Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Vine Leaf Bhaji (Pakorhas)


I would have grown up in a boring suburban home but for the influence of the church over my mother. She was a bright girl; and in the fifties, as every conservative Christian knew, bright girls didn’t marry. Instead, they because missionaries. My mother showed no interest in nursing but quickly proved herself a linguist, and so it was clear to all and sundry that she would go translate bibles somewhere. I never worked out whether she herself had really wanted to do this; all I know is that she told me she used to kneel every night and pray, ‘Anywhere but Africa, God, anywhere but Africa.’ Why Africa didn’t appeal is a mystery to me; but there you go.

When she was nineteen, as part of her discernment process she travelled to India to visit missionary friends. In her bag she smuggled boxes and boxes of tampons, then unavailable in India; and under the tampons, a replacement fender for a small van. The van belonged to the missionaries, who had inadvertently collided with, and killed, a holy cow. It was a hit and run. Nobody but the missionaries knew who had done it – to hit a cow in those parts at those times meant your life was forfeit.

My mother’s friends didn’t really want to give up their lives for a pagan cow that had been sitting in the middle of the road just around a sharp bend, but there were telltale marks on their fender. So the van was in hiding until they could replace the fender; there was nowhere they could get a new fender without exciting comment; and so my mother was smuggling one in from Australia.

She was stopped at customs and asked to open her very large and surprisingly heavy bag. The first things to be questioned were the tampons. The customs officer opened a box, pulled one out, unwrapped it, and held it aloft. Clearly mystified, he asked her, in sign language, what it was; and in sign language, the terribly shy girl of nineteen communicated by pointing at the moon, at women, crossing out men, and finally miming the insertion of a tampon. The customs official turned bright pink, zipped up her bag, and urgently waved her through. Thus the fender was delivered safely and the missionaries lived happily ever after.


My mother never became a missionary. Instead, she married, had kids, and fought her way to become a minister (priest), one of the first Baptist women in Australia to be so ordained. But she did extend her cooking repertoire to Indian food. Chappatis, bhaji (also known as pakorhas), rice and dal, aloo gobi, brinjal bartha, chicken curry, banana pickle, various chatnis – all these appeared regularly at the family dinner table.

When I cook them now, they taste of home, perhaps even more than the standard fare of the early 80’s that she also served: lamb chops, tuna mornay, beef stews.

And now it’s early April. The larger leaves on the grapevine are turning red even as the smaller leaves at the ends of the stems are still soft, fresh, and bright lime green. It’s our last chance for vine leaves, so this week I pruned back some of the long straggly stems, picked off the young leaves, dipped them in bhaji batter and shallow fried them. The leaves cooked in seconds, the batter puffed and golden around them. Each hot crisp bite melted in the mouth; the kids loved them; and I remembered these stories about my mother.

Vine Leaf Bhaji (Pakorhas)

- ¼ cup chickpea (besan) flour
- ¼ cup rice flour
- ¼ tsp turmeric
- 1/8 tsp bicarb soda
- ½ tsp salt
- 20 or so fresh young vine leaves
- flavourless vegetable oil (not olive oil; enough to shallow fry)

Pick the vine leaves and pinch out the base of the stem. Wash if necessary, and pat dry very carefully as any drops of water left on the leaf can cause the oil to spit.

Sift the flours, turmeric, bicarb and salt together. Make a well, and add the water in a thin trickle, whisking all the time to ensure a smooth batter. Gradually incorporate all the flour from the sides of the bowl into the batter. It should have the consistency of thin cream.

Warm a couple of inches of canola or other flavourless vegetable oil (not olive) in a deep pan. It is ready when a mustard seed added to the oil pops.

Dip a leaf into the batter, dab it against the side of the bowl to remove any excess batter, and drop it into the oil. It will float. Cook for about ten seconds, or until the underside is puffed and golden. Flip and cook for another few seconds, then remove.

Drain on scrunched up paper bags. Don’t use paper towel, as that will render your lovely crispy bites soggy. Sprinkle with extra salt if you wish, and demolish. Don’t burn your tongue! Very good with beer (or more properly with some sort of dal and rice).

If you wish to save the oil, I find that letting it cool then running it through a paper coffee filter placed in a funnel cleans it enough for a second use.

Adapted from a recipe in Madhur Jaffrey’s magnificent tour of regional Indian cooking, A Taste of India. Sadly, it is out of print, but her Ultimate Curry Bible looks very tempting! Recipe easily doubled or quadrupled; there is just a limit to how much fried food I will make, and that limit is very low.

Incidentally, I also tried baby chard leaves, but while they were still good, they were so juicy that they lacked the requisite crispiness. I’d recommend you stick to vine or other thin leaves: sorrel, or baby spinach perhaps. You can also use this batter for thinly sliced vegetables: potatoes and potato skins, pumpkin, cauliflower, eggplant, zucchini, and even squash flowers. But I like it best with leaves.

(Backyard: vine leaves. Victoria: canola oil (non GMO). Somewhere in Australia: chickpea flour, salt. From many miles away: brown rice flour, turmeric. A complete mystery: bicarb soda.)

Madhur Jaffrey's Ultimate Curry Bible


  1. and I even left out the bit where she was kidnapped... another recipe, perhaps!

  2. What a wonderful story (and story telling BTW) I love how cooking food can bring back memories from the past.

    The Ultimate Curry Bible is a fantastic book, we love it and consult it often. My HH dreams of the ultimate curry world tour. The beauty of the humble curry is that it has reached into the far corners of the globe and would make for a divine eating and travel experience.

    Now I am hanging out for the next installment of your mothers life....and yes, another delicious recipe to accompany, please.

  3. Hmmm must check out that curry bible. I have heard rave reviews from many. As for my mother's life... well, we'll see what bubbles up next.

  4. ..also, you have now sent me on the hunt for another of Madhurs cook books. Like I need another Indian cooking resource!

    There are a couple on eBay right now.