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The allure of pakoras

From vada pav to bhajia, from chop to piaji, and nadru monje to pazham pori, what is it about Indian fritters that make them such an integral part of our food warp and weft, especially in this season? Experts help batter out the goodness
Pakora or Indian fritter
Pakora is a quintessential Indian snack with interesting regional variations. Image: Shutterstock

When it comes to Indian snacks, few can contest the superstar-like popularity and excitement of pakoras or pakwata. Think about it: it is made pan-India, each version comes replete with its own unique charm and taste, is loved widely, and can be made of anything. It is the only food group in the Indian culinary ledger that fits all: thanks to its clever composition, pakoras can be made of any ingredient or a combination of two or more.

Aman Puri chef of Imly
Aman Puri, Corporate Chef, Imly

A glance at the Indian food timeline shows how pakwata technique—which gets its name from cooking (paka) and laddu (wata)—became the ideal format in which one could enjoy the freshest, most delicate of produce but also adopt to new ingredients that arrived on Indian shores thanks to trade, war and colonisation. But what gave pakora that ace? Its composition, according to Aman Puri, Corporate Chef, Imly, whose research into the world of the fried treat has been the foundation to Imly’s nostalgic Indian menu.

The making of pakora, says Chef Puri, “while may seem like a simple act of dipping an ingredient—boiled, cooked, mashed or raw—into a vat of well-seasoned and spiced batter (mostly made of chickpea flour) and then deep frying it, isn’t that simple. Unlike fritters abroad where the batter serves as a mere coating to help the food cook inside, pakoras are calorie-dense treats that work mostly as these mini, instant meals designed to satiate and nourish. In fact, the benchmark of a good pakora is as much the seasonal produce it is made of as is the batter.”

Sabudana vada (left) and bread pakora (right) at Imly
Sabudana vada (left) and bread pakora (right) at Imly

This, he continues, “is the reason that this treat based on Rituacharya—a Samhita of seasonal and local eating—not only has so many varieties that range from fritters made of a single seasonal produce to a combination of two or more, to the batter that is to be used. So while most regions commonly use besan to make the batter, Eastern states like Odisha, Bengal and Assam use a rice-based batter called pithau that doesn’t hold oil like besan.”

Interestingly, says Khemraj Ghimray, Executive Chef, Radisson Hotel Agra, “it isn’t just the batter and the produce that differ from region to region, it is also the way the ingredient is used in the pakora. For instance, Bengali and Maharashtrian favourites like bhajia or piyaji, Rajasthani mirch pakoda, Bengali beguni or Manipuri nakupi bora all use the ingredient raw when tender or the season’s first harvest Then there are those made of ingredients like panasa (jackfruit), palak, nadru (lotus stem) that need some form of cooking in terms of steaming or boiling before batter-frying. Then there is a section where technique plays a vital role. Take the case of mangodi, for instance, that needs a little fermentation to achieve that fluffy lightness. Likewise is the case of the popular gulgule that remain the mid-land favourite, and the tal (palm) or pachila panasa (ripened jackfruit) bara where the batter is made by combining flesh with rice powder to create an almost donut-style pakora. These aside, there is an array of vadas and chops that are made of a filling of two or more ingredients that are put together to create our version of the pie. An excellent case is the vada of vada pav or the alu chop that is sold as a popular mini meal along with ghugni in many parts of Bengal, Bihar, Odisha and even some parts of the Northeast.”

Panasa bara made with ripened jackfruit
Panasa bara made with ripened jackfruit. Image: Alka Jena

“A reason behind,” adds Chef Ghimray, “so many versions of pakoras was twofold: first to encourage people to eat more seasonally; and, two, find ways to make even the lesser-liked vegetables appealing. In fact, Eastern India’s complete basket of bora and chips—where thinly sliced vegetables/flowers/leaves are dipped in batter and flash fried—is another format of pakoras that made their debut into the thali to add more taste and texture to the meal, and is the most popular way of having bitter vegetables in the season.”

Sumanta Chakrabarti, Corporate Chef, Sonar Tori
Sumanta Chakrabarti, Corporate Chef, Sonar Tori

What makes the chips exceptionally popular among people irrespective of the sourness or bitterness of the vegetable or leaves, says Sumanta Chakrabarti, Corporate Chef, Sonar Tori, “is the seasoned batter that while crisping-up during the process of frying not only keeps the nutrients intact but also effectively masks the bitterness in its crunchiness.”

Puja thali at Sonar Tori
Puja thali at Sonar Tori

In fact, adds Chef Chakrabarti, “pakoras are a culmination of not only our culinary ingenuity that helped us develop the knowledge of seasonal produce and those that are introduced to us from different cultures, but also the frying technique, which our ancestors believed is the best method to food safety. In Rasayana, the technique of frying food has been extolled for not only making food tasty but cooking it thoroughly thereby removing any form of pollutant in it. What, however, is a stroke of brilliance is the selection of the batter that would help do so effectively—and then zeroing in on one popular batter base—besan.”

A plausible explanation to why besan was chosen for the batter, says nutritional therapist Sveta Bhassin, “was both its easy availability through the year, all-palate taste (after all, we were a nation with a taste for sattu, of which chickpea is part of), high protein content, gluten free with low glycaemic index. This meant that even as the cooked ingredient or filling gets digested easily, the outer covering can keep you going for some time.”

Vada pav at Farzi Cafe
Vada pav at Farzi Cafe

In addition to that, adds Bhassin, “is besan’s ability to absorb oil, which when combined with the seasoning helps mimic food bliss—a state of satiation that comes with carb and sugar loading—which in turn increases the craving but with the dense composition can be limiting too. And one way that is ensured is by first combining with the chutneys that soon lead to saturation of the tastebuds and then with a cup of chai which tends to fill you temporarily while revving the process of digestion.”

But what really makes pakora score on other processed foods including gol gappa is, continues Bhassin, “the spices used in flavouring either the batter or the filling. Aside the turmeric, a lot of our pakoras warrant the use of digestion-improving spices like ajwain, cumin and hing, which when they come together work like a modak that can rejig the sluggish digestive system while improving the immunity, both of which are at an all-time low during seasonal changes, especially monsoon.”

It is an aspect that even Ayurveda corroborates. According to the wellness stream, the origin of pakwata was primarily to design these mini meals that could help improve the equation of the doshas, especially vata and agni that are low and hence the reason behind indigestion and acidity—and eventually stress and irritation.  

Vada pav poppers at White Owl Brewery
Vada pav poppers at White Owl Brewery

How does pakora do that? Think of the pakora as a space capsule made of different components. Now during the frying process, the batter turns into a vacuum within which the ingredient is steam cooked to a level that all its nutritional composition is broken down for easy digestion. So in the line of digestion the broken-down food is digested first while the besan shell waits for its turn. The instant release of this first boost of energy and fat is a response that we associate with instant gratification followed by joy and calmness. That reaction is what gives pakoras its nostalgic association, and the reason why we think of these fried goodies every time it rains, or the digestive system is sluggish resulting in a loss of taste.

A good part of that nostalgia creation, which is also responsible for the brain to perceive and register it as comfort food, happens during the time the pakora is in the vat of oil, says Chef Puri. “It is in the oil that pakora gets the crisp and crunchy characteristic. This happens because of the standoff between the moisture in the batter and oil, where while the former is trying to escape the batter, the latter is trying to penetrate. This bout determines the crisp texture and how much oil will be absorbed by the batter. Thus, creating that perfect bite of deliciousness that makes you crave pakoras during monsoon.”

Madhulika Dash

Known for her columns on food anthropology, Chefs’ Retreat and wellness-based experiential tables, Madhulika Dash has also been on the food panel of Masterchef India Season 4, a guest lecturer at IHM, and is currently part of the Odisha government’s culinary council.

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