The much-awaited monsoon rain showers are always a cause for celebration in India. When the rains finally arrived in Delhi, as a kid I remember rushing outdoors with my sisters, fully clothed, jumping for joy and singing out loud, trying to catch the first raindrops on our tongues. Kids here have songs to make the rain go away; we had chants to entice the clouds to shower more rain.
After the scorching heat of the dry summer and the almost daily onslaught of the dust-laden winds from the neighboring western desert, nothing was more welcome than the torrential downpour that signaled the start of the monsoon season. The dry, parched land soaked up the first raindrops eagerly, scenting the air with a heady, earthy aroma. Flowers bloomed again, adding to the fragrance. If you were lucky, you might be able to hear the call of the peacocks, and maybe even see a male unfurl the full splendor of its iridescent plumage, dancing in the rain for a mate.
Needless to say, we'd get soaking wet in no time at all. Eventually, we'd be coaxed inside with promises of pakoras, savory fritters made with a chickpea flour batter, and some ginger-cardamom chai. It takes great willpower to just have one or two pakoras; what usually starts off as a snack turns into a meal, ending with improvised sandwiches of bread slathered with mint-cilantro chutney and filled with the remaining pakoras. These fritters are not only good for a rainy day, but make a great snack any day, any time.
For lunch today, my family and I indulged in pakoras as we watched the liquid Oregon sunshine through the windows. With a hot cup of ginger chai tea, it was the perfect Sunday indulgence.
Here is a simple recipe to try. To make it easier, I've made many spices optional. No need to fret if you don't have them all on hand. The chickpea flour is available in many ethnic stores.
Pakoras: Indian-style fritters
For the batter
- 1½ cups fine chickpea flour (also known as besan/garbanzo flour/gram flour; available at many Asian markets)
- Salt, to taste
- Cayenne pepper, to taste
- 1 teaspoon cumin powder
- 3-4 tablespoons finely chopped cilantro or parsley
- ½ cup to 1 cup of warm water
- A pinch of baking soda
- Optional spices, one or more of the following if used: a pinch of asafetida powder, ½ teaspoon turmeric powder, 2 teaspoon caraway seeds (ajwain) or 2 teaspoons nigella seeds (kalonji), 1 teaspoon dried pomegranate seed powder or 1 teaspoon dried unripe mango powder (amchoor)
For the fritters
- (Use any of the following, per your choice and availability)
- 1 medium potato, washed, scrubbed and cut into thin, round slices
- 1 or 2 Japanese eggplants, cut into wedges, or into round disks
- 1 cup of broccoli and cauliflower florets, cut into 1-to-2-inch pieces
- ½ block of store-bought paneer cheese, cut into small cubes or long pieces, about ½-inch thick
- 1 medium onion, peeled and cut into disks
- 1 small, thin zucchini squash, cut into ½-inch disks
- A handful of fresh spinach leaves
- 1 sweet pepper or a few hot peppers, cut into large chunks or round disks
- Peanut or vegetable oil, as needed, for frying
For the batter
- Place all the dry ingredients in a deep mixing bowl and stir well.
- Add the chopped cilantro and the optional spices. Slowly add ¼ cup of the warm water, mixing well with a fork or a whisk.
- Beat the batter to get a smooth consistency. Remove all lumps.
- Add additional water as needed to get the consistency you want. (Note: I make my batter very thin and runny, because I like a very light coating of batter on my fritters. If you are new to this, I suggest using less water and keeping your batter thick. A thick batter is easier to handle.)
- Whisk well for a few minutes, then let rest for at least 30 minutes while you prep the vegetables and heat the oil.
For the fritters
- Pour oil into the wok, saucepan or fryer. You need a depth of at least 1-2 inches, and several inches of clearance above the oil to be safe from bubbling over. Heat on low while you finish prepping the vegetables.
- Put the sliced potatoes and eggplant in a bowl of cold, salted water for 10-15 minutes. Drain and pat dry before frying.
- Salt the onion rings, mixing in the salt with your fingertips and set aside for 10-15 minutes. Pat dry before frying.
- When ready to start frying, turn the heat up and heat the oil to 350°F. To test if the oil is hot enough, you can also take a little batter on your fingertip and let it drop carefully into the oil. If it rises immediately, the oil is hot enough. Turn the heat down to a medium.
- Put a few of the vegetables into the batter and stir. Working with one piece at a time (I use one hand to do this, and the other hand to fry), coat well with the batter and carefully lower into the hot oil. If using spinach leaves, hold each leaf by the stem tip as you coat with batter.
- Fry on medium heat, turning a few times, till very light golden. Remove carefully from the hot oil and drain on absorbent paper towels.
- Repeat the process till all the vegetables and paneer cheese pieces are used up.
- When ready to serve, heat the oil again and fry the pakoras in batches a second time in hot oil till they are a golden brown all over. The second frying really crisps up the pakoras. Serve hot, with a sauce of your choice. I used a bit of mint-cilantro sauce stirred into some plain yogurt today.
- Please use caution when frying and working with hot oil, taking care not to splash or drop the food from a height into the oil. Instead lower it in carefully, as close to the surface of the oil as possible.
- You may need to play with the temperature of the oil by turning the heat up or down a few times during the frying process. You want the fritters to bubble on contact with the oil, but not fry dark brown too quickly.
- To reheat, place in a single layer on a cookie sheet and bake in a preheated 350°F oven for 10 to 15 minutes. They will crisp up again very nicely.
- Any leftover batter will keep in the refrigerator for a few days.