What is a pakora?
A pakora (also called pakoda, pakodi or ponako) is a very popular snack in India. Piping hot and crisp, these fritters are ideal for cold winter evenings. They are typically composed of sliced or chopped veggies or cubes of cottage cheese that are encased in a chickpea flour batter, then deep-fried in sizzling oil, and served with chutneys.
The word pakora is derived from Sanskrit pakvavata, a combination of pakva “cooked”, and vata, “a small lump”.
People usually eat pakoras as snacks or appetizers but they can also enter in the composition of main dishes such as pakora curry aka kadhi where pakoras are cooked in a thick chickpea flour and sour yogurt gravy.
What is the origin of pakora?
Most sources indicate that pakoras originated in Gujarat, in Western India. Gujaratis traditionally eat pakoras at tea-time. In Punjabi households, rain showers are a typical excuse for chai and pakoras. In South India, bondas, a potato-based variant, are also very popular.
In the sixteenth century, Portuguese and Spanish ships would stop in India on their way to Japan. They would find their cooks in India and eventually experiment with Indian dishes. These cooks actually taught the Europeans how to love vegetables and pakoras in particular. As the ships arrived in Japan, some of these cooks got off and stayed there.
Most historians agree that Indian pakora (also known as bhajiya) is at the origin of what eventually became tempura. In fact, there is absolutely no mention of tempura in Japanese cuisine until the Portuguese traders arrived. Portuguese similarly introduced panko and dishes such as tonkatsu.
Pakora vs. Tempura
When you think about it, tempura is somewhat of an anomaly when it comes to Japanese cuisine, as deep-frying is not normally part of the culinary traditions of the Land of the Rising Sun.
Indeed, the difference between pakora and tempura lies in the fact that the Japanese use all-purpose wheat flour instead of chickpea flour. Wheat contains gluten so when you cool down the batter (typically with ice), you can get a crispier texture when frying. Besan (chickpea flour) has no gluten, which is why pakoras can never be quite as crisp as Japanese tempuras.
Over the last century, Indians have started making pakoras with all kinds of non-vegetarian ingredients, including chicken or fish, but the traditional and original form of pakora is vegetarian.
Variants of pakora
Vegetable pakoras include onion (also called onion bhaji, pyaaz pakora or kanda bhaji), eggplant (baingan pakora), potato (aloo pakora or potato bhaji), spinach (palak pakora), plantain, soft cottage cheese (paneer pakora), cauliflower (gobi pakora), tomato, or chili pepper.
Other versions of pakora include buckwheat (kuttu ki pakodi), groundnut (kadalai pakoda) or bread pakoda. Yes, bread pakoda, as in deep-fried sandwich! It has become a roadside street food favorite in Mumbai, just like pav bhaji or vada pav that I enjoyed at a dhaba (roadside restaurant on a highway) with my Indian customers and friends on the way from Mumbai to Pune.
Chickpea flour is the binding agent that is used for pakoras. Chickpeas have originated in the Middle East where they were cultivated for thousands of years. Spanish migrants brought chickpeas to South America but they never became as important as beans. They also took them to India. In India, they are widely used either whole, as in chana dal or ground as in besan (also known as gram or chickpea flour) that is used in the preparation of pakoras, papadums, or even sweet recipes like South Indian Mysore pak. Besan is also used as a thickener similarly to how flour or cornstarch would be used in Western cuisines.
In the Mediterranean region, chickpea flour is often used for savory and sweet recipes alike. For example, it is used in the preparation of socca, a speciality from Nice (France), a bread that is actually an adaptation of farinata from Genoa (Liguria region, Italy). In North Africa also, desserts such as kalinti in Morocco, or ghraïba homs in Tunisia make use of chickpea flour.
But back to our Indian fritters. The pakora recipe I used only includes spinach, but depending on the region, some recipes might include cabbage and even fenugreek leaves in addition to Popeye’s favorite.
Ideally, I would recommend to fry palak pakoras and eat them on the spot. However, if you have to make them ahead of time, the best way to reheat them, after putting them in the fridge or freezer, is to deep-fry them a second time. Baking them in the oven or microwave oven won’t give the same crispiness that a second bath of oil will offer.
The best thing about making your own palak pakoras is that you can put more vegetables than in the ones you would typically find in restaurants. The ones I made were definitely more green and crisp thanks to their freshness.
Despite the amount of spinach, this palak pakora recipe is definitely not the healthiest… but that is probably why they those homemade pakoras are so good!
A palak pakora is an Indian fritter prepared with spinach and chickpea flour.
- 1 cup chopped spinach
- ½ cup chickpea flour
- 1 teaspoon chili powder
- ½ teaspoon asafetida
- 1 teaspoon ground cumin
- ½ teaspoon salt
- Oil (for deep-frying)
- Mix the chickpea flour with the chili powder, asafetida, cumin and salt.
- Add the chopped spinach and just enough water to make a thick batter. The consistency should be such that you should be able to make rough round balls with the dough.
- Heat oil in a pan on medium-high heat.
- Make small dumplings with the batter the size of a golf ball or smaller and drop into the hot oil.
- Turn the pakoras over after 1 to 2 minutes.
- Fry until golden brown and transfer onto a plate lined with paper towel.
Serve hot with mango pickle or cilantro chutney.