They’re extremely popular in the UAE and across the globe – as a snack at any time of the day. We’re talking about the much-loved pakora (pah-koh-da) or fritters – India’s culinary gift to the world.
Known by many names including bhajiya, pakodi and bora across India, it all boils down to a basic recipe of vegetables and spices mixed in with gram flour, followed by some major flash frying. A deep-fried fritter is a pakora, just as a rose by any name is still a rose.
Pakoras or vegetable fritters’ worldwide travels can be roughly traced back to the 16th century, when the Portuguese seafaring community took the recipe along on their naval travels.
Their ships would stop at Indian ports and recruit a lot of local cooks who taught them the many ways of preparing vegetables, one of which was deep frying them as pakoras. Because sea journeys were long and food needed to last, what better way to ensure their longevity than frying them?
The process of frying food, acts a bit like a dehydrator, and helps greatly reduce the moisture levels. This means the probability of spoilage goes down.
To Tokyo and back
The famous Japanese fried food – tempura, has a very close connect to pakoras. Many believe that’s where Pakoras came from. However, a bit of foodie sleuthing reveals that it were the Indian cooks who travelled with the Portuguese to Japan and introduced the ‘land of the rising sun’ to pakoras. Because, there is no trace of tempura in Japanese cuisine until the Portuguese arrived, and even Encyclopedia Britannica refers to it. However, in Japan and other Far Eastern countries, gram or chickpea flour in the recipe was replaced by regular white flour, although foods cooked with gram or chickpea flour tends to have a way lower Glycemic Index (GI) of around 28 or 35, compared to flour, which would be around 70 or more. As per healthline.com, low GI foods would have a more gradual release of sugar in the blood than white flour. So, next time try making tempura using gram flour.
India’s romance with rain and pakoras
Onion pakoras are a favourite across the regions of India. The crunch with every bite and the mushy, pungent, flavourful heart accompanied by a cup of masala chai (spiced Indian milk tea) are the go-to meal for most on a rainy day. In fact, it becomes an excuse for neighbours and friends to come together, as the air is filled with the fragrance of wet Earth. Those who want it spicier, get a chutney thrown into the mix. Usually a green sauce with freshly minced coriander, garlic and some garden mint.
Travelling across India – from Chennai to Gujarat and Mumbai to Kolkata, one can hear them being called by different names, including bondas, bhajiyas, bhajji, tele-bhaja (tel-eh-bhaja), and bora.
Any vegetable that can be sliced, chopped or mashed to be dunked in gram flour or besan batter and deep fried, falls in the broad category of pakoras.
Onions (cut into rings or sliced in length), cauliflower, green chillies or potatoes remain an all-time favourite. Traditionally, pakoras are vegetarian but there are many non-vegetarian pakoras like chicken and fish to name a few that have gained popularity.
A snack and road trips
If you are driving on the Indian National Highway, especially along a hilly region then a halt at a Dhaba (a type of roadside shack) definitely calls for piping hot pakoras and cutting chai (a typical sweet tea served in a small glass tumbler).
In 2016, on a weekend getaway in the Western Ghats of a quaint hill station called Lonawala, I went to – Tiger Point, which overlooks a splendid view of the entire valley. There, I discovered a tiny tea stall that served the most amazing ‘bhajiyas’ I had ever had.
It was not a café or restaurant, just a small shop tucked in the side of the valley with the best tasting ‘kaanda bhajiyas’ or onion fritters with chai.
In fact, the street snack has given many a small-time entrepreneur a start in India’s mammoth food industry – enough to sustain a household income. So, for many street-side vendors, pakoras helped save their day, literally. With COVID-19’s decimation of this culture, we can’t help but wonder if we will ever see the return of these pakora-chai vendors to the highways of India.
Making it at home
It’s a simple savoury dish that can be whipped up in 10 to 15 minutes with basic kitchen staples. Rain or no rain, there is always room for pakoras or fritters. Try this recipe for the onion version accompanied by either a tamarind or coriander chutney.
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