Madhur Jaffrey once made me a stack of warm besan cheela for breakfast — crisp-edged, soft-centered, chickpea-flour pancakes. Or was that a dream?
No, I really did stay over at her house in the Hudson Valley, after a long summer dinner, when it became too late to drive home to Brooklyn. From the window I could see her kitchen garden full of wavy, toothy artichoke plants, trellises of beans and raspberry brambles caged to deter the deer. I grew up watching Jaffrey’s films, in awe of her playing the part of a glamorous Bollywood actor in the Merchant Ivory film “Shakespeare Wallah.” Later, I read and referenced her cookbooks. I was so nervous as her houseguest that I didn’t dare get up and go to the bathroom because I worried the creaking floorboards would wake her and her husband, who were asleep across the hall. I didn’t sleep so much as lie there buzzing with a goofy euphoria and a full bladder, staring at the ceiling, feeling the cool air rush from the open window onto my face, waiting for morning. And in the morning, Jaffrey, who could have made anything at all, made a few perfect besan cheela.
Did it even matter what I called it, when I was cooking quietly for myself?
We had them with chutney, a mash of leftover potato and cauliflower and cups of hot tea. We talked about the stacks of books in her library, and the varieties of potatoes in Peru, and how a besan cheela would also be delicious with a number of other things that it wasn’t traditionally served with, like perilla kimchi, or a puntarelle salad. Jaffrey is known for her Indian cooking, and cookbooks that taught generations to precisely recreate it at home, but she’s also a well-traveled cook who makes the rules as she goes, constantly adapting, incorporating new ingredients into her routine, experimenting. She made me realize how closely related besan cheela were to farinata, or socca, the Italian pancakes made with chickpea flour and olive oil. The two pancakes aren’t exactly interchangeable, but they’re kin, with a luxurious, almost creamy quality on the tongue.
The next time I made cheela at home, I put some grated cheese and basil inside and folded the pancake like a fajita, pressing it to the pan and hearing the steam hiss, letting it get extra crisp, I wasn’t really sure what I made, except that it was extremely delicious. Should I call it besan cheela or farinata, or should I scrap both identities and call it a chickpea pancake? Did it even matter here, in my home kitchen, where I was cooking quietly for myself?
What I cook for myself has become harder and harder to categorize, though there’s always an insistence to categorize it from someone, somewhere. Maybe I’m supposed to call it “fusion,” but the word always feels a bit vague, dated and awkward, belonging more to smug 1990s restaurants and puffed-up French chefs than to me. The writer Mahira Rivers recently defined fusion as “a borderless style of cooking, rooted in the multitudes that make people interesting.” I liked that — a precise but generous definition, acknowledging just how deeply weird and personal and wonderful it can be to cook exactly the way you want to, or need to, when no one’s watching, and to not have to explain it to anyone.
Here’s what I know: A cup or so of fine chickpea flour, thinned with the same amount of warm water, is an excellent basic batter. I season it with salt and pepper, and maybe some caraway seeds, and definitely a big glug of olive oil. Sometimes I grate in tomatoes, red onion and green chile. Sometimes I add only herbs, or leave it plain. In a cast-iron pan, the batter sets quickly and goes crisp and brown, releasing easily when it’s cooked — I start it on the stove and finish it in the oven, or even under the broiler. It’s just as good with aloo masala as it is with sautéed greens and garlic, and it’s wonderful cut up as a snack with a cup of tea, or a glass of wine. I love it covered in toppings, like marinated cherry tomatoes and herbs, or a salad of dressed bitter leaves and roasted mushrooms. It makes sense to me. And I don’t want to give it a name. I just want to eat it.