The pitter-patter of raindrops is a familiar tune in the city these days, with the monsoons gently making their way in for the year. As evenings get cloudy, damp and fragrant, and we get relegated indoors more and more, what better way to enjoy the season than curl up with a good book, or even gossip over a plate of freshly-made, steaming pakodas and chai?
|Pics: Nikhil Ghorpade
The Indian psyche inextricably links the rains to these deep-fried snacks. Although they are popular any time of the year, there is something about the monsoon that gets people craving pakodas, bajjis, bhajjis, bhajya, pakodis or wachumacallit in all corners of the country.
Generally served with a cuppa tea, any other hot beverage or even with a round of drinks, deep-fried snacks appeal to most hard core foodies.
The best part is, how easy it is to make them! Experiment with fresh vegetables of all sorts, meat, or seafood, and just dip in a batter and deep-fry — that’s all it takes. We speak to four chefs from four corners of the country for what their take is on regional pakoda specialties.
The most popular pakodas (in my book) up North are those delicious bread pakodas, best enjoyed during the monsoons! They come stuffed with boiled potatoes, chillies, coriander, a little jeera and then dipped in a besan batter with red chilli and juice of garlic, to be fried.
One thing that makes the pakoda extra crisp and tasty is to keep the batter thin, of the consistency that it should just about coat a spoon. For the bread pakoda, make sure to use thinnish bread and grate the potatoes not mash them.
My experimentation with bread pakodas led me to soak the bread, squeezed out the water, covered the potato in the soft bread, dipped it in sev and fried it without batter — delicious!
Another much-loved pakoda is the palak pakoda, besides the most famous aloo and pyaaz ones.
In Rajasthan, there is another ubiquitous favourite — their Bhavnagari chilli pakoda stuffed with a potato mixture and fried.
North Indians also enjoy dal pakodas balls, served with grated mooli (radish). And then of course there is the paneer pakoda, with two thin slices of paneer sandwiching coriander chutney, batter-fried.
All this is generally served with a saunth chutney, with tamarind, jaggery, dry ginger powder and amchur, and munched on with masala chai.
The South has a wonderful variety of pakoras which they mostly call bajjis. A chickpea batter is used, with some rice flour to add that crispy texture. Normally, the besan batter is not as thick as it is in the North — it is much more watery, and lighter.
South Indians tend to use a lot of diverse vegetables — potatoes, cauliflower florets, shredded onions, spinach, all in a batter with some jeera, hing, red chilli and salt.
There is also the famous Mysore bajji, which is basically something like a bonda, and doesn’t really have a filling as such. It does however, contain small coconut pieces, cooking soda, green chillies and sour curds with maida in the batter. These are shaped into rounds which are fried.
In Kerala and Karnataka, prawns are also often used to make bajjis. In Kerala, one can also find some unusual tapioca bajjis and nethili meen fry (anchovies), while Andhra cuisine has this amazingly spicy Guntur chilli which they make as a pakora, often served best with drinks.
Egg pakodas in the same batter are also popular in the region as is chicken, which one also finds as a bajji in parts of Tamil Nadu. All these are served with a fresh green chutney and thoroughly enjoyed!
Such fried snacks, known as telebhaja, are an extremely important part of Bengali cuisine. You will find such deep fried items in every corner of West Bengal in diverse forms — be it in roadside stalls, restaurants or kitchens. We love to eat these pakoras on a rainy day with some chai, a cigarette and some gossip!
While permutations include green mangoes, fish, prawn, mutton, chicken, sliced pumpkins, cauliflower, halved tomatoes, halved, boiled eggs and many more, most common staples for these are potatoes and brinjal slices which are called beguni.
Potatoes are generally boiled, mashed and spiced, while brinjal is simply sliced and spiced with some simple turmeric and salt.
In non-vegetarian fare, there is the chingdi chop, which is shrimp, boiled and mashed with masala like onion, chilli, adrak. They are then made into balls and batter-fried, transforming into an absolutely delicious snack.
The besan batter we use has the usual bit of kalimiri, nigella seeds, salt, turmeric, red chilli powder, and just a pinch of rice powder.
Traditionally there is no ‘chutney’ with it… take a handful of muri (bhel) with onions and green chillies, a bite of the pakora and drown it with chai!
Pakodas are snacks as indigenous to India as crispy vegetables are to China and churros to Spain. In Western India, while besan and riceflour is, of course, used in pakoda batter, rava-fries are also popular in the fried snacks category. Ajwain is also often added in the batter to offsets the oiliness, as it aids digestion.
The popular vangyache kaap (brinjal) are made with semolina but can also be made with raw rice that is roasted and coarsely ground.
This makes it beautifully crispy! There is also the khekda kanda bhaji — onion slivers fried in besan, a very popular streetfood. One also finds the moongdal wade, batata bhajis, spinach, ladies fingers, plantain, karela, and more. All these are most often served with a dry lasun (garlic) chutney.
I’ve also tried variations like the sweetish dodka (ridge gourd), mushrooms, and laal maath (Amaranthus). There are of course limitations to experimenting too — I would not, for example, use cabbage, red pumpkin or carrot in bhajjis.
Tips for making bhajjis? Pat dry your washed vegetables before dipping into a batter to avoid retaining water, which will make , the oil spatter when you fry it.
Another tip I learnt from my own mom, is to add just a pinch of salt to the oil and not the batter, to get that perfect saltiness.