Pakoras are India’s version of the Japanese tempura. A beloved street food snack, they’re usually eaten piping hot, spooned straight from the huge pan of oil they’re deep-fried in onto a square of newspaper and served with ketchup. In homes, it’s a popular snack for tea time, served with hot chai and eaten with gusto. I remember my mother making all sorts of versions of pakoras—one favourite was with the giant but mild chillies from her home state of Andhra Pradesh, de-seeded and stuffed with a tangy tamarind filling. One time she cut up the Amul cheese blocks that were the defacto cheese we had growing up, a sort of supermarket Gouda, and coated them thickly in a pakora batter and then deep-fried them. The result was incredible: hot, crispy little batter pockets filled with oozy cheese.
In Frankfurt, the versions of pakoras readily available are far from hot and crisp. You’ll find them stacked in piles behind glass vitrines in Indian and Pakistani grocery stores and takeaway restaurants. They’re not that bad, but if you know the real deal then all they are is a decent cure for homesickness.
One crucial ingredient of a good pakora is its crunch. Delivering crunch comes from a basic knowledge of deep-frying: this cooking technique has been much maligned the past few years but has its roots deep in Indian cooking history, ranging back to the days of the Vedas. Knowing a few basics means the difference between pakoras that are light and crunchy, rather than dense and oil-soaked. Make sure to use a large and deep, heavy-bottomed pan or wok (or kadhai), one that has plenty of room to fry a few pakoras at one go. Use a neutral oil like sunflower, peanut or rapeseed oil, that have a high smoking point and absolutely no taste. The oil should be two to three centimetres high in the pan to ensure the pakoras don’t stick to the bottom. The oil needs to be very hot when frying, and to check the temperature drop a tiny bit of batter into the pan. It should sink very briefly and then come bubbling up to the top. The oil shouldn’t smoke even a little though, and if this happens, remove from the heat and allow it to cool a bit before trying again. Drain your pakoras on a wire rack or on kitchen napkins and enjoy as hot as possible!
You can be as creative as you like with the vegetables you use to make your pakoras. I used a mix of potatoes, broccoli and onion, but cooked each separately. Each vegetable takes on a completely different texture: the potato slices become silky, the onions beautifully sweet and the broccoli soft and earthy. You could also experiment with spinach, cauliflower and capsicum if you like. This has to be the only dish in the world I serve with ketchup, but it really is the best combination ever!
1 medium onion, thinly sliced
1 medium potato, sliced into thin rounds
1 large handful broccoli florets, cut into medium-sized slivers (see image below)
1 1/2 cup besan (chickpea flour)
1 teaspoon salt (or to taste)
1/2 teaspoon chilli powder or chile flakes
1/2 teaspoon cumin powder
3/4 - 1 cup water
3-4 cups sunflower oil, for frying
To make the batter, combine all the dry ingredients in a large bowl. Pour in the the water and mix well. The batter should be smooth, but not runny. If it gets too thin, add a spoonful of the flour and stir through. Set aside for 10 minutes.
Heat the oil in a large, heavy-bottomed pot or pan. Line a baking tray with kitchen towels and place it near the stove. Starting with the potatoes, drop the slices into the batter and mix with a spoon to coat evenly. Once the oil is hot enough, test it by dropping a tiny bit of batter into it. The batter should rise to the surface almost immediately and brown within 2-3 minutes. Working in batches of 3-4 pakoras, drop them into the oil and fry until golden brown. Remove with a slotted spoon or tongs and place them onto the prepared tray to drain. Repat with the broccoli and the onions. Take care not to overcrowd the pan, as this will reduce the temperature of the oil and will result in soggy, oily pakoras. Serve hot with ketchup and some tea!
Prep: 10 minutes · Cooking time: 10-15 minutes
Text & images: Vatsala Murthy