An easy delicious rendition of all-time favourite potatoes with the freshness of onion stalk flowers, versatile enough to substitute the onion stalks with chives or scallions, is my go-to comfort food and comes together in a breeze!
I never recognized this early on but I can bet that I have always loved my food. I cared deeply about what mother served us at the table and packed in our lunchboxes. There's a childlike happiness that fills me up when I hark back to those tiffin boxes I took to school. Although following a pattern of roti-sabzi, some sort of pulaos, chow mein or stuffed parathas, they were never mundane. As much as I was intrigued and interested in what my friends had in their dabbas, I was always proud of the meals my mother prepared and savoured all the smells wafting from my lunchbox. Balanced in nutrients, tasty and so easily digested between the study and play at school, those lunchboxes were often the highlight of my day!
If I think of my favourites from those tiffin lunches, aloo bhujia or aloo bhaja has to be the forerunner. A tasty aloo bhaja/bhujia is easy to prepare and takes very less time, and no wonder it's one of the most common items packed in my lunchbox. Strips of potatoes cut like matchsticks—think thin French fries—sautéed in mustard oil, cumin and red chili still has the power to uplift my mood on any day. This already special treat becomes stellar with a hue of green from tender onion flower stalks, a seasonal veggie that's abundant in winters in India, especially in Odisha and West Bengal.
Onion Stalk and Spring Onion - what's the difference?
It's easy to confuse spring onions with onion stalks, commonly called as piaja sandha in Odia and peyajkoli in Bengali and hara pyaz in Hindi. Onion stalks are simply the green stems of an onion. Growing as a bulb beneath the ground, the onion shoots up five leaves and a stalk with a flower on top above the ground. During the shoulder season of winter, say November to December, the stalk is cut off and consumed in various food preparations. The onion bulb continues to remain underground till all the leaves dry off, and the onions are finally harvested between January and May.
Now, spring onions are also from the same onion plant. But they're available year round. This is because spring onions are a premature version of onions. If onions are taken out of the ground before they become fuller bulbs, those are referred as spring onions. So, you'd always notice a smaller white or red bulb at the base of a spring onion, depending on the onion variety. These have thin long leaves, and are usually used as garnish than as a veggie that's cooked.
Scallions or green onions are a prior version of spring onion, and thus don't have the white bulb underneath. They are also grown from some varieties that do not bulb at all.
While spring onions are sweeter and milder than regular onions, their leaves are more intense in flavour than regular onions, and so should be used thoughtfully when interchanging in a recipe.
All about chives
While scallions and spring onions are abundantly available in Canada, I haven't found onion stalks, piaja sandha/piyajkoli here yet. However I found that chives along with their flower stalks work really well as a substitute. It wasn't totally a surprise as members of the Amaryllidaceae family have similarities. Now chives are again of two kinds.
Onion chives, commonly called as only chives, have the botanical name, Allium schoenoprasum. They have hollow tubular leaves, taste mild oniony, usually bear pale purple flowers though other colours are not unknown and bloom in spring and early summer.
Garlic chives, Allium tuberosum, on the other hand have wider flat leaves, taste mildy garlicky, bear white flowers and bloom in late summer and early fall.
A slight touch of heat helps bring out the flavour of chives, making them ideal substitutes for onion stalks in this recipe. They're however delicate than onion stalks, and should not be overcooked.
Aloo Bhujia or bhaja needs only two things to make it perfect. Chopping the potatoes thin and long and tossing it at medium to high heat. This recipe can be made without any other accompanying veggie although I never miss adding chives or onion stalks when they're in season.
If using onion stalks or chives, chop the greens the same size as the potatoes, and maintain the same thickness. This will ensure all ingredients are cooked thoroughly and cook fast.
I highly recommend not overpowering this dish with a load of spices because that takes away from the beauty and central idea of an uncomplicated stir fry.
2-3 medium sized potatoes, washed, peeled and cut as thin long strips
1-2 bundles of onion or chive stalks with flowers (or use scallions as replacement), cut into strips the same length as potatoes
2 tbsp mustard oil (or any other oil of your choice)
2-3 whole dry red chilies
1/5 tsp panch-phoron (equal parts of cumin, mustard, nigella, fennel and fenugreek seeds) You can use
1/2 tsp turmeric
1 tsp jeera-lanka gunda (roasted cumin and red chili powder) or 1/2 tsp cumin powder plus 1/2 tsp red chili powder
1 tsp salt, or to taste
Place a heavy bottom pan on medium high heat, add mustard oil and heat it till its smoking point. Then add the dry red chilies and once they puff up, add paanch phoron. Sauté for a couple of seconds and add the potatoes.
Toss the potatoes for a few seconds and then add turmeric, cumin-chili powder and salt. Now stir to combine and continue to stir intermittently until the potato sticks turn tender but continue to hold shape. If you're using onion stalks, you can add them along with potatoes and cook together. If you're using chives or scallions, follow step 3.
When the potatoes are almost done (90% cooked), add the chives or scallions and stir again to combine. Cook for a minute or two and remove from heat. Serve hot with rotis or parathas or as a side with dal-chawal.