This week, we’re following our cricketers over to India. At the time of writing, we’re doing very well in the second test, thanks to the mighty Monty Panesar, and I hope we keep it up.
India is very high up on my travel wishlist – it just looks so wonderfully vibrant, friendly and somehow magical.
It always comes across as such a beguilingly colourful place; the deep greens of the trees and grasses, the warm orange glow of the sunlight, the purple of the distant Himalayas, the rich ochres of the fresh spices in the markets, and the bright neon pinks and greens of the silks.
Not only that, but the food of India is one of my very favourite cuisines, from the fresh, coconut-based fish curries of Kerala to the dark, chili-laced stews of the north via the opulence of the rich cuisine of the Punjab.
We could do a recipe a week and not cover the whole repertoire of Indian food in literally decades of articles.
This week, though, we’re concentrating on something a little more snack-y. Something, in fact, that will be on offer at the little stalls around the stadium in Mumbai.
We’re having a go at the classic Indian street-food, the Vada Pav. Apparently invented by a snack vendor outside a railway station in Maharashtra in the early 70s, the vada pav is simply a potato fritter in a bun, but in reality it’s a mouthwatering combination of hot, crunchy, spicy, smooth and chewy.
Made for snacking on the hoof, it’s the equivalent of our beefburger or cheese and pickle roll – something really tasty that takes little effort to eat, and which is cheap and readily available.
The potato is mashed and blended with spices and aromatic vegetables, then is chilled in shaped patties before being dipped in a rich turmeric-laced chickpea batter.
This fries to a stunning crisp pink coating (the curcumin in the turmeric reacts to the heat – it’s quite alarming first time you see it! No wonder it’s known as the Indian saffron) which lends a terrific crunch when bitten into.
These crunchy patties are then served in a roll with two different chutneys or sauces. One is a rich, spicy coconut and peanut paste, and the other a cooling minty yoghurt.
Combine all this and you have a full-on flavour explosion across the palate. The roll is important here, as it’s the combination of the crunchy with the soft that makes these sandwiches so enjoyable. Think of our own fish-finger butty; the pleasure is often just as much in the textural contrast as in the flavour.
The Japanese have their tonkatsu pork (we covered this earlier this year), and the Americans have the Po’Boy, traditionally a roll filled with crispy deep-fried oysters but now just referring to anything deep-fried and shoved in a bun. For this recipe, any good bread roll will do.
I decided to go one further and make some soft caramelised onion rolls with a basic white bread recipe, laced with strands of deeply-coloured onion, but you could use whatever you fancy, from an artisan roll to a plain old burger bun from the value shelf.
If anything, the cheaper rolls are probably the most authentic, given this is street grub from the subcontinent, but it’s up to you.
You can always serve these terrific fritters without the bread as part of a fancier dinner, but it’s nice to try the full snack experience for once.
Pop the Third Test on, and get frying! Aprons on!
For the potato vadai:
1 green chili
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 tbsp ginger, minced or grated
A handful fresh coriander
½ tbsp vegetable oil
1 tsp mustard seeds
3 curry leaves, finely chopped
½ tsp turmeric
½ tsp cumin
½ tsp ground coriander
75g chickpea (gram) flour
A pinch of bicarbonate of soda
A pinch of Maldon salt
For the green chutney:
120ml plain yoghurt
A handful fresh coriander, chopped
A handful fresh mint, chopped
½ a small onion, very finely diced
1 large garlic clove, minced
2 tsp lemon juice
1 tsp unrefined golden caster sugar
A pinch of Maldon salt
For the garlic coconut chutney:
130g desiccated coconut
6 cloves garlic
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
2 tsp chili flakes (or a little less if you’re squeamish)
2 tbsps salted peanuts
A little lemon juice
Soft bread rolls
Peeled cucumber slices
Oil for frying
For the green chutney, stir the ingredients together until combined, and check for seasoning. Chill until required.
To prepare the coconut chutney, toast the coconut under the grill or in a medium oven until golden and aromatic.
Toast the peanuts until deeply-coloured. Blend all the ingredients together to form a thick paste, adjusting consistency with a little oil or lemon juice if necessary.
To make the potato vadai, peel and dice the potatoes, then cook in plenty of salted boiling water until tender, and then mash or pass through a mouli and allow to cool.
Chop the chilis, garlic and ginger to a rough paste. Add the chili mixture to the mash, and add plenty of freshly-chopped coriander. In a small pan, heat the vegetable oil and add the mustard seeds.
When they start to pop, add the curry leaves, the dried spices and remove from the heat.
Mix straight into the potato mixture, and adjust the seasoning if necessary.
Divide the potato mixture into eight portions; shape into fat rounded burger shapes, roughly the same size as the rolls.
Chill unwrapped in the fridge for at least an hour.
In a separate bowl, combine the gram flour, a pinch each of turmeric and chili powder and a little salt. Add enough water, gradually, to make a smooth, thick batter. Add a teaspoon of bicarbonate of soda and mix well. In a deep pan, heat a few inches of oil to a medium heat.
Dip the chilled vadai in the batter to coat well, shake the excess loose and deep-fry until they become golden and crispy.
The turmeric will become alarmingly red, but persevere! It helps form an amazing crispy coating. Keep the cooked vadai warm until you have used all the mixture.
To serve, halve the rolls, toast lightly, and spread a little of the coconut chutney on the bottom half.
Pop a vada on the roll, spoon a little green chutney on top, add a few slices of crisp cucumber, and top with the remaining half of the roll.
Eat immediately, preferably with a nice chilled Indian beer.