Not all beer and food experiments are successful. This post is about a failure. It began whilst I was idly daydreaming about onion bhajis, which I love. Whilst I was studying for my undergraduate degree, I was mildly obsessed by these weird packaged bhajis you could buy in the campus shop – they were round and flat, like a giant cookie, incredibly dry and doughy and tasted like they’d had no contact with any onions whatsoever. Somehow, I loved them, and one of these joined a packet of crisps to make up a none-too-healthy lunch all too regularly. But I also like good bhajis; crisp and golden-brown on the outside, doughy and packed with gooey, stringy onion in the middle. So, I decided to make some of my own.
So far, so good. But the daydream didn't end there. I moved onto thinking about tamarind sauce, which is often served as an accompaniment to onion bhajis. Tamarind has a rich, deep, savoury flavour, but also a sweet-and-sour tang and, whilst it doesn't taste of tamarind as such, Guinness Foreign Extra Stout shares these characteristics. I began to wonder whether I could replace tamarind sauce with a sticky reduction of the beer. What could go wrong?
The bhajis themselves were excellent. I followed Felicity Cloake's ‘perfect’ recipe – I often follow Felicity’s stuff and it never lets me down – with a couple of small alterations. One word of advice I would share with anyone embarking on bhajis for the first time is to be careful with the consistency of your batter – there’s no measure of water given in this recipe, so you have to judge it by eye, but add even slightly too much and you’ll struggle to shape the onions into balls when it’s time to fry them. Even with this minor problem, the bhajis were crisp on the outside and full of fresh, soft, sweet onion on the inside, so I was perfectly happy there.
I’d poured myself a glass from a 600ml bottle of the beer and put the rest in a pan, heating it over a low heat with a couple of teaspoons of sugar for a little over an hour. The glass of beer was delicious, but the reduction didn't work out so well. A couple of tentative dunks were passable to begin with, but dipping with more enthusiasm, it became clear that reducing the stout had only accentuated its bitterness. It tasted burnt and, in combination with the crispier outer edges of the bhajis, the overwhelming flavour was of ashy bitterness. Luckily, I’d also make a portion of bhindi bhaji and this, together with the onion bhajis and a bottle of Radeberger I pulled from the fridge, still added up to a satisfying meal.
Was I disappointed? A little bit, but the more I thought about it, the more obvious it was that this was never going to work. I've often thought that Foreign Extra Stout would be a great companion to a packet of Walker’s Worcestershire sauce crisps, and this might be a much safer food and beer match to try in future. But I’d still prefer to be curious about food, trying things that don’t work, than not give a shit about what’s on my plate. So maybe that’s the point.