Why, I thought, as a rivulet of sweat coursed from neck to waist, do I insist on frying in the summer? The instant read thermometer I was using to check the temperature of the oil sat next to the stove, registering 91F. Normal people wait for summer and then anxiously stuff themselves on grilled meats, fresh salads, wedges of cool melon. Foods that don’t make your back bead up. But here I am, on my first real day of summer vacation, celebrating by standing over a pot of shimmering heat, making pakoras for lunch.
Maybe it’s a cultural thing. I don’t mean the pakoras. I mean frying. Fried foods are a treat frequently enjoyed during the summer months; Americans + carnivals or county fairs = frying anything we can think of. Depending on where you are in the country, corn dogs, funnel cake, hush puppies, twinkies, tortillas, even oreos, all get dunked into vats of hot oil and floated cautiously around until they transform into variously shaped clumps of deep, crispy gold.
So to bring summer traditions like sweating and eating fatty foods and looking at award-winning livestock and riding in twirling cars where the metal shrieks and you smell the grease with every turn into my own kitchen, I’m making pakoras for a weekday lunch?
Partly. But not all.
I’ve talked before about my friend Ph., who even has a whole category on this little site dedicated to her (Phoebe-Phriendly, if you’re interested). Ph. is gluten-intolerant, can’t eat dairy or tree nuts, and is no longer able to process corn or rice. This makes cooking for her a challenge. However, she is one of the reasons I started stretching my food boundaries and knowledge; we became close friends in graduate school, and I wanted to be able to make food that she could eat! We got into a conversation in the comments of her blog the other day, and I brought up pakoras because she was playing with garbanzo bean flour. She had never made them, so we decided I should come up with a recipe she could use. That’s where you, my friends, luck out.
Pakoras are an Indian street food: assorted vegetables (or paneer, or bread, or apparently sometimes even chicken) dredged in a well-spiced batter of besan or gram flour (which is made with garbanzo beans) and water. I added some baking powder to my mix as well, for fluff and lightness. Most often the vegetables are cut into manageable pieces and dipped into the batter individually before they are fried, resulting in something I’ve been thinking about as essentially an Indian spiced tempura.* Sometimes, though, they are cut into smaller pieces, tossed together in the batter, then levered carefully into the oil in chunky mixed fritters. I chose the first of these methods for our lunch, so we could have the fun of mixing and matching which vegetables we crunched our way through. We chose cauliflower, potatoes, and onions. My favorite ended up being the cauliflower, while N. couldn’t get enough of the puffy potato slices.
Though they are eaten year round (depending on where you are), I discovered during my research about this delightful little snack that they are particularly popular during monsoon season, dipped into or sauced with a variety of chutneys, and served alongside a cup of chai. This makes sense – a warm treat to enjoy when it is wet and booming with storms outside – and though the weather in my California kitchen is far (far, far, far) from identical, it is currently monsoon season in India, so it turns out this was, after all, a timely choice.
We had ours with a cilantro mint chutney – lightly spicy, fresh, grassy from the herbs, and bright from the addition of lime juice. I’ve included that recipe here as well.
Pakoras are best served as hot as your mouth can handle them. They are crispiest that way. As they sit, the batter loses its magnificent crunch. They are acceptable reheated in a 400F oven the next day, but, as with all fried foods (with perhaps the magical exception of a really good fried chicken), they are best eaten immediately.
* I realize tempura is quite different: rice flour is typical, for one, and the liquid used is often carbonated water to make the batter even lighter. But the essentials – vegetables coated in batter and fried – are the same.
Vegetable Pakoras and Cilantro Mint Chutney
serves 6-8 as an appetizer or snack, or 4 as an embarrassingly indulgent lunch
2 cups garbanzo bean flour (I used Bob’s Red Mill Gluten-Free mix, which is mostly bean flours)
2 cloves garlic, grated
1 small knuckle of ginger, grated (about a ½ inch piece)
1 tsp ground turmeric
1 tsp ground cumin
1 tsp ground coriander
¼ tsp cayenne pepper, or more to taste
1 tsp salt
2 tsp baking powder
1 cup cold water
- Whisk together the flour, grated garlic and ginger, and all the spices until evenly combined.
- Whisk in the water until a thick but smooth batter forms.
- Set it aside for 30 minutes. This is conveniently enough time to prep the vegetables, heat the oil, and make the chutney.
1 small head cauliflower, cut into bite-sized pieces
2 medium Yukon gold potatoes, sliced thin (1/8 inch slices seemed ideal)
½ large red onion, cut into chunks or thick rings
- To prepare for frying, heat 1-2 quarts of oil (I used vegetable oil) in a large, heavy, steep-sided pot over medium heat, until it reaches about 350F. Put on some closed-toed shoes to keep yourself safe, just in case you have drips or your oil bubbles over.
- Working in small batches (5-6 pieces at a time), dip the vegetables into the batter, retrieve one at a time with long handled tongs and let the excess batter drip back into the bowl for a few moments before carefully lowering each into the hot oil. They should sizzle as they are immersed, but not spit or foam up wildly.
- Cook each batch of vegetables for 4-5 minutes, carefully turning each one halfway through the cooking time, until they are golden and crispy.
- As each batch finishes, fish the pieces out one at a time and set them on a wire rack over a cookie sheet. This will allow excess oil to drip off. Salt them lightly as soon as they come out of the oil.
- Take the temperature of the oil before adding a new batch of vegetables, to ensure that it returns to right around 350F, the optimal temperature for frying.
- Continue until all vegetables are golden, crispy, and cooked!
Pakoras are best consumed as soon as they are cool enough for your mouth to handle. As they sit, the batter gets soggy. It’s still tasty, but not as triumphantly crunchy.
Cilantro mint chutney:
2 bunches cilantro, bottom 3 inches or so of stems removed
1 bunch mint, stemmed (you will be using leaves only)
Zest and juice of 1 lime
1 jalapeño, stem removed and sliced in half longitudinally (if you are concerned about the chutney being too spicy, remove some or all of the seeds and inner white membrane, where most of the heat is concentrated)
¼ cup water
2 TB olive oil
1 tsp garam masala
Salt to taste
- Add all ingredients to a food processor and pulse in 3-5 second intervals until everything comes together as a loose, chunky sauce. The resulting mixture should be thinner in consistency than a pesto, and will not remain emulsified for very long.
- Scrape into a serving dish and eat with the pakoras.