I, at sixteen, ate my first pakora at a friend’s house during Ramadan in Kerala. Growing up in Abu Dhabi meant living in an odd sort of setup. For all that it was a cosmopolitan city, cultures never really mingled. Arabs stayed within their own communities, particularly the locals, Philippinos too and of course Indians. Within, there was also an unintentional segregation based on state and religion. It was not a situation that developed out of any particular malice or lack of understanding. It just didn’t happen that much. Christians socialised with other christian families because most of them met through the church and that was probably the same for all the other cultures. So I never really grew up with Muslims or Hindus on a private basis. I had friends in school, but our parents never quite interacted. We were left to get on with it without the inconvenience of parental interference.
And so, something like pakoras, which is considered to be quintessentially Indian, never passed through my lips in the sixteen years I lived in the protective environment of a Catholic Mangalorean/Keralite family. You see, certain foods relate to certain communities, states, religions or festivals. And pakoras are the usual reserve of Muslim and Hindu communities, particularly those of the North.
University naturally allowed more freedom. In Kerala, hospitality is something that Keralites take utmost pride in and one of the ways in which they keenly display this welcoming attitude, is by plying you with food. So when a good friend of mine, Natasha, invited me to break the fast during Ramadan, I happily accepted the invitation. Her mother had no clue I was coming. That was the norm. Indian women are always prepared for a guest. None of this call-ahead-to-make-sure-we-can-come phone thing. If the door’s open, which it always is, come in; leave your shoes outside.
One of things Nat’s mum made, in the midst of the mountains of delicious foods, was onion pakoras (or bhajis as we call them in the south). Aunty (yes, she isn’t related to me, but I’d be given the evil eye and whacked with a slipper, if I called her by her name) served it with a fiery coriander and green chilli raita. It was hot out of its sizzling oil bath, ready to be doused in the vibrant green dip.
That earthy taste of the gram/chickpea flour and the crispness of the thin outer covering, not to mention the onions, crisp like tissue paper on the outside, tender and sweet within, all pulled together by a tart, hot and cooling raita, was sheer magic. I ate so much that evening, which made heaving one leg over my bike to get back home, a most unladylike carry on.
Natasha frequently invited me back home and since her house was close to Uni, I obliged her requests without too much hesitation. Aunty usually had pakoras at the ready, along with some strong (kadak…yup..thats the word for it, so kadak the tea was orange), sweet, thick tea as a stop gap before dinner.
So today, I made these as a stop gap for my two hungry gannets. Essentially a pancake like batter is made with chickpea/gram flour, some rice flour for lightness and crispness, spices, herbs and minced green chillies. To this basic mix, add any quick cook vegetable of your choice. The obvious contenders are onions, cabbage and carrots. I was tipped off by an excellent member of an online food forum about brussel sprouts. So I made them. It’s a perfect foodie amalgamation of Christmas in the western world and my Indian heritage. Can’t argue too much with that. Plus, its a good ‘un for those who don’t like in-your-face sprouts. Oh, and omit the chillies if you wish, these will still hold their own taste wise.
Funny how food can trigger memories. Those monsoon drenched days under the Kerala skies were easy, innocent times. Natasha and I used to sit at the steps to the entrance of her house and watch the rain drip down the terracota coloured roof tiles, making thick, red puddles in the clay heavy earth. No pressure, no worries, no pretence.
Just pakoras, sweet tea and good friends.
For recipe, please click here.