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Pakora: India's version of onion rings

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When my husband and I travel, we find our stops seem to be all about food. One of our favorite activities when we get out of town is exploring restaurants that are new to us. Ethnic restaurants are a favorite.

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One of our recent discoveries was an Indian restaurant in Fridley, Minn. Arriving at midday, we were in time to choose Indian food from the lunch buffet. And that is where I learned of pakora. I asked the server if he would share the restaurant's recipe for this savory, perfectly seasoned, deep-fried, crunchy delicacy that kept drawing me back to the buffet bar.

I remember him saying something about chickpea flour and water and spices and onions. I thought I wrote it down in the little notebook I keep in my purse. Maybe because it sounded so easy, I thought I would remember what he told me. But on a Sunday afternoon when my favorite guy and I were getting ready to watch the Olympics and thought it was a good time to eat some food from around the world, I couldn't find any pakora notes in my little red book.

I pulled the only Indian cookbook I own from the shelf, "Sherbanoo's Indian Cuisine: Tantalizing Tastes of the Indian Subcontinent." It didn't take long to find author Sherbanoo Aziz's recipe for Pakora in the Hors D'oeuvres chapter.

I called Aziz at her home in Moorhead, Minn. She was busy making plans for her upcoming art show. Pakora happens to be on the appetizer menu for that show.

"Pakora is eaten all over India," said Aziz. "Like pizza that is eaten all over Italy, but with a different twist to it in each region, in India, Pakora can vary in preparation and can be stuffed with a variety of vegetables. Pakora is most popular as an appetizer."

With Aziz's words in mind, I pulled the bag of Bob's Red Mill Garbanzo Bean Flour out of the refrigerator. It had been pushed to the back when I'd forgotten why I bought it a few months ago. We sliced onions, minced a garden-fresh jalapeno pepper and chopped some cilantro leaves, creating our own concoction to be mixed with spices of our choice, garbanzo bean flour and water.

We heated about two inches of oil in one of our cast-iron skillets. We stood a food thermometer in the oil and watched as the temperature rose to about 360 degrees. Aziz told me she has never used a thermometer when heating oil. She puts the pan of oil over high heat for about 20 or 30 seconds, then turns it down to medium-high. When the oil has had some time to heat up, she spoons just a drop of batter into the oil. If the oil bubbles around the batter and the little ball immediately comes up to the surface, then the oil is just right for frying Pakora.

One by one, golden shapes of light puffiness were transferred from the hot oil to a paper towel-lined baking sheet. Aziz says Pakora can be made ahead of time and served at room temperature or warmed up in the oven prior to serving. I find they are most delicious served hot and fresh, sprinkled with a little salt. They remind me of onion rings - only better.

If there was an Olympic competition for pakora eating, my favorite guy and I would get the gold medal. While watching the Artistic Gymnastics women's qualification, we downed two batches in no time - no sweat.

Learn more about Sherbanoo Aziz and find some of her Indian recipes at her website: www.sherbanoo.com.

Pakora

2 cups garbanzo bean flour

1 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon baking powder

1/2 teaspoon ground cumin

1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper

1/2 cup fresh cilantro leaves, chopped

1 jalapeno pepper, minced

2 cups sliced onions, about 1/8-inch thick, cut in half moon shapes

1 cup water

Oil for frying

In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, salt, baking powder, ground cumin and cayenne pepper. Add cilantro, minced jalapeno and onions. Toss ingredients together.

Add the water and stir until mixture is moist and thick, with a consistency similar to fritter batter.

Pour oil into a heavy pan to a depth of about 2 inches. Heat the oil until it reaches 360 to 370 degrees. Gently drop heaping tablespoons of batter into the hot oil. Be careful not to put too many in the pan at one time. Overcrowding will prevent Pakora from getting a beautiful golden brown. Turn the fritters once. Use a slotted spoon or tongs to transfer Pakora from pan to paper towel-lined baking sheet. Sprinkle with salt. Serve hot. Makes about 2 dozen, depending on size.

Tips from the cook

--Removing the seeds and membrane from the jalapeno is your choice. How much heat can you handle?

--Garbanzo bean flour is also known as chickpea or gram (not to be confused with graham) flour. It can be found in most grocery stores, health food stores and ethnic markets.

--Try serving Pakora with your favorite chutney. I opened a jar of hot mango chutney from the store.

--Use a neutral-flavored oil for frying, such as vegetable, canola or safflower oil.

--I use an 8-inch cast-iron pan to fry Pakora. If you don't have cast iron, use the heaviest pan you own.

--I like to fry one Pakora to start. Then, I open it up to be sure it is cooked all the way through and I taste it. This method allows me to adjust the heat and the seasonings, if necessary.

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