Bheja in any form. It’s a no-brainer: Maska Maarke with Kunal Vijayakar
Goat’s brain, I’ll admit, is an acquired taste. But don’t let your squeamishness keep you from enjoying its rich, umami flavour.mumbai Updated: May 18, 2018 20:39 IST
I am about to embark upon a rather queasy dissertation, and it’s about brain. Don’t get me wrong, the discussion is not highbrow or erudite and it’s definitely not neurological. In fact the discussion is luxurious, savoury, steeped in flavour and gastronomical. It is goat’s brain or bheja that I am about to gush about.
Tava Bheja, a dish of chopped brain, sautéed with onions, tomato and spices, eaten with bread is a dish that is commonly available in the narrow food-lined lanes of Mohammad Ali Road, Bhendi Bazaar, Pakmodia Street and Khara Tank Road in Mumbai. But there is so much more to bheja. It’s not just a street food to be squinted at and squeamishly sampled during Ramzan.
I have to admit that bheja is an acquired taste. It’s offal of the goat, but neither tastes nor feels anything like mutton or red meat. When raw, it looks exactly like that drawing of a brain from your zoology textbook, albeit a smaller gelatinous glop. When cooked, it acquires a custard-like creaminess, much like slightly stiff scrambled eggs, and has a rich, umami savouriness.
My grandmother used to cook a Maharashtrian version of brain masala at home, a recipe I have used often. The brain is never mashed up but kept whole (Maybe sliced in two, if it is a larger brain, perchance from a smarter goat).
She’d marinate the brain in salt and turmeric and stash it in the refrigerator overnight. Then with a lot of oil, onion, ginger, garlic, turmeric and chilli, she’d make the most heavenly Bheja. The dish had no name. It was just called Bheja or Mendoo (the Marathi word for ‘mind’), and its thin gravy could be slurped up with hot steamed rice.
The Parsis too make a mean Bheja Masala. At actor Boman Irani’s house, his lovely wife Zenobia uses tonnes of crisply fried onions, tomato, stalks of curry leaves, classic Parsi dhana-jeero powder and other red and brown spices to make a semi-dry, fiery, brick-coloured but silky Bheja Masala, that goes down really well with hot Brun Pav. They too keep the brain whole.
The most acclaimed brain dish among the Parsis, though, is the Bheja na Cutlet. Some make it with a filling of green chutney, although the hard-hatted traditionalist would always prefer it with no filling at all. The full brain is marinated in turmeric, red chilli powder, ginger-garlic and salt, and set aside (or coated with a thin layer of green coriander and coconut chutney after the marination). Either way, the brain is then dipped in beaten egg and deep fried. I like the Bheja na Cutlet with chutney. When you slice it, you get these lovely layers of crisp lacey egg, thin green chutney and mushy spicy brain.
Jilani Fast Food Corner on Khara Tank Road in Bohri Mohalla makes the finest Tava Bheja on this side of the Mithi River. It’s done in the classic tawa style; the brain is scrambled and stir-fried with spices on a griddle, till the oil separates and the creamy pieces turn dark brown. You have to sit right there on the street and eat it with yeasty Naan Bread.
Jaffer Bhai Delhi Darbar makes Tawa Bheja Black Pepper, but I think they do that on order only. It’s a bhurji, with raw onion, tomato, lots of black pepper and green chillies. And opposite my alma mater, St Mary’s School, Mazgaon, is Queen Mary, a humble joint that makes the best Kheema and Bheja Gurda.
But my most cherished, treasured and beloved Bheja Fry Masala is the one from Olympia Coffee House, Colaba. Whole brain in a greenish gravy, presumably of coriander and chillies, a strong flavour of garam masala and a recipe that I have found impossible to perceive or decipher. All I know is that its taste hasn’t changed in 25 years.
Alongside you must order a portion of what I call Bheja Bhurji. Scrambled brain that tastes of the same coriander gravy, but unlike an Egg Burji is smooth and fluffy, without a trace of raw onions or chillies.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s not just the Muslim and Parsi communities that love bheja. Its appeal goes beyond Sarvi at Nagpada, Haji Tikka at Bhendi Bazaar and Radio Restaurant at Crawford Market. Some Malvani joints often serve brain alongside vajri or intestines, in a spicy red masala, and Punjabi restaurants including Sher-e-Punjab near the GPO, Amritsar da Dhaba in Khar and Khane-e-Khas in Bandra West all recreate the wonderful north Indian taste of Bheja Masala.
For me it’s one of my favourite foods. In fact it’s a no-brainer.