Burji is an Indian Railway Station institution. Throughout the country, stands with sizzling cast iron griddles serve up plate after plate of this stuff with soft, butter-seared pillows of pav bread late into the night. You shovel it off steel plates, sopping up every last bit with the spongy bread, and perhaps contemplating another serving (or even eyeing the tray of sheep’s brains which the stall also prepares in a similar way.).
It’s hard to say which came first; the silky, creamy Continental version of scrambled eggs, or this spicy Indian one (anda bhurji). It’s fair to say that both could have cropped up independently, and I’m certain that scrambled eggs were invented before the omelet (everyone tries to pass off a failed omelet as scrambled eggs when they’re learning).
I like both versions; they each have their purpose. The Indian, for instance, wouldn’t be the best match with buttered white toast and ketchup, and the Continental would not take to chapattis very well. They’re both easy and quick to make (though this one requires a few more ingredients), and are equally scrumptious.
In a heavy bottom pan, heat a tablespoon of olive oil on a medium flame, and add in one clove of garlic, sliced or minced, and one thumb-sized green chilli slit down the middle (you may scrape away the seeds to reduce its heat, and remember, in India at least the smaller the chilli the hotter it is). Finely dice a medium onion and add it to the pan; sautee until translucent (I know some people who like it still crunchy, and some who prefer it brown and caramelised. It’s up to you).
Take a tomato that’s a little smaller than the onion and dice it large. If you’re using cherry tomatoes you can simply halve two or three of them. When the onion is cooked add the tomato and sautee further.
When the tomatoes are cooked, add a pinch of turmeric powder. Good turmeric is strong, so use sparingly, and use a spoon to dispense it if you don’t want your fingertips to turn yellow for a few days. The rich, deep yellow colour that results from adding it is something you’ll want to replicate in all egg dishes, and so turmeric may be used in omelet mixes as well (just dissolve it in a teaspoon of milk or water so that no lumps are fomed).
Along with the turmeric I also add a little chilli powder. The powdered red chilli adds a different kind of heat to the sharper fresh green chilli, and when used in tandem they give a more rounded spicy taste.
Note that adding in curry powder instead of turmeric may be okay but I wouldn’t advise it. Curry powder contains several other spices such as coriander and cumin that would interfere with the generally clean and simple taste of the eggs.
Sautee for a minute until the spices take to the onions and tomato. Turn the heat up to high and add in a quarter cup of water, bringing it up to a simmer.
(A Side Note: This mix you have in the pan right now — before you add the eggs — is a very versatile one, and is sort of like the ‘trinity’ they use in Cajun cuisine. From this point, you can pretty-much add anything to this and come out with a good dish. Green beans. Mushrooms. Strips of Chicken. Tuna. Spinach. Paneer. Boiled, diced Potatoes. Tofu. Broccoli. A drained can of beans. Seafood. The list is endless, and what you’ll end up with can be called a bhaji. Anyway, back to the burji…)
If you like, you can break all your eggs into a bowl beforehand and beat them as you would an omelet mix, seasoning that with salt and pepper. I just season the onions and tomato and break the eggs in whole, scrambling them in the pan one or two at a time with a wooden fork. Either way now is the time to add in 4-6 eggs, depending on their size (i.e. 2-3 per head).
Stir the mixture around until the eggs are cooked. That water we added earlier will make the burji crumbly and more like mincemeat rather than creamy scrambled eggs. You can keep it creamy by omitting the water, beating the eggs up with some milk beforehand and not cooking them as much, but in general this is how burji is prepared in India. Finally, plate up and garnish with finely chopped cilantro.
Serve immediately with either chapattis or spongy bread that has been buttered on one side and seared on a pan (soft baguettes work well).
Eggsplicitly Speaking… (and not)
I mentioned before that the basic preparation of onions, tomatoes, garlic and chilli with turmeric is a base for a lot of dishes — bhajis — in Indian cuisine. If you’re vegetarian in the Indian sense then you may substitute crumbled paneer for the eggs, and end up with a popular dish called paneer burji. It’ve also had a similar paneer dish where the tomatoes and onions were pureed instead of whole (blitz the raw ingredients seperately beforehand, then fry as above), and the dish was finished off with cream for a strangely italian-tasting dish that might have gone well with the right kind of pasta.
Indeed, even this kind of burji might make a nice variation on Chinese Egg Fried Rice, if made in a wok with cold cooked rice put in just before you add beaten eggs.
I’ve had proper scrambled eggs much fewer times than burji. Chalk it up to the more pungent taste and the fact that it is easier to get right; you can prepare it without obsessing over it. It also works as a good lunch or dinner for one, and it firmly fits in the category of Comfort Food for me.
Perhaps it’s the memory of late nights coming home in Bombay, hungry and tired, when the only things open are the hawkers outside the train stations; islands of enticing aromas lit by kerosene lamp beacons. In the pool of their turmeric light, many a truly great meal has been had.