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Sunday, 23 September 2012

Chai and Pakoras


It’s been a particularly horrific one today – unrelenting rain, black thunderous skies and a wind that had me clutching myself for dear life on street corners, for fear of being blown away (fat good that does). But yes, it’s one of those days.

To be fair, we haven’t had one quite this dreadful in a while. In fact, it's been nice and sunny and - dare I say it - dry. But, I suppose all good things must come to an end, sometime or the other. So, here we are, people – back to London at it’s shiny best.

So today, my friends, is a write-off. You know one of those days deemed too terrible to be productive. Indeed, it was a write-off, the moment I woke. I don’t know about you, but this quite often happens to me on a day like this. Especially when the day happens to be a Sunday. I wake up, I write it off. Easy Peasy Lemon Squeezie.

Of course the only thing that works on a day like this is Chai and Pakoras. Roughly translated, that's Tea & Fritters. And really, nothing else will do. Because Chai and Pakoras are the typical Indian food served on rainy days. It’s a ritual. I mean, not a ritual ritual – like plum pudding on Christmas – it’s not that kind of ritual. As in there’s no particular symbolism or tradition that links Chai and Pakoras to rainy days. But still, they go together like bread and butter, along with the happy insinuation that Chai and Pakoras, served on a rainy day, means you are allowed to do absolutely nothing but lounge around in your cupcake PJ’s (or whatever else you choose to have on your PJ’s. I have cupcakes, and they make me very happy) drinking bottomless cups of tea and crunching into crispy pakoras while you listen to the sound of the rain. This just happens. It’s happened for centuries past and will happen for centuries to come. A force not to be reckoned with.

And well, as to the little matter about rainy days being write-offs, I think that this is rather a ubiquitous ritual too. Take when we were kids for example. Logically things like swimming and tennis (outdoors, all outdoors, we don’t do indoors in equatorial lands) couldn’t happen. And the more sedate indoor activities (to make us all exceptionally gifted and well-rounded boys and girls) like dance and singing and piano were – after much debate – given the miss too, the journey there and back considered way too terrible to contend with…what with the traffic and the blaring horns and the cows trudging through slushy streets and motorcyclists (those monsters) driving without lights on. I mean seriously, what harm will missing only one piano class really do to the otherwise bright future of the musically gifted 4-year old?

And so the children would be packed up and sent to someone’s room, the women would abandon their chaperoning duties and congregate in the kitchen to make – yes, Chai and Pakoras.  And soon enough the irresistible aroma of frying batter would waft through the house and pretty much knock you off your feet.

Guaranteed.

Now, on any occasion where a large number of Indian women – especially aunts and great-aunts – congregate in the same place, there will always be two inevitable outcomes:
1)    Much deliciousness will be created
2)    Much juicy gossip will be mongered

And sure enough, through the smell of melting ghee and boiling cardamom and roasting spices and frying mustard, we’d be regaled with tales of how so and so’s  son, Debasis, had run off with a Swiss (or was it Swedish, they sound the same to me) beauty (serves his prudish mother right) whose father was on his fourth wife (not 1, not 2, not 3 but 4, imagine, 4) who happened to be a Punjabi woman called Simmi whose twin sister Mimmi, was actually in love with the prudish woman’s son, Debasis.

(Don’t worry – you’re not meant to get all that. I grew up with it, and I still don’t.)

But as surely enough as the second condition was satisfied - always and without fail -  so was the first.: much, much deliciousness was produced. It was simply the requirement of a rainy day.

And so, I come back, in full circle to exactly where I started. The only thing that works on a day like this is Chai and Pakoras. Nothing else will do.

It’s not really the same though. Because in these strange foreign shores, there’s no aunts and grandaunts, no smell of frying curry leaves and roasting cardamom, no sarees tucked into ample, dimpling waistbands and no sudden dives for the stove. There’s no Mimmi declaring her love for Debasis and nor any Swiss (or Swedish) beauty. 

There’s just me and the rain.

I walk to my kitchen window and lean my head against the cool glass where my breath makes little concentric circles on the pane. The garden is empty, my little ceramic gnome staring sadly at me, with his beady black eyes, water dripping down his red, pointy nose. Even the bright eyed bushy tailed squirrel who burrows in my rose bushes making a complete nuisance of himself is missing, sheltered somewhere dry and warm (I hope!)

But just because we don’t have the chaotic brilliance that lies at the soul of the Indian Kitchen, doesn’t means that we cant replicate the deliciousness that it produces. Because, my friends, we – you and I – can make some seriously killer pakoras. You just don’t know it yet :)

Here’s what you need:

- 250g Besan (Chickpea Flour or Gram Flour)
- 3-4 medium onions peeled and sliced into thin rounds/discs
- 1 tsp. salt
- 1 tsp. chilli powder
- 1/2 tsp. carom seeds or ajwain 
- 1/4 tsp. baking powder
- 1 green chilii pepper, thinly sliced
- ½ cup corriander leaves, chopped
- 7-8 curry leaves
- 1 cup luke-warm water
- Oil for deep frying

Here’s how you do it:

Pour some of the oil into a skillet and heat to 360-375ºF.
Place chickpea flour, salt, chilli powder, baking powder and carom seeds in a bowl, add water slowly and make a batter. Make sure it is well beaten to make the pakoras lighter when fried.

Add thinly sliced onions, chopped corriander, curry leaves and green chillies and mix well

Once the oil is heated, you are ready to fry the pakoras. Take a small portion of the batter and gently slide into the hot oil. Try not to overcrowd the oil because it will result in greasy pakoras.  Wait until they sizzle to the surface and then turn them over frequently, until evenly golden brown and crisp on all sides. 

Take out on an absorbent kitchen paper and leave for the oil to drain off.

Repeat the same procedure with the rest of the batter.

Now dunk in some tomato ketchup and enjoy piping hot!

I grab a pakora, golden brown and crisp and wonderfully irregularly shaped and walk to the window. I pry it open, the blast of cool air on my face a welcome respite from my heat hazy kitchen.

I hear nothing but silence, stark and serene. But for the fast furious drops of rain, outside; the crackle and sputter of the oil, inside.

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