It was the winter of 1993, and I had an intense craving for bheja—brain.
The day was grey and bleak, the streets dirty with a snow-slush mixture, and the mid-morning temperature somewhere below zero. It was a pretty typical winter’s day in the American Midwest, where I spent two years acquiring a master’s degree.
The initial euphoria of eating supersized chicken legs had faded. I quickly realized they tasted like rubber—substantially worse than our broiler chickens, themselves an abomination of what meat should be. It was a freezing, 45-minute walk to the superstore on the edge of town. I remember feeling foolish walking the last mile (that’s 1.7km) along slushy road shoulders. There were no pavements because this was America, and you were meant to drive, not walk.
Holdout: In urban India, Bheja fry is served only in old-fashioned diners in frozen-in-time neighbourhoods such as Nizamuddin Basti. Javeed Shah/Mint
In any event, I reached the superstore and stared in depression at the supersized packs of super-chicken. I couldn’t buy them, not today when it was so cold and felt colder because I was missing home food (not home) with intensity greater than the winter freeze. As I picked my way through cheap, tasteless catfish and cheap, tasteless sausages, I reached the end of the aisle. At the back of a shelf, I found salvation.
“Pork brain”, said the three plastic boxes of about 200g each. I grew up in the Deccan where we often had paya (trotter soup) for breakfast, and bheja was a weekend treat. I certainly didn’t expect to see bheja for sale in the US, especially not in this bleak Missouri store. Of course, it wasn’t a goat brain, as it was back home, but, really, how different can brains be?
I was right. I returned home, greatly buoyed by my purchase, and cooked the bheja in the two simple ways I knew, masala and fried. Now, I pride myself on adapting well to new places and cultures. The only caveat is that my stomach needs to feel good about it. After consuming vast quantities of bheja, it did.
I never saw pork brain in that superstore again.
When I returned to India, I found bheja a disappearing delicacy. It’s become harder to find, and most mainstream restaurants have taken it off the menu in these gloomy times of catering to the majority and gloomier attempts to push a monoculture of cricket and chicken on to all Indians. Once a proud culinary expression of diversity, bheja fry is more widely known as a movie of the same name. I last had bheja a year ago (somewhere in Mumbai, I think), but I haven’t made it for some time.
So, I was particularly happy last Sunday when I saw bheja (fry and masala) on offer at a couple of restaurants in Nizamuddin Basti, the ghetto-like neighbourhood, perhaps about 700 years old, which surrounds the iconic Hazrat Nizamuddin shrine near my home in south Delhi. It is a syncretic place, a melange of nationalities, cultures and flavours, as only an area steeped in the Sufi tradition can be.
As a couple of Uzbeks (well, they may have been Kazakhs) and an Iraqi family walked gingerly into a restaurant called Al Quresh, I was delighted to see bheja fry and masala on offer. Al Quresh, like other little eating holes in Nizamuddin Basti, offered a variety of offal, including that other fading favourite, liver.
I have found bheja on offer at a handful of older Delhi, Mumbai and Bangalore restaurants (quite a few on Mosque Road near my parents’ home in Richards Town), but these are holdouts. In time, they too will lose their brains. In any case, they don’t make bheja quite like they used to. When I last had bheja, the masala was overpowering and smothered the squishy, almost silk-like texture of the cerebrum, cerebellum and other associated parts.
If you aren’t used to eating internal organs, the brain is actually not as offal (sorry!) as others, like the blood curry they have down south, reduced and sautéed with masalas and coconut.
I would love to swap recipes. Tell me what you think.
400-500g goat brain
1/4 tsp turmeric powder (or less)
1-2 tsp red chilli powder
1 tsp garam masala
1/2-inch piece ginger, julienned (optional)
5-6 garlic pods, chopped fine
1/2 cup water
10 curry leaves
1 onion, thinly sliced
1 tbsp ghee or olive oil
Salt to taste
First boil the brain with a pinch of turmeric and salt till it firms up. Drain, clean and de-vein (the last, only if you want).
Heat a little oil or ghee and add the curry leaves. Add the onions and garlic. When the onions start browning, add chilli powder. Sauté for a minute or two and add the brain and salt. Sauté. Add garam masala and toss just before removing. Garnish with ginger, if you wish.
400-500g goat brain
2-3 tsp red chilli powder
A dash of lime
1 egg, beaten (optional)
1 tbsp ghee or olive oil
Boil the brain and clean. Marinate with red chilli powder and salt for 30 minutes. Gently heat olive oil or ghee. Fry the brain on medium heat until brown outside and cooked through. You can also dip it in egg and then fry. Squeeze some lime before serving. Serve hot with chapatti.
This is a column on easy, inventive cooking from a male perspective. Samar Halarnkar writes a blog, Our Daily Bread, at Htblogs.com. He is editor-at-large, Hindustan Times.
Write to Samar at firstname.lastname@example.org