Several research projects in recent years have confirmed the positive effects of gardening as a mental health intervention, particularly in cases involving anxiety and depression.
This makes sense: we gardeners plant and sow seeds, often in cold and unpromising conditions, in the hope and expectation that good things will grow from them. We are optimists, either by nature or through experience. Gardening encourages us to adapt to a different pace of life. We learn to work with the rhythm of the seasons. We learn to connect with the soil, becoming literally and metaphorically grounded. A reassuring sense of timelessness reaches down through the generations into the gentle cycle of sowing and reaping.
For me, my allotment plot, the Circus Garden, is often an oasis of calm in an otherwise hectic life. Basic tasks like weeding, pruning and harvesting can only be carried out effectively at a calm, gentle pace, seemingly dictated by nature herself, a pace harmoniously emphasised this time of year by the sound of hundreds of bees buzzing drunkenly around the lavender that borders my plot.
Gardening encourages more than just peace of mind. Physically, it can provide a pretty decent workout for the respiratory and cardiovascular systems, building flexibility, strength and endurance, which in turn help to guard against problems such as heart disease and osteoporosis.
I think these things tell us something about the importance of an active, healthy connection to nature and the seasons, and about the long term damage and distress that we can create in ourselves the more dislocated we become from them.
Let’s move on to the recipe, which uses Yellow Shenshu onions, a Japanese variety which I grew this year for the first time on my allotment plot, the Circus Garden. A hardy vegetable, sown in the Autumn and harvested in the summer, I have been impressed by the consistency and quality of this lovely, round, strongly flavoured onion and I will definitely grow it again next year.
The origin of the onion bhaji is a little obscure, with both India and Nepal laying claims for its invention. In those countries it is eaten as a simple street food, essentially a type of pakora which somewhere along the way has had delusions of grandeur and purloined the name “bhaji” in order to stand out from the rest.
This is my version – crispy, spicy and delicious. These bhajis are at their best served hot with a good, spicy relish or chutney.
2 medium onions, thinly sliced
75 g gram (chickpea) flour
2 red chillies, deseeded and finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1/2 tsp ground turmeric
1 tbsp garam masala
1 tsp cumin seeds
½ tsp sea salt
2 tbsp fresh coriander leaves, chopped
100 ml water
500 ml groundnut oil, for frying
1. Place the sliced onions onto some kitchen paper and pat with another sheet of kitchen paper to absorb any excess moisture.
2. Dry roast the cumin seeds in a heavy based pan over a high heat for about 60 seconds until the seeds become slightly browned and aromatic. Crush them roughly with a pestle and mortar.
2. Place the onions into a bowl with the gram flour, chilli, garlic, turmeric, garam masala, salt, fresh coriander and crushed cumin. Stir to combine, making sure the onion slices are all coated. Add the water, a little at a time, stirring carefully to ensure there are no lumps. Continue doing this until all the water has been used. You should end up with a stiff batter.
3. Heat the groundnut oil over a high heat until it reaches a temperature where a cube of bread placed in the oil browns within 30 seconds. Carefully drop tablespoonfuls of the bhaji mixture into the oil. You will need to do this in two or three batches so as not to overcrowd the pan and to avoid lowering the oil temperature too drastically. Turn the bhajis to ensure they are evenly browned. They should take around 3-4 minutes to cook.
4. Drain briefly on kitchen paper before serving.