Anyone that knows me knows that I’m not a quitter. I rarely take no for an answer. But, after trying my hand at making spinach pakoras (chickpea fritters) two weeks ago, I was determined never to do it again. Ever. Yes, it really truly came out that bad. It was so bad that my husband came back from a night of drinking with work colleagues ravenous and refused to try a bite. Yes, folks. That bad. That first batch ended up trashed.
I’ve grown up taking the typical Punjabi appetizer for granted. Everyone around me from my mom to my mother-in-law to all my aunts in India know how to make them so intuitively that it seems seamless and something I should be able to whip up in seconds like they do. A couple years ago I asked my two aunts in Chandigarh (India) to show me how to successfully make pakoras.
They thought it was hilarious that I expected complication. We went to the kitchen in the back of our old family home in sector 9-D and Mamiji started prepping the besan (chickpea flour). “See,” she said. “You just mix a little water into it and blend it with your hand. You don’t want too much water. Then, chop up your spinach, onion, and chiles, and put it in your batter. Be sure to fry it twice.”
My first mistake was trying to make them with frozen spinach – one family member’s suggestion. Though it works really well for her – she may have forgotten to tell me to drain the frozen spinach really, really well before frying them up. It’s no fun to have water hit oil and what resulted was an oily, heavy glop of chickpea flour and green goop. It landed in the trash with a thud. And, that’s when the mild depression set in.
I’m not used to failing this miserably with recipes. And when I do – it hurts. To the point in this case that I put up a mental block against trying the recipe again. But, the next book deadline looms near and I had to get over this one and fast.
Instead of frozen – I used fresh spinach. And, was careful to mix the chickpea flour with warm water rather than cold. Huge difference! I’ve made the mistakes so you can make these perfectly every time. Can’t wait to hear how it all turns out.
Makes 17 – 20 pieces
2 cups packed, chopped spinach
1 medium red onion, diced (1 cup)
2-inch piece ginger, peeled and grated or minced (1/4 cup)
1 – 3 Thai, Serrano, or cayenne chiles, stems removed and finely sliced
1 cup chickpea flour (besan)
1 teaspoon coarse sea salt
1 teaspoon red chile powder or cayenne
½ teaspoon turmeric powder
1 heaping teaspoon carom seeds (ajwain)
½ cup plus 1 tablespoon warm water
oil for frying (I use peanut, grapeseed, or rice)
1. Place spinach, onion, ginger, and fresh chile in a bowl and mix well.
2. In a separate bowl, add chickpea flour, salt, red chile, turmeric, and carom seeds. Mix well. You can add other spices as well including garam masala, ground black pepper, etc. Be as creative as you like.
3. Add water to the flour mixture and mix until smooth. This mixture should be slightly thick and not too watery. Make sure that there are no lumps in the batter.
4. Add the veggies to your batter slowly. Mix as you go. I prefer to mix with one hand to ensure that all the vegetables are coated well. Remember. You don’t want too much batter otherwise your pakoras will not cook through and remain a little mushy on the inside.
5. Heat oil in a deep frying pan – you want at least 2 inches of oil to fry your fritters. To test your oil, drop in one cumin seed. If it sizzles and rises to the top right away, your oil is ready to go.6. Drop in your spiced, veggie batter with a spoon about a tablespoon at a time. I typically fry 4 balls at a time. Don’t overcrowd your pan.
7. Cook on both sides until lightly brown, but just shy of completely cooking.
8. Carefully remove from oil, place on a tray lined with a paper towel, and press down on each one with a small, flat bowl. Place pakoras back in the oil and cook again until golden brown on both sides. My aunts in Chandigarh insist on doing this to ensure your pakoras are extra crispy. It also helps to make sure they cook through.
9. Place double cooked pakoras on a tray lined with a paper towel to absorb the excess oil and continue to cook until all of your batter is used. Serve your pakoras immediately with mint and tamarind chutneys on the side.
Tools: Pan for deep-frying.
Cooking Tip: The oil should be about 350 degrees Fahrenheit, not much more than that. If you feel like your pakoras are frying up too quickly, then turn the heat down a bit. You don’t want them to cook on the outside and then remain uncooked on the inside. You can also make up a batch and keep them in the oven on the warm setting to serve later. If you want to mix it up, try other veggies like thinly sliced onion rings, potatoes, and even cauliflower.
Note: Besan – the chickpea flour found in Indian grocers is made from black chickpeas and not the white or garbanzo beans you may be used to. It has a different consistency than the chickpea flour found in most mainstream grocers, which I prefer. However, if you are going this route because you have to be gluten free for health reasons and have Celiac Disease please purchase your chickpea flour from a reliable source. The Indian sources are not yet able to guarantee wheat-free production facilities.