Why hello there, and welcome back to Kitchen Catastrophes, and I swear if this post isn’t up ON MONDAY, I am going to rain destruction indescribable on this world like the unrestrained wrath of Kali. And as that potentially indelicate invocation implies, today we’re focusing on India. And we’re doing it in a way that might surprise our American audience, already eyeing my assonant aspirations askance. However, if you want to just get straight to the cooking and the eating, let Ganesha guide you past the obstacle of my stumbling descriptions and histories, and straight to the recipe here. The rest of us, let us walk the path together.
I’m not going to lie to you guys: today’s post has me a little worried. India poses a particularly fascinating and alien culture for me to talk about, for a variety of reasons. The foremost of which is because my knowledge of India is almost entirely supernatural. By which I mean “I possess notable knowledge of supernatural tales and stories about India”, not “I have gained all my knowledge through supernatural means”, haha. It’s not like I have Elf-glass, or a scrying pool, after all.
Hahahaha. Hahah. Ha.
Stop eyeing me, Galadriel.
When I was a younger man, I spent a great deal of time studying mythologies. The creation myths and great sagas of various international cultures. I could name most of the Nine Realms of Norse mythology before the Thor movies came out. In an impromptu test a second ago, I was able to name eight of the nine offhand, missing, weirdly, only Helheim. It’s been a minor passion of mine for years. I loved the book American Gods, and binged the first season, though I haven’t caught the second yet. I recently ordered a role-playing game whose core conceit is that you are the child of an ancient deity. I can name gods of Egypt, Greece, Rome, Sumer, China, Japan, Russia, Ireland, and more. But off them all, India was always a hard one to wrap my head around.
I can list you NAMES from Hindu holy texts. I know Hanuman, servant of Rama. I know Shiva and his other forms, and his son Ganesha the Elephant-headed.
Not a lot of animal-headed gods in Hinduism, so he’s fairly easy to remember.
I know some very loose basics and family ties…but it’s simply such an amazingly dense and interconnected cosmology that it boggles the mind. People in mythological communities like to joke about the messiness of the Greek pantheon, there everyone is someone’s nephew, cousin, or bastard child. Where Hephaestus has like, 3 different wives depending on the story. But that is GARBAGE compared to the over-lapping narratives of differing Hindu factions=. Different texts have Kali, for instance, as:
an avatar of Agni, god of Fire
as appearing OUT of Vishnu in order to wake Vishnu up and warn him about people coming to attack him
As a manifestation of Durga’s Righteous hate of Evil
As being the voltron-form of Parvati, goddess of Marriage, merged with Shiva the Destroyer
And if that wasn’t confusing enough, it’s worth noting that whether Vishnu and Shiva are separate beings is a tricky point in Hindu cosmology.
In a way not unlike the “Jesus/God/The Holy Spirit” thing can be hard to explain.
It is a fascinating foreign world to me, to which I can only draw occasional parallels: India has an interestingly robust connection with Shakespeare, for instance, as part of its heritage as a former British colony. India’s caste system, now abolished, and yet very hard to truly eliminate, speaks to the hidden intricacies of American class politics, and other esoteric and academic ideals. But one thing I’ve been interested by is its connection to food.
Because, when it comes to Indian food, let’s not dance around the subject, people tend to think of Curry. And it’s kind of amazing when you look at the world to see how far that culinary child has gone. One of my favorite dishes, Khao Soi, is a northern Thai/Myanmar curry dish. The many curries of India have permeated Chinese, Japanese, and Southeast Asian dishes, as to functionally every continent. In South Africa, they serve Bunny Chow, and Masala Steak sandwiches. In England, they grab a Vindaloo or Tikka. The Carribean is rife with Curry Goat and fish. To speak of Indian food is, to many, to speak of Curry.
Which is why we’re not making it today.
Yes, second man in, I know it’s a shock.
It would be an offense to the complexities of the nation to attempt to summarize it simply as the birthplace of Curry, to throw together some half-assed masala mix, without an authentic ingredient on the plate, and call that a “tribute” to Indian cuisine. Also, and I assure you this is a lesser consideration, but curries tend to have a lot of ingredients and take a fair bit of simmering, so they’re kind of labor-intensive and long . And turmeric LOVES to stain my cooking surfaces. But again, those are lesser considerations to the need to truly open your eyes to the possibilities of Indian food. No, I wanted to show something different, which is why today, we’re jumping out of the fire pan, and into the fryer. (Is that the expression? I think I messed it up.) Anyway, let’s jump into Potato Pakoras, and what ended up making my PP so hard. (Gross.)
Potato Packed Pakora Smack
Now, as I JUST said, Indian cuisine acknowledges a great many variations in their cuisine. Wikipedia lists no less than 43 distinct regional Indian cuisines within India. Which may sound somewhat redundant, “Regional Indian cuisines within India”… but it ALSO acknowledges that “Anglo-Indian”, “Chinese-Indian” and so on are also regional variants on Indian food, and there’s at least another 6-7 of those, so technically, worldwide, there’s more than 50 different regional takes. It FURTHER notes that, as with all cuisines, the general trends of a region may not hold to a specific household, which could express a completely different style by fusing the region they live in with the region they’re from, meaning there’s basically hundreds if not thousands of distinctly different possible variants.
So when I say “next to curry, one of India’s most common dish types is deep-fried food”, understand that, as I said in our announcement post, that I am being forced to condense 50 different cuisines feeding literal billions of people into under 2,000 words. Condensation had to be made. (Not that kind, stop breathing on the windows.)
I will come back there and hit you with my ring hand.
But, taking that statement at face value, it’s therefore easy to understand why a classic Indian implement in the kitchen is the kadai, or karahi, a sort of wide-mouthed saucepan, or flat-bottomed wok, used to deep-fry foods. The distinction in the name is from, as we’ve mentioned time and again, that it’s hard to convert some sounds into Roman script (the actual LETTERS that English and the Romance languages use) I bring this up because it’s ALSO relevant to the dish itself: the R-D letter used in Kadai is the same one used in Pakora. The letter comes from a root letter that’s basically a D sound, and remains so in some Indian languages, but has evolved in Hindi into what’s called a “retroflex Flap”, meaning an “R” sound made with the tongue starting curled back and touching the roof of your mouth. Which creates a linguistic issue: do you write the letter (which is technically a D), the sound (an R), and what happens when you hit the same word in another language, and it swaps? Thus, the dish can be called kadai and karahi, and the snack can be pakora and pakoda.
That whole conversation also helps illustrate how purely out of my league I’m writing: we’re in waters where spelling can’t be pinned down, how much more detail do you think is achievable? For instance, I WANT to say that pakora are a variant of Vada, but I can’t find a source openly willing to say that, and don’t know, the more I look into it, if I would personally agree with the classification. And YOU don’t even know what the hell the words MEAN!
Basic summary: Vada are a broad type of fried food in Indian food that can be summarized in English as “Fritters/Dumplings/Doughnuts”. Specifically, they refer to smoother mixtures of ingredients formed into a ball and fried. Think Hushpuppies. The food, not the shoe.
The temptation to put a picture of the shoes here was immense. But people needed to know what I was talking about, in case they’ve never been to the South/A Skipper’s restaurant.
Pakora, by contrast, tend to be “We took a thing, and coated it in batter, and fried it”. Like, Zucchini Fritters have shredded zucchini in a batter. That would be a Zucchini Pakora, as would like, Fried Zucchini you buy at a bar, where it’s just slices of zucchini battered and fried. A Zucchini Vada would be if I made fried balls of Zucchini bread, or thoroughly mashed the zucchini into a paste before mixing it into the batter. It’s a texture difference.
Not that most of this has much to do with actually MAKING the dish. That’s its own can of worms. One that I suppose I have to dive into now.
A Mess, I Must Confess
Now, this recipe comes to us from a cookbook I picked up a couple months ago, V Street Cookbook. V Street is a Philadelphia bar that specializes in an INCREDIBLY niche foodset to American palates: International Vegan Street Food. I’d love to talk about their menu and ideas more but I did NOT bring the cookbook with me when I popped over to Leavenworth for a couple weeks, so I cannot. If you’re unaware of what Street Food is, we’ll touch on it more broadly on Thursday, but it’s really what it says: food you buy and eat in the street. Think of like, pizza by the slice, or hot-dog carts: a quick little food, maybe a light lunch or a snack. V Street specializes in taking Street foods from around the world, and finding ways to make them Vegan. Choripan, for instance, is a south American street food that’s basically just a spicy hotdog (The name is a portmanteau of Chorizo (a type of sausage) and pan (bread), and refers to a sausage in a bun) which V Street remodels into a Carrot Choripan, taking a steamed carrot to replace the sausage. That sort of idea.
This is some other restaurant’s version of a Carrot Hot-Dog, but the idea is the same.
Pakora are actually SUPER suited to this, as India does have a large vegetarian and/or vegan population, and because Pakora are normally animal-product free. The ONLY component that changes is using sunflower oil instead of ghee (clarified butter), in the batter.
Is your oil on the Spectrum? Here are some simple tests to find out.
The rest of the recipe is what I call a “mostly mise” affair, in that the majority of the work is in the mise-en-place. You’ve gotta slice onions, shred potatoes, chop some herbs, and then it’s mostly pretty easy. The first step is to make the pakora batter, which is a mixture of some ingredients that might sound intimidating, but I assure you are nothing to worry about. You’ve got your spices, of course, a mixture of turmeric, coriander, cumin and salt, mixed with chickpea flour.
Which in, in fact, a real product.
This is a fairly common vada/pakora ingredient: wheat isn’t as common a crop in India as in America or Europe, so instead they tend to rely on Pulse flours, meaning, as we touched on a couple weeks ago, chickpeas, lentils, and so on. The pulses give enough protein for the flour to bind, and also flavor the resulting batter. I bought this bag at a local Fred Meyers, and they can be found in the gluten-free section of basically any moderately sized supermarket.
Then you stir in the sliced onion, shredded potato, and chopped greens, and form a dough that…isn’t super inspiring .
Few doughs are, if I’m being honest.
We don’t know how, but at this point, my family is relatively certain we screwed up. Maybe the day was too humid or something, but this dough is WAY more fluid than the recipe implies it should be. Like, we’re instructed to form balls of dough with our hands, and I can tell you that was NOT a thing we could do. This is more of a batter than a dough (or an outfielder), and we had to scoop the batter out in measuring cups to get it into the oil. If I had to guess, I think the chickpea flour was supposed to be packed into the cup instead of scooped, which would have cost us about an ounce of flour all told.
While that tragedy was unfolding, another one was also picking up. This pakora are served with Tamarind sauce. Tamarind, in case I haven’t discussed it before, is a tart-sweet tropical fruit that looks a little like huge dried up peas. Inside the pod, however, is a sticky fibrous mass that’s quite sweet and sour. I’m a big fan of tamarind candies and sodas, both popular in Mexico. The sauce starts with a half-cup of Tamarind paste, which is simply the pulp processed and thinned for easy usage. It looks like molasses, but tastes like licking a caramelized lime. So we dumped my 4 oz container of tamarind paste into the half cup, and…
Measuring cups have like, an inside line you fill to, rather than the ACTUAL top, right?
Well, that’s not the WORST thing. So we’ve only got 85% of the correct amount of tamarind paste. It probably won’t throw the flavors off too much. Mix some olive oil, lime juice, sugar, agave syrup, and sambal oelek, which you’ll hopefully recall is a spicy chili paste. So we’re going for a spicy, sour, sweet combo on the sauce.
Hilariously, in my honest opinion, we should have used LESS tamarind paste: I straight up got NO spice out of the mixture, just pure tamarind tartness. Which was great, sure, but it felt like something of a let-down.
Also, it looks hideous.
Joking, this is before we whisked it all together.
Once your sauce is assembled, It’s time to fry the batter. Heat up some veggie oil, and drop your balls of pakora in. Again, we had to scoop ours, and that liquidous issue was very apparent. Our pakora fried up like little hedgehogs, the batter spiking outward as it hit the oil and frying into little spires.
But that aside, and some minor issues with them sticking to the saucepan sides (just pry them off with the spoon) the recipe was actually pretty enjoyable. It was fried dough, after all, so it wasn’t ever going to go too bad. As I noted, our batter was thin, and we didn’t get a lot of potato texture, but we liked the basic idea of it, and maybe we’ll try it again and get something a little more realized. But for a fairly quick recipe of deep-fried veggie-fritters, it’s certainly appealing, especially as a cool little vegan dish. I definitely recommend you try it.
Let me tell you all, though: Tamarid paste is not cheap. Alright, it’s pretty cheap, costing around $1 an ounce. But still! That means this sauce cost me like, $5! Who’s going to cover those costs. I ask you? Well, the answer is “me and my family”, but they are somewhat blunted thanks to the help of our supporters on Patreon. For as little as $1 a month, people have been supporting this site, allowing us to keep it ad-free and cover the cost of servers, web-hosting, and technical upgrades to our recording equipment. IF you want to help us make as beautiful a mess as we can, consider supporting us on Patreon, where for your kind support, you’ll get intelligence about what’s coming up on the site, a voice in site decisions, and extra content like audio recordings and videos. If you can’t afford even $1 a month, of course, we understand, and hope you’ll take a moment to help us on Social media! Sharing our content with friends, trying our recipes and tweeting us, and otherwise engaging with us lets people know we’re here. Check us out, and we hope you have a great time.
THURSDAY: I GUESS WE’RE TALKING ABOUT STREET FOOD, SINCE THAT’S WHAT I SAID IN THIS POST. YAY.
MONDAY: JON GOES TO JAPAN ,TO TACKLE MORE STREET FOOD, AND MAKE US ALL YAK. NOT THE ANIMAL. THAT’S A PUN. WE’RE MAKING YAKITORI. LOOK, IT’LL MAKE SENSE LATER.
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Potato Pakora with Tamarind Sauce
2 cups chickpea flour
1 tsp cumin
1 tsp coriander
1 tbsp curry powder
¼ teaspoon turmeric
1 ½ tsp sea salt
¼ cup sunflower oil
2 cups peeled, grated potato (squeezed to remove excess water)
1/4 cup thinly sliced onion
1/4 cup chopped scallions (white parts only)
2 tbsps chopped cilantro
1/2 cup tamarind paste
2 tbsps olive oil
1/4 cup sambal oelek
2 tbsps agave syrup
2 tbsps sugar
2 tbsps lime juice
Vegetable Oil for frying
Sift together chickpea flour, cumin, coriander, curry powder, turmeric, and 1 teaspoon of the salt in a large bowl. Stir in 13/4 cups warm water and the sunflower oil, then add the potato, onion, scallions, and cilantro.
Whisk together the sauce ingredients in a medium bowl until smooth. Set aside.
Line a plate with paper towels. Preheat a fryer to 375°F or heat 1/2 inch of canola oil in a large skillet or saucepan. Using clean, lightly floured hands, roll the mixture into 1 ½ -inch balls. You should get about 18. Carefully fry the pakora, 3 or 4 at a time, for 3 minutes or until golden brown on all sides, turning occasionally. Transfer to the paper towel–lined plate to absorb any excess oil, then serve immediately with the tamarind sauce drizzled on top or on the side for dipping.