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Pakoras: Culinary Poems in Blank-Verse

Onion pakoras fritters-The Humming Notes-street food India
Onion pakoras in the teatime snack menu across the nation. Photo: Shutterstock

Winter is here; woolens have come back in our wardrobes and the cozy Jaipuri razai has already been sunned. And suddenly the usual tea-biscuit doesn’t cut it, one craves for something spicier, crunchier, tastier; something that doesn’t require prep and sweat; and can be made as quickly as a cup of tea. What else but pakoras! Be it a sudden craving for ‘something different’ or a ‘quick snack’ for an unexpected guest – pakoras rule.

Completely different from the panko-ed, crumbed cutlets, pakora is batter fried and comes is all shapes and sizes. Pakoda/pakora/bhajia/bhaja – known by many names and variations are these veritable shapeshifters. They fluidly take on the personality of the vegetable and regional typicality but remain a wholesome pakora at heart. The North Indian pakora has hing (asafoetida) and ajwain (carom seeds) in the flavouring, while the South Indian version uses curry leaves.

Made with gram flour (besan) or lentil (dal) batter, they are yet to acquire the universal cult status enjoyed by its more sophisticated cousins, samosa or tikka. However, across the length and breadth of its native country, it remains a firm favourite. There’s hardly any city in India that doesn’t boast of at least one famous pakora shop. If there is the 55-year-old ‘Khaandani Pakodewala’ at Sarojini Nagar, Delhi, famous for its 15 types of pakoras; there’s Jagannath Pakodiwala in Jaipur, popular for its dal ki pakori; Alwar, my little town, has a number of them but people flock at the unpretentious ‘Ghanshyam Pakodi wala’ – a small pushcart with just enough space for a wok, display thali and the ingredients. “I’ve occupied this spot 30 years back,” he says while deftly frying the day’s fare, which also has been the same over the years. He doesn’t see any reason to change the limited menu as business is booming again, after a lull of nearly five months since the pandemic hit.

This is probably one snack which people did not miss during the lockdowns as every family has its go-to pakora recipe that works as an instant mood-lifter. “The top four reasons that pakoras rock are” says Saswati Sen, “ first: they can be made with readily available ingredients, second: the combination of besan or dal and veggies frying in oil is the fragrance of home, third: masala or ginger chai and pakoras are soul-mates, and last: this humble snack can be whipped up in a jiffy!” The adaptable pakora, is kind and forgiving, shape and taste-wise. Unlike samosas, kachoris and tikkas which adhere to rigid shapes, pakora, the shape-shifter that it is, has the fluidity of poems in blank verse, easily achieved by newbie cooks.

This humble savoury snack was born in India. As early as 16th century, Encyclopedia Britannica says, this uniquely Indian technique of batter-frying travelled to Japan with the Portuguese and Spanish. There it got transformed into tempura batter-fried seafood and meats. Such was the lure of the fried fragrance that it made the Japanese, who swear by stir-frying, adopt deep-frying — a technique alien to their cuisine.

In India, while the ‘platform-pakora’ or potatoes and onion pakoras, so called due to their ubiquitous presence at most railway stations, remain popular, imaginative cooks have come up with mouth-watering, regional versions made from various dal, rice flour or semolina batters and a wide range of vegetables or meats.

The most surprising pakora I had was in Kolkata with khichudi. Incidentally, this rich, fragrant version has nothing in common with the humble North Indian khichadi – a comfort food. A must with khichudi is a plateful of tele-bhajas (pakoras in Bangla). On my plate, that day, along with the usual suspects – there was this roughly square-shaped pakora. Words fail in doing justice to how astonishing it was to bite through the spicy salty crust into the sweet, soft inside – it was indeed love at first bite with a pumpkin pakora!

Just like the unlikely pumpkin, pakoras across India evolved to incorporate new ingredients and metamorphosed into various avatars. The ‘bread pakora’ for instance, is more a meal than a snack; the vada of the vada pav — a pakora sandwiched in a bun, is India’s desi burger, and of course, the famous chicken tikka got stiff competition from Kundan Lal Gujral of Moti Mahal who invented the chicken pakora.

Pakoras – snacky or filling – work completely in tandem with the amount of time you have. For a snack at a short notice, there is the ‘jiffy pakora’ – slice up vegetables, cover them with batter, spice up, and fry – the whole process taking less than half an hour. On the other, if there’s more time, go ahead and try your hand at the slightly more complex South Indian masala vada. But if it’s cool outside and you’re peckish, do run and make some pakoras!

Text by Madhumita Gupta

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