised me on my menu choices – onion bhaji to start followed by a chicken korma.
It seems strange to say, but I found the korma a bit spicy! But I loved the crispy, crunchy texture of the bhaji, with it’s softer doughy centre, and it’s been a favourite ever since, although quality really does vary and those times when you end up with a soggy, greasy lump on your plate are most disappointing.
Onion bhajis are a definite British curry house favourite. Consumed as more of a teatime snack in India, they are part of the wider pakora family. Found less frequently in the UK, I discovered pakoras when we first moved to India. They are basically anything covered in a chickpea batter and deep fried. We used to order veg pakoras and try to work out which vegetable was underneath the opaque golden batter.
As delicious as pakora and bhajis are, there is a problem with them – the amount of oil that is absorbed into the batter as they are deep fried. Of course, it’s the frying that makes the batter so crispy, but cooking in refined oil not only increases the fat content but the molecular make up of the fats change when used at such a high heat. This is not good for What is good for our bodies, however, are the onions. Universally used in every cuisine around the world, onions are packed full of flavonoids and anti-oxidants that are beneficial to health, as well as a moderate amount of vitamins, minerals and fibre. The key phytonutrient is quercitin. Research shows that quercitin has a number of amazing roles in the body, and has been used in herbal medicine since ancient times. It acts as an anti-inflammatory, anti-bacterial and anti-viral role, helping to support the immune system and protect against infectious diseases. Quercitin also helps prevent cancer developing, can help thin the blood and prevent blood clots and increase good HDL cholesterol whilst preventing bad LDL cholesterol from becoming toxic and attacking arteries. Pretty amazing stuff from one small bulb!
Interestingly, studies show that quercitin is much less effective when extracted and used in supplement form. Interaction with other phytonutrients make an onion a much more effective source, so consuming them in your diet is best. Of course, raw is best but onions are packed full of sulphur-containing compounds that can make them difficult to eat uncooked, so eating them anyway you can is all good.
So, how to make an onion bhaji tasty, crispy and healthy? The trick is to use the water in the onions to combine with the flour and stick everything together. This way, you don’t need a batter as such, and you don’t need to add any refined oil at all, just bake at a high temperature and the sugars in the onions will naturally caramelise and crisp up. They taste just as good, you can make them as spicy as you like and you know your body will love you for it. They’re dairy free, gluten free and fat free – but totally delicious!
Super food onion bhaji
3 medium onions, thinly sliced
3 heaped tablespoons of chickpea/gram flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon chilli powder
fresh chopped coriander
Place all the ingredients in a bowl and mix together well, then put to one side for 5 minutes or so (up to 20). The salt will draw out the water in the onions and help bind everything together. When you’re ready, pick up a small amount in your hand and squeeze it together – you’ll be able to see if it will stick. You may need to add a little more chickpea flour. Use a spoonful at a time, and squeeze together to form a blob, then place on a slightly greased baking tray. Place in the oven at 200°c and bake for 15 – 20 minutes until golden. You may like to turn them half way through. Serve hot with slices of lemon and chutney of your choice. Enjoy!