Poori Bhaji(puri bhaji) is about as delicious as Indian food gets: and by that I mean pick-your-fingernails-with-your-teeth-to-devour-every-last-crumb delicious.
This is pure comfort food: the kind that gets made at every festive occasion in an Indian kitchen, no matter where in the world that kitchen is. The kind that kids carry to picnic lunches, the oil from the poori making transparent blotches on the newspaper it’s wrapped in. And the kind I feel like eating when I will settle for nothing short of pure perfection at the dinner table.
It wouldn’t be stretching the truth to say that there are perhaps as many versions of Poori Bhaji as there are Indian cooks. Although the poori, or the puffy, deep-fried bread, remains more or less the same except the addition of spices in some cases, the bhaji, or the vegetable component, varies drastically. It’s almost always made with potatoes but everyone puts their own delicious spin on the versatile spud: gravied, dry, spicy, mild, tangy with lemon, or alive with the spicy pungency of curry leaves.
When I lived in Bombay, one of the most popular places to go to if you were craving a plate of Poori Bhaji was Pancham Puriwala, a famously crowded and unpretentious dhaba/restaurant that sits not far from the grand Victoria Terminus railway station. According to Busybee, the now-dead but still-entertaining chronicler of Bombay’s eateries, it predates the British-era VT building and was started by an immigrant from Agra in north India who singlehandedly cooked and sold his Poori Bhaji more than 150 years ago.
The Pancham I was familiar with had grown into a much bigger establishment, but it still sold nothing but poori bhaji. Hundreds of people who worked around the busy Fort area would pour into the restaurant for lunch. It was -- if I remember correctly-- a salt-of-the-earth establishment with hardy wooden tables flanked by long benches. There’d be some pickles at the center of the table to spice up the meal. The place was intensely noisy and crowded and hot and humid -- a microcosm of the city itself-- but you could be sure to get your order fast from one of the skinny, super-efficient waiters for a truly nominal price.
I loved the atmosphere, but I never really acquired the taste and fascination for Pancham Puriwala that some of my friends had-- perhaps because I had tasted better in my mom’s kitchen.
We Maharashtrians tend to make a dryer version of the potato bhaji-- at my parents’ house, the Bhaji was always an ultra-simple, yellow-hued delicacy specked with the green fire of fresh chillies, the lemony bite of coriander, and the smokiness of cumin seeds. It was a dish you couldn’t help but love.
I’ve posted a detailed tutorial on making pooris before, so I am just going to send you to that link. And my bhaji is a slight variation of the one my family made: instead of adding the curry leaves whole, and then discarding them as some people do, I chop them into small bits and saute them along with the onions because I love how they complement the potatoes in each bite. And I also mash my potatoes a little because that way they are perfect to scoop up with the pooris.
Here it is, a recipe that can make any day-- however humdrum-- just a little more special. Enjoy!
Try these recipes next:
- 5 medium potatoes , boiled in their jackets and diced. (I prefer russet for these because they mash better, but I had a couple of russet and a few red potatoes yesterday, so I just used a combination. Back home my mom always peeled the potato skin but don’t do that-- most of the nutrients in the potato sit right under the skin so by peeling the potato you will turn this healthy veggie into a blob of tasty but starchy nothingness-- well, almost.)
- 1 tbsp cumin seeds
- 1 medium onion , finely diced
- 2 green chillies , like serrano, minced 1 tbsp grated ginger
- 10-15 curry leaves , chopped
- ½ tsp turmeric
- Salt to taste
- ¼ cup coriander leaves
- 1 tbsp lemon juice
- 1 tbsp vegetable oil
- Heat the oil in a skillet.
- Add the cumin seeds and asafetida. When the seeds sputter, add the onions and curry leaves and green chillies and saute until the onion turns transparent, about five minutes on medium heat.
- Add the ginger and turmeric and saute a few more seconds. Add the potatoes and stir them in to combine with the oil and spices.
- Mash down the potatoes with a potato masher or a heavy ladle so some of the pieces break up but others remain mostly intact. You want the potatoes to start turning slightly golden and crusty at the bottom of the pan.
- Add salt and lemon juice and mix well. Garnish with the coriander seeds or, if you like, some grated coconut.
Enjoy with hot, puffy pooris.
We spent the Christmas weekend in the quiet, friendly city of Saint Louis and then in Springfield, Missouri, where Desi's sister (who lives in Madras) is visiting with her son. I live in the capital city of monuments and I never thought I'd fall in love with another one but the Gateway Arch absolutely fascinated me with its silk-steel grace. They say the arch changes its look with the seasons and time of day. Although it was dark and damp and snowing for most of our stay, we had a room with a perfect view of the arch and we loved every moment of watching it!
There's something about the arch that inspires one to shoot it from interesting angles that break up its perfection. Desi, who's otherwise obsessed with symmetry, got some really beautiful shots and I wanted to share some with you today. I love that picture of the tourists bending over to peer out at the city from the small windows at the top of the arch-- you get there by enduring a stifling, claustrophobic ride in a miraculous tram/elevator that makes its way slowly up to the top. In the end, well worth it.