If you have a few vegetables in the fridge, a sack of besan (flour milled from skinned and split brown chickpeas) in the pantry, and a well‑stocked spice cabinet, you’ve got everything you need to fry up a batch of pakoras, the crispy, savory, two-bite fritters that are treasured throughout the Indian subcontinent.
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Most vegetables fit neatly into the pakora template, offering loads of use-it-up flexibility: Chop or shred a mix of whatever vegetables you have on hand; season them liberally with fragrant spices and minced fresh chiles; add a little besan; and drizzle in water to create a scoopable batter. Deep-fry spoonfuls until the fritters develop a jumble of brown, spiky tendrils, and then serve them piping hot with assorted chutneys and milky cups of masala chai.
It’s a cozy, comforting snack that many, including Indian-born British chef Asma Khan, have a deep fondness for. The cookbook author and owner of London’s Darjeeling Express told me that she’s been hooked on pakoras since she was a child: “In my haste to ensure that I got my fair share . . . I would make the mistake of eating them while they were still excruciatingly hot,” she recalled before admitting that even as an adult, it’s still hard to wait: “Somehow the temptation is too much.”
I understand. When New Delhi native Gulshan Singh, cooking instructor and author of Masala Magic: Unlocking the Secret to Indian Home Cooking (2014), taught me how to make the golden nuggets more than a decade ago, I too found them irresistible.
Eager to assemble my own recipe, I started with a common trio of vegetables that Singh uses: sliced red onion for sweetness; chopped spinach for a pop of color; and a shredded russet potato to bulk up the fritters. But that’s just one of many possible combinations—lean into the versatility of pakoras and substitute whatever is in your garden or fridge (see “Vegetable Pakoras, Your Way”).
Next, I assembled a selection of whole and ground spices that would enhance a variety of produce: earthy cumin; citrusy coriander; turmeric for an ocher tint; mildly spicy Kashmiri chile powder; fruity, maple syrup–esque fenugreek; and ajwain, which is frequently added to fried foods to support digestion. Finally, a minced serrano chile added bright, zingy heat.
Three-quarters of a cup of besan hydrated with 1/4 cup of water produced a batter that was thick enough to suspend 4 cups of vegetables in a loose tangle. Singh taught me that many cooks also add baking powder, and I followed suit, finding that it gave the fritters a lightness that unleavened versions lacked.
As I lowered heaping tablespoonfuls of the vegetable-packed batter into a pot of gently bubbling oil, I reflected on Khan’s account of a perfectly fried pakora: “crunchy-textured on the outside and soft and cooked all the way through in the middle.” Closely monitoring the oil temperature—370 to 380 degrees—produced deeply browned fritters that weren’t greasy, and frying just five at a time ensured that each one cooked thoroughly and evenly with crisp, scraggly threads around the edges.
Besan versus Chickpea Flour
The golden, powdery staple called besan is made by milling skinned and split brown chickpeas (aka gram chickpeas, desi chickpeas, or chana dal) into a fine flour. In addition to pakoras, the mildly nutty, nutritious ingredient appears in missi roti (savory flatbreads), laddoos (dessert balls made with sugar and ghee), and numerous other sweet and savory dishes. Chickpea flour is not an identical swap for besan; it’s milled from white chickpeas into a slightly coarser grind and requires extra water to hydrate.
The Big Dip
I’m fond of a carrot-tamarind style inspired by a recipe from chef and author Hari Ghotra. To make it, I buzz raw carrot and red onion in a food processor along with sweet-tart tamarind juice concentrate, lemon juice, water, sugar, and salt. Cumin and coriander echo the earthy, citrusy notes of the pakoras.
You’ll find that the lively mixture is an ideal complement for the crispy, spiced fritters. And a generous dunk may just prevent you from burning your mouth.