Sometime in 2016,
Sangeeta Khanna wrote a column for a food website on the lost pakodas of India. That article by the Delhi-based nutrition consultant and recipe developer spoke about the imminent fading out of a variety of lesser known fritters starring, among others, pumpkin, bottle gourd, jute flowers, and green chickpeas. As happens so often these days, Khanna, who runs an extremely popular blog dedicated to food specific to Varanasi, was approached by a publisher after her article went viral. Surely, if there are so many pakodas in India, shouldn’t there be a book about them? Three years later, Khanna’s Pakodas: The Snack for All Seasons is just out. The ‘biography of pakodas’ documents several unknown varieties of fritters across the country and also includes recipes for accompaniments, including chutneys, to elevate the experience of eating India’s favourite variety of snack. Khanna says that prior to beginning work on the book, her favourite fritter was the ‘kuttu ke atte ki pakodi’ and the ‘baingan ka bajka’, but after the recipe trials, her new stars are the ‘karela na khalwa’, ‘paat saagar bora’ and potato peels pakoda.
In an interview with
Murali K Menon, Khanna, who travelled to several parts of the country while writing the book, talks about the calorie-rich snack and why there is more to a pakoda than just onions, gram flour and ketchup.
Fritters might be made all over the world, but they are extremely popular here because of lentils. Lentils, especially urad dal, have been staple food in India, and been in use since ancient times to make several versions of vadas that are known by different names. In fact, urad dal-based vadas were consumed like bread all over India, and I have tried to connect the dots in the book regarding this anthropological theory. The kind of curry the vada is served with decides the shape and cooking style of the vada. All of these are urad dal-based, irrespective of whether it is a recipe from Jharkhand, Uttarakhand, Maharashtra or Tamil Nadu. Different regions of India had different pakodas because different types of lentils and beans are used to make these. Since the lentils were milled at home in stone mills, the grits were never wasted and that’s how pakodas with different textures came into being. There are several different varieties of pakodas that are rarely made today, especially the ones that were a part of religious rituals. The ‘kora bada’ from Uttar Pradesh is among them. Rajasthan’s ‘paush bade’ is now a rural specialty that this generation has never tasted. The ‘kora bada’ was made during wedding feasts as well as ‘shraddh' meals. Many temples in Varanasi have a prasad that includes some ‘kadi pakoda’ and ‘kora bada’ on certain occasions, especially on the Annakut day after Diwali.
Gourd flower pakoda.
Steamed or poached fritters, by the way, are also pakodas. The steamed versions are eaten in many ways and shallow-frying or deep-frying the steamed cakes is common. As far as I’m concerned, ‘kothimbir vadi’ and ‘Indrahar’ are pakodas by all means. If made the right way, pakodas can be healthy. If healthy means low calorie or low fat for some people, steamed or shallow-fried pakodas fit the bill. Several pakoras such as the ‘bijoda’ and tilori are like seed cakes and full of good fats and proteins. In my book, I talk about real food and have covered the topic of real oils (cold-pressed, not refined) and fats that one uses for real pakodas. Being chemical-free and made of good fats and gluten-free flour in most cases, a pakoda can actually be healthier than you think. It might be a high calorie snack that will cause weight gain if eaten in excess, but it certainly won’t cause any metabolic disorders, or hormone disruption, or allergic reactions that are common these days owing to the prevalence of chemically altered foods and snacks. While researching the book, I encountered medicinal pakodas as well. Some of these, such as the ‘Hadjodva ki pakodi’ (UP), Bramhi leaf pakoda (Bihar and Jharkhand), and ‘chutkal ka pakoda’ (Jharkhand), are made out of herbs. And there are several pakodas made out of flowers as well, including amaltas and rhododendron. Some of the best inputs for my book came from street vendors in small towns. I’m talking about the men and women who make ‘vazhakai bhajji’ in Madurai or ‘mirchi vada’ in Pokhran. They are the real masters of the art of pakoda-making. I especially remember a chai-pakoda stall at the Aut bus stand in Himachal. Its owner made flattish pakodas using greens that were in season, and would even add tender mulberry leaves from the tree that grew near his stall. The writer works on content strategy at Haymarket SAC. Read Murali K. Menon's columns