My dadima's pakoras (also known as bhajis) have long marked family celebrations and happy gatherings. Since the release of my cookbook, I’ve made these a lot at live cookery demonstrations for food festivals, and it’s always been a hit. There are many filling options for pakoras, but my dadima's favourite is the aloo (potato) and palak (spinach) one. Pakoras are the perfect starters, to be enjoyed in good company.
My dadima’s top tips for making pakoras:
Sounds simple but it’s a must: prepare the ingredients with care.
For example: The cut of the ingredients is really important, as this is what determines the texture and shape of the pakoras. Slice the onions and potatoes consistently to a small and consistent size.
Add lemon juice, as this lends a crunch to the pakoras.
Always taste the first pakora before frying the rest of the batch. The beauty of doing this, is that you can add extra ingredients or spices to your batter according to your own preferences, no problem.
The batter to pakoras is the make or break, literally. Some people make the batter alongside mixing the ingredients, but my dadima prefers to make the batter separately. Her secret is to keeps it thick at first, as this way it will always balance out when the other ingredients release their own water. Take time to check that the batter is perfect, before frying.
If possible, grind your garam masala fresh for this dish. If you have a spice grinder and have the time, I'd recommend doing this (see Kitchen Wisdom in dadima’s cookbook). If not, use a ready ground mix.
If my dadima wants to go all out on her starter course, she'll also serve samosas, and barfi for a little sweetness. She serves pakoras with chutney, and insists that they should also be accompanied with a mug of masala chai to help digestion (see dadima’s cookbook for the recipes). I think the real reason, is that she loves the warm and cosy association of chit-chat over chai and pakoras. There is an old Indian saying that pakoras are particularly tasty on a rainy day!
Pakoras taste best hot and freshly fried, accompanied with mint chutney, imlee chutney, or a squirt of ketchup. If you're entertaining and want the convenience, however, you can fry them prior to guests arriving and then heat them in the oven to serve. Other than enjoying pakoras by themselves, they are also enjoyed in a quintessentially traditional dish called kadhi (see Kamla's classic kadhi recipe on p.200 of dadima’s cookbook, or on this blog) – you must try it. The great thing is is that any leftover pakoras can be put to good use in Kamla's recipe.
2 medium-sized white potatoes (around 400g)
2 white onions
250g gram flour (known as besan in supermarkets)
30g fresh ginger, peeled and grated
Green finger chillies, to taste (I use two), finely chopped.
1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice (this makes them nice and crispy)
Big handful of chopped coriander
200g spinach, roughly chopped
Vegetable oil, for deep frying
2 and a half teaspoons salt, or to taste
1 level teaspoon pomegranate powder (anardana)
Half teaspoon of freshly ground black pepper
1 teaspoon of paprika
1 teaspoon coriander seeds
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
1. Peel and slice the potatoes fairly thinly and small – so that they will cook through when fried. I like to quarter them and then slice to around 4cm x 2cm pieces.
2. Slice the onions thinly and small – a similar size to the potato slices. However you cut the potatoes and onions will influence the shape of your pakoras.
3. Dry roast the coriander seeds and cumin seeds on a frying pan until fragrant and then grind to a powder in a pestle and mortar – this is worth it for the distinctive warmth it will add. It should equate to around two teaspoons of powder. If you have more, it will keep for another day.
4. Pour out oil for deep frying (don't heat just yet) and line a plate with two pieces of kitchen roll.
Making the pakoras:
5. Sift the gram flour into a large mixing bowl. Gradually add water, mixing with your hand to form a smooth and thick batter. To be safe, make the mixture on the thicker side and don't over handle it. It should fall leisurely from a spoon and be thick enough to coat the back of a spoon. Water is your best friend or enemy with this batter – flexibility and judgement is required. We have yet to add ingredients, which will release their own water (varying depending on whether you have just washed them and individual water content). You can add a little more water/gram flour later if necessary.
6. Heat oil for deep frying. In the meantime, add the potatoes, spinach, ginger, green chillies, lemon juice, and spices to the mixing bowl. Mix well so that the ingredients are evenly spread. Taste a lick of the mixture at this point. Add more spices according to preference.
7. Test the consistency of the batter now that all ingredients have been added. If the batter was on the thick side earlier, it should have balanced out now to a medium consistency batter. All ingredients should be coated. Bear in mind the ingredients will release more water with time so if it looks thin, sift in some more gram flour and stir. It's important to have enough gram flour, or else the mixture can come apart in the oil.
8. Test that the oil is hot enough for frying; drop in a tiny ball of the batter and check that it rises. Keep the heat on medium. It's really important that this heat is maintained constantly throughout the frying process – it will make the pakoras golden and cooked through evenly without burning. If the oil is not hot enough, oil will soak into the pakoras.
9. Scoop up a handful of the batter using your hands. To prepare dadima's style of pakora, make sure each scoop has a slice of potato along with the spinach and onions. Keep the batter close to the tips of your fingers so it's easy to drop into the oil. Carefully push the pakora batter from your fingertips into the oil using your thumb. If you're new to this, try putting the batter onto a tablespoon and pushing it from there into the oil – just don't let the spoon touch the oil.
10. Fry the pakoras in batches until crisp and golden brown, over a medium heat. Leave a little space between each pakora so that they don't join together. Don't stir them initially, but after a minute do give them a stir and turn once or twice during cooking. Use a slotted spoon to drain off excess oil and transfer onto your lined plate.
11. This part is important: pause and taste this first pakora for salt and chilli. This is your chance to add more spices to the batter if required. If you do so, make sure you mix well afterwards.
12. Repeat steps 9 to 10 to make the remaining pakoras. If at any point you find that there are not enough potatoes or spinach per pakora, just add a bit more to the batter. It's worth doing this so you don't compromise on taste!
13. Serve fresh and hot with masala chai.
Freeze note: Once cool, you can freeze any leftover pakoras (if there are any!) and they keep well for a month. You can use them to make Kamla's kadhi on another occasion. If you're not freezing them, store in a cool dry place to to eat any leftovers the next day (I'd recommend a pakora sandwich if you're stuck for options.