As he drops little besan balls or batter-coated vegetables in hot boiling oil, there will chronically be a small crowd gathered around him eating pakoras, crisply served on old newspapers, torn pages of an old annual report, large leaves or paper plates, invariably with some sort of chutney; either a green mint chutney, or a dark brown tamarind chutney, a red-hot garlic chutney or just fried masala chillies. No one there is waiting for a hot cup of tea and most definitely not for the rains.
If you travel anywhere in India, North or South, East or West, you will find the pakora everywhere. Here, not only is the pakora a beloved street food but very much a homemade food as well. Whatever the state, district or region, every geographical part of India has a variety of pakoras, each with a distinct flavour and taste, either made with locally popular ingredients or the usual masalas.
Prawn, Egg or Cheese?
I tried doing a bit of research into the origins of pakoras, but hit a wall. Most people think pakoras originated in Gujarat, maybe because Gujaratis traditionally managed to make delicious pakoras or bhajiyas (as they call them) out of nearly anything. Chillies, spinach, cauliflower, onion rings, sliced potato, ladies’ fingers, moong dal, corn, cabbage, brinjal, yam, paneer, karela, anything.
At my house, my mother and my grandmother made pakoras with prawns as well. Called “Pangoji”, this pakora unlike other pakora batters uses maida flavoured with toasted jeera and fenugreek seeds, pepper, green chillies, turmeric and chopped coriander instead of besan. The batter once mixed is rested for a couple of hours, mixed with small shrimp or chopped prawns and then deep fried exactly like any other pakora. It turns out crisp outside, soft inside, spicy and so flavourful that you honestly don’t need a chutney or a sauce to eat it with.
I have such fond memories of the old Samovar Café at the Jehangir Art Gallery at Kala Ghoda in Mumbai. The narrow half al fresco café boasted of the best beer and pakoras. Those made with boiled egg. Boiled eggs quartered vertically, seasoned and then dipped in batter and fried. These egg pakoras, I am assuming, are still available in most drinking holes behind Colaba Causeway, in the narrow lanes behind Dalal Street, Princess Street and Dhobi Talao. Another version of this drink-time snack is the cheese pakoras. Long wedges of Amul cheese dipped in batter and fried. If you bite into one of these in haste, there is always the danger of scalding your palette with the piping hot melted cheese inside the crust.
An All-Indian Dish
Various parts of India have their own version of the pakora, like the Bonda in the South or the Bhabra pakora in Bihar. An unusual pakora made of green chickpeas which are mixed with a thick spicy besan batter and fried crisp. Each region in India has their own names for the pakora—pakodi, bhaaja, bhajji, bhaji, fakkura or ponako. We always called them bhajiyas at home, and my favourite ones are those made with potato. I mean who doesn’t like potato?
One other thing we made pakoras out of was fruits. Never throw away overripe fruit was the rule, make a pakora out of it. Whether it was an apple or a banana, you can slice it, temper it and fry it. They work best with a maida batter. If you think frying fruit is unusual, try frying ice cream. Ice cream frozen rock hard, dipped in a batter and dunked into boiling hot oil. Or, try a cashew nut pakora. Cashew pakora (Munthiri Pakora) is a very famous evening snack in Tamil Nadu. In a thick batter with besan, rice flour, red chilli powder, ginger paste, chopped mint leaves, onions, milk and salt, add whole cashew nuts and deep fry. In the North where Holi is celebrated with gusto, it isn’t uncommon to add ‘bhaang’ (cannabis leaves and spices) to a spicy pakora batter before frying, so that you may sway with the mood.
The pakora is that one all-Indian dish. Not only that, it also is a great Indian culinary export. A dish that has reached the corners of the world as Tempura in Japanese cooking or I daresay batter-fried fish and chips. And, we just relegated it to the monsoon? Shame on us.