Like most people, I crave something fried and spicy every now and then. So, yesterday I decided to make up a batch of one of my favorite foods, pakora…tasty little chick pea fritters flavored with Indian spices, grated potato and onion. There are times when firing up a pot of hot oil is exactly what you need to do in order to taste something truly amazing, especially if you are often disappointed by the greasy over or under cooked fried dishes served in restaurants. When made at home, they are truly one of the best fried things you’ll ever put in your mouth, especially dipped into tart cilantro chutney and sweet and sour tamarind sauce. Kind of what I’d imagine Indian carnival food would taste like, the tender, fluffy spiced insides and crispy, crunchy outsides of these fritters dipped in tangy sauces just explode with eastern flavors.
I’m a sucker for both sauces, but if you’re only going to make one, the coriander chutney comes together pretty quickly. Leftovers can be used to top off grilled chicken or pork, in tuna fish salad, coleslaw. You get the idea. I’m not going to gloss over the fact that you might have to find an Indian or Hispanic grocery in order to get the block of tamarind paste for the tamarind sauce, but believe me when I say that the search is worth every minute. Tamarind wakes up the flavor of everything it’s partnered with and it also makes a great glaze to baste over grilled lamb, beef or poultry shish kabobs, so you’ll get multiple uses out of it.
This is definitely one of those projects that lends itself to a group effort, so plan on making a double batch (no need to double the sauces) so that there will be plenty of bites for everyone. I’ve often made these as a starter to a simpler meal of easily reheated Indian dishes such as korma or vindaloo. I can’t guarantee that pakora will change your life, but a new standard will be set for the taste of freshly ground spices and perfectly fried food which is a good day in the kitchen any way you measure it.
Kitchen Counter Point: If you want to taste the real deal spice-wise, the extra step of toasting the whole spices, cooling and then grinding them up is the way to go. I’ve given you a simple recipe for garam masala, a spice blend that once made, will find its way into gilled meats, vegetables, sauces and marinades. It’s warm and kind of sweet with the flavors of coriander, cinnamon, clove, cumin and pepper. Just pick up a coffee mill at the discount store and dedicate it solely to grinding up your spices fresh. You won’t believe the amount of flavor in toasted and freshly ground spice. It’s kind of like the difference between freshly ground coffee and coffee that’s been ground up and sitting in a warehouse for 6 months. It’s alive and vibrant… a big difference. But you’ll never know unless you try it!
Makes about 12 medium sized pakora
3/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon cayenne
A few grinds of black pepper
1 1/2 teaspoons garam masala, recipe follows
1 cup chick pea flour
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
3/4 cup water
1 small onion, thinly sliced
1/2 sweet potato, peeled and grated
2 tablespoons fresh cilantro, minced
2 cups vegetable oil for frying
Cilantro Chutney, recipe follows
Tamarind Sauce, recipe follows
Combine the salt, cayenne, black pepper, garam masala, chick pea flour and baking soda in a large bowl. Add the water, onion, potato and cilantro and mix well. You should have a lumpy batter.
Heat the vegetable oil (enough to come up 3-inches) in a heavy pan or skillet to 360ºF (It really helps to have a deep fry thermometer for this. Pick one up at the grocery store.). Drop the batter by heaping 2 tablespoons into the hot oil (about 3 or 4 at a time) and cook the pakora for 1 1/2 minutes. Keep an eye on the thermometer as the temperature of the oil will plunge as you add cold batter. Adjust the heat accordingly. Turn the pakora and cook on the second side for another 1 minute. Remove the pakora from the oil with a slotted spoon and transfer them to a paper towel lined sheet pan. Continue to cook the remaining batter in the same manner. You can keep the pakora hot by placing them as they are fried into a 200ºF oven.
Serve the pakora hot as an appetizer or a snack with cilantro chutney and tamarind sauce on the side.
1 cinnamon stick, broken into small pieces
1 tablespoon cardamom seeds
2 tablespoons whole cloves
2 tablespoons coriander
2 tablespoons peppercorns
2 tablespoons whole cumin seeds
Heat a large skillet over medium heat. Add the spices and stir until fragrant, 3 or 4 minutes. Continue to stir and watch the spices carefully so that they don’t burn.. Remove the spices to cool.
Grind the garam masala in a spice or coffee mill dedicated to that purpose. For the best flavor, store the spice at room temperature in an airtight container for up to 3 months.
Fresh Cilantro Chutney
Makes about 1 cup
2 cups cilantro leaves, lightly packed
1 fresh serrano chili, seeded (taste the chili and use more or less to suit your taste)
One 2-inch knob of ginger root, peeled and chopped
1/4 cup sweetened coconut
1/4 cup fresh lemon juice (about 2 lemons), plus more if needed
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
Combine all the ingredients in a food processor until finely chopped. Refrigerate, covered, for up to 2 days. If the chutney looks dry, add more lemon juice or a splash of water. There should be a little bright green liquid surrounding the solids.
Tamarind can be found in a few different forms. It can be a compressed block, with the fibrous seeds and connective fibers that must be soaked and strained. It can come in a wet, seedless block. Or, it can come in a jar as tamarind concentrate. My favorite is the wet seedless block, though it still may contain seeds and should be handled using the soaking method below. If you have the concentrate, just use about 1/2 cup of the liquid and omit the soaking and straining directions. You won’t have the volume and the sauce won’t be as thick, but it will still taste great.
1/2 cup tamarind paste, chopped into pieces
1-1/2 cups boiling water, divided
1/4 cup brown sugar
1/4 cup molasses
1/3 cup golden raisins
2 teaspoons finely minced ginger root
2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon garam masala
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
Place the tamarind paste in a large bowl and cover with 1 cup of the boiling water. Let the paste soak until the water is cool enough so that you can break apart the tamarind with your fingers. Add the remaining 1/2 cup of boiling water and let stand again until just warm. Strain the mixture into a medium bowl, discarding the fibrous pulp.
To the tamarind liquid, add the sugar, molasses, raisins, ginger root, salt, garam masala and cayenne. Taste for seasoning and let the sauce sit for at least 1 hour at room temperature or overnight in the refrigerator. Let come back to room temperature before serving. Can be kept up to 1 week, refrigerated.