I disappointed so many people a few weeks ago by pointing out that the samosa is not an Indian invention (it comes from the Middle-East) that I resolved to find something that was uniquely Indian for this week’s column.
My first choice was the kachori but I abandoned that idea because it is a regional dish that is not well known in South India. But the more I thought about it, the more convinced I became that the great Indian deep fried dish was neither the samosa nor the kachori, but the pakora.
When I say pakora, I mean a family of food. Growing up in a Gujarati home in Bombay, I was unfamiliar with the term pakora. We called it a bhajiya. But it was more or less the same dish as the North Indian pakora. In the South (and oddly enough at Bangladeshi curry houses in the UK), they use the term bhajji for roughly the same kind of snack.
And more distantly related members of the same family also go by different names. The batata wada of Bombay (or bataka wada as we called it at home) is a cousin of the potato bonda of the South. And all of South India’s bondas are clearly members of the bhajiya/pakora family even when they include eggs or even tapioca in the recipes.
For the purposes of argument, I propose a broad definition. Any vegetable dish which involves slicing the vegetable (and sometimes no slicing or chopping is even required), dunking it in a besan batter and then deep-frying it in a kadhai is a member of the bhajiya/pakora family.
Sceptics may ask: well what about the chicken pakora, then? That is not a vegetable dish.
Fair enough. I concede that point. Over the last century we’ve started making our pakoras with all kinds of non-vegetarian ingredients (though chicken is a clear favourite), but the traditional form of the dish is vegetarian.
As for the potato-vada/bonda, this involves mashing up the potato first. But, in my view, that is only a minor refinement of the original recipe so the dish falls squarely in the bhajiya/pakora category.
So is the pakora the great Indian snack?
I reckon it is. And it is an all-India snack, one that you’ll get in every corner of the country, a testament to India’s love affair with deep-frying.
Moreover, unlike samosas which are still usually bought from outside, the pakora is essentially a home-style dish. Nearly all of us grew up in homes where pakoras would be made in our kitchens. Gujaratis love eating pakoras at tea-time. In many Punjabi households, the very hint of a rain shower is enough of an excuse for chai and pakoras. In the South bondas of one kind or another turn up on the tea table.
Which is not to say that pakoras are only a home-cuisine staple. Some of the most delicious pakoras are made outside. When I was young, an important stop on the way to Poona (there was no fancy highway in that era) was Khopoli for Kanda bhajiya. These were strips of onions, covered in besan and deep fried till they were crisp. They were so delicious that, to this day, I can’t eat the Punjabi onion pakora in which thick rings of onions are covered in a stodgy batter and fried.
At school, we could stop at Churu (at least that’s what I think it was called) on the Jaipur-Ajmer road for steaming tumblers of sweet and milky tea served with pakoras that came straight from the kadhai.
The bhajiya also is the one great Indian culinary export that has gone around the world without anyone even recognising that it is an Indian dish. In the sixteenth century, Spanish and Portuguese ships would stop in India on their way to Japan.
They would pick up their cooks from India and experiment with Indian dishes. It is these cooks who taught the Europeans how to love vegetables and bhajiyas. And when the ships got to Japan, some of these cooks got off and stayed on.
Most experts (including the Encyclopedia Britannica) now accept that it was as the Indian bhajiya/pakora that the Japanese first encountered the dish they would later call tempura. In fact there is no trace of tempura in Japanese cuisine till the Portuguese arrived as traders.
And while the Portuguese were creators of pork dishes and Port wine, bhajiyas were never part of their cuisine. So the only way they could have taught the Japanese to make tempura was if their Indian cooks introduced Japanese chefs to pakoras.
Even now, tempura is something of an anomaly in Japanese cuisine. The Japanese shallow-fry some dishes but deep-frying is not normally part of their culinary tradition. Moreover though you do get prawn tempura, the dish is still largely vegetarian. The Japanese use it exactly as we do, as a means of cooking vegetables.
Of course as their cuisine has become more and more refined, they have sophisticated tempura. They are not keen on besan (chick peas have no role in Japanese cuisine) so they use wheat flour. And their tempura is much crisper than our pakora.
Some years ago, on a foodie trip to Japan, I watched a master-chef make tempura. He kept his batter on ice so that it was chillingly cold. I wondered why we didn’t do this. Sanjeev Kapoor, the great Indian chef, who was part of the same trip explained it to me.
Wheat contains gluten so when you cool down a wheat batter you get a crispier texture while frying. Besan has no gluten and that’s why our pakoras can never be quite as delicate and crisp as Japanese tempura.
The Indian love-affair with the pakora leads us to introduce it into other cuisines. Go to any Chinese restaurant in India (except perhaps for those at the very top end of the scale) and check out the starters.
Ninety per cent will be deep-fried and at least fifty per cent will be variations on the pakora. I suspect the credit for this goes to the most influential Chinese restaurants in India: the Taj group’s Golden Dragon and House of Ming, which popularised Sichuan food in our country. The motto of the kitchen at both places was always: ‘when in doubt, deep fry’. And so assorted Indian-Chinese starters were invented, among them Golden Fried Prawns, which are essentially, prawn pakoras. It is those ‘Chinese’ pakoras that still dominate most menus at our Sino-Ludhianvi restaurants.
I always regard it as fitting that though we gave the pakora to the Japanese, we were not perturbed when we found that the Chinese were less receptive. We simply invented our own kind of Chinese food in which pakoras played a starring role!
Not that the pakora hasn’t evolved in India. The Moti Mahal chicken pakora which has been widely imitated is really our version of fried chicken; if not Kentucky Fried Chicken then certainly Punjabi Fried Chicken. Many restaurants also have prawn pakoras on the menu though they’ve not become an Indian food favourite perhaps because the Indian-Chinese version is already such a hit.
Besides I believe that a successful pakora/bhajiya/bonda/vada should be vegetarian. One of the great advantages of the dish is that it’s inexpensive to make. All you need are a few simple vegetables (onions, potatoes, gobhi or palak, for instance) and some besan. That’s why pakoras are such favourites at railway stations and on street corners.
But the biggest advance that the pakora family has made in the last few decades is probably the all-India popularity of vada-pav. The basis of this now-famous dish is the Maharashtrian version of the batata wada.
A vada pav is simply the same vada between two bits of bread or a bun. It is a Marathi hamburger and only really caught on in Bombay in the last quarter of the 20th century. But now it turns up on fancy menus, having left its street food and suburban railway station origins far behind. (There is also the bread pakora but most Gujaratis loathe it and I’m no exception).
So forget about the samosa. Take pride in the pakora. It is our gift to the world.
From HT Brunch, April 19
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