The original Marathi version of this article appeared in Loksatta on July 7, 2012. Click here to read the Marathi version.
It takes just a few minutes of the scantiest pre-monsoon showers for us Indians to get into bhajiya-mode. With the slightest drizzle, sleepy roadside bhajiya shops doing slow business in the summers suddenly pick up their activity and sounds of frantic slicing of onions and potatoes begin to emanate from every kitchen as the rest of the family assembles with outstretched hands in their gardens, verandahs, balconies, and windows to cool their eyes and bodies with the first blessings of the rain gods.
The forms may vary slightly, but bhajiyas and pakoras appear all over the country. Up north, the onions are sliced into roundels and dunked in a standard bhajiya batter of gram flour and spices while in Gujarat and Maharashtra, they are sliced into long strips and mixed with a dry-ish batter and deep fried into crab-like shapes for that extra crispness. The sweetness of the caramelized onions peeping out of the batter contrasts so well with the hotness from the spices and the temperature! In Bengal, it takes on the form of the delicious Peyaji. With these, of course, come a plethora of condiments ranging from spicy green chutneys using fresh herbs like mint and coriander, green chillies, ginger, and garlic to tangy and sweet tamarind and date chutneys, or tomato and raisin relishes, right down to the standard cabinet occupant—ketchup. And despite the fact that this dish is co common all over the country, each one of us has at least one special bhajiya memory.
One of my fondest bhajiya memories is of sitting with my study group at a friend’s grandma’s place trying to make sense of Linguistics assignments and waiting eagerly for the maid to walk in with a platter full of crab-like onion pakoras with loads of bruised coriander seeds and fennel in it. We downed it with ketchup and chai and then vegetated on the sofa, leaving poor old Linguistics to fate. Another time, when I was just engaged to my husband, I went with him and my in laws to Jodhpur, where I tasted my first mirchi vada. My husband did not have the stomach for something as spicy as that but the women of the family knew just how to do justice to the dish. As I dug my teeth into this fiery oblong of chilli and potato stuffing coated in gram flour and dunked it in sweet and tangy tamarind chutney, I realized that this was going to be one of my favorite deep fried foods in the future.
Apart from the usual suspects of onions, potatoes, and chillies, pakoras are made from local vegetables such as ghosala (sponge gourd), eggplant, ajwain (carom) leaves, raw and ripe bananas, fenugreek, and anything else one can think of—even chicken and fish. One of my favorite pakora recipes is a Gujarati recipe involving the unusual combination of bitter fenugreek leaves and sweet, ripe plantains bound by hot spices. This recipe has the most beautiful burst of flavor, and I can eat any amounts of it without an iota of guilt. The sweet, caramelized ripe banana offers a rounded, warm flavor while the fenugreek brings in a hint of earthiness. Once every season, I go and pluck the plump, fleshy leaves off the ajwain plant in my window and make myself a plateful of crispy-squishy bhajiyas to go with masala chai. The crisp exterior of the deep fried batter melts in the mouth and reveals the softest, most flavorful filling. What can be more reassuring?
As a kid, I was especially fond of the paneer pakora served at an Udupi restaurant the family frequented. Thick fingers of malai paneer coated in a crisp ajwain-flavored batter were happily dunked in an average tasting ketchup and eaten with great relish as the rains poured down with a vengeance and my mother wondered how she’d get the weekly shopping done. Our Punjabi neighbors would often make the ubiquitous bread pakora—slices of bread sandwiched with a spiced potato filling, cut into triangles, and dunked in the bhajiya batter. The slices of old bread soak up the batter and get fried to crisp perfection, making the bread pakoda a superb accompaniment to spicy monsoon chai and gup-shup. In the outside world, our pakoras and bhajiyas take on the form of fritters, onion rings, and tempura. Who can resist the perfectly round, perfectly seasoned, perfectly crisp onion rings accompanying the beer battered fish at an upmarket restaurant? Or gorgeously golden apple fritters seasoned with cinnamon sugar?
The Japanese tempura is a wonderfully simple twist on the Indian bhajiya/pakora. A simple batter of all-purpose flour (as opposed to gram flour) and iced water makes for the crispiest outer coating and my recipe for this hot and sweet ginger chilli dipping sauce will keep you wanting more.
Vegetable and Prawn Tempura
- 2 cups mixed vegetables (eggplant, bell peppers, zucchini, broccoli, etc.) cut into large squares
- or 2 cups large prawns shelled and deveined (tails on)
- ½ + 2 tbsp. cup all purpose flour
- ½ cup corn flour
- ¼ cup ice cold water + 2-3 ice cubes (more or less, as needed)
- 1 tsp. baking powder
- 1 egg yolk
- Salt to taste
- Crushed black pepper to taste
- Oil to deep fry
Ginger Chili Dipping sauce
- ¼ cup sugar
- 1/8 cup water
- 1-inch piece of fresh root ginger, julienne
- 2 red chillies, deseeded and sliced thinly
- 2 tbsp. light soy sauce
- To make the tempura, place all the ingredients in a mixing bowl and mix briefly, making sure the water is ice cold. Don’t worry about lumps.
- Heat oil in a wok.
- Place the two tablespoons of flour in a plate.
- Dredge the vegetables or prawns in the dry flour and dip into the cold batter. Deep fry the coated vegetables and prawns until crisp. Serve hot with the dipping sauce.
- To make the dipping sauce, place all the ingredients in a thick-bottomed pot and ring to a boil. Simmer for two minutes and allow to cool before serving.