A 'Crunchy' Fact

When it comes to Pakodas, there is only one way the tongue sways – yum! But are they a good addition to our meals? Yes, say experts with reasons.  

By Madhulika Dash; Pictures courtesy Stock Images  

They are deep fried, delicious and can turn even the most boring meals into a semi-feast. In fact, if there is a fitting synonym to the calorie-rich delicacies, it is “addictive.” Even in its simplest of format – which often is the bhajias made of onions coated in besan batter - it oozes this inexplicable aura of palate joy often associated with a feast with heavy doses of nostalgia. Had through the year, although few may insist monsoon is the most befitting month to indulge in this deep-fried wonder and we concur, pakoda or bhajia is an inherent part of Indian culinary tapestry. Every cuisine has its own unique style of making these crunchy treats that vary not just with its seasoning (spices in the batter), use of vegetables but also the use of batter. While besan has  for the last few century been a popular choice, there are variations of cornflour, rice flour, semolina and a blend of any two also available through different parts of the country. In Odisha for instance, the batter is called pithau and is made by soaking rice and then coarsely grinding it with spices. Likewise, is the case in many parts of the Southern India as well. However, when it comes to Pakoda, the besan batter coated fritters unanimously earn the tag of being the original.  

Incidentally, the role of pakoda goes beyond the “snack” tag that these fritters are often categorised as As pakodis *mini-mes of pakodas) they are part of kanjis and kadis; as vada or bada or bara, they are part of a slew of interesting curries, as kofta (which some believe are  a variation of pakoda given the similar technique used), they hero a certain dish; and even in their original form, they are an integral part of Thalis, especially essential to the vrat ki thali and that of iftar.  

Which brings us to the questions: if pakoda are considered bad for health, why are they such an important part of our food habits, since ages? The answer, says nutritional therapist Shaveta Bhassin, “needs a little wheeling back to not just the reason why such delicacies were developed but also to understanding the frying technique and what is it that takes a dish from being good for health (when had in moderation) to bad.” Pakodas, according to culinary archivist and seasoned Chef Sabyasachi Gorai, “journey began for two reasons: one, the need to find different ways of enjoying the produce through its various stages. When a produce is tender (or young as a farmer would say) cooking it even as a stir fry at times robs it off its nutrients. While ideally, they were once good to be eaten raw, the next best option came in format of frying – deep, shallow or anywhere in the middle.”

That’s how the concept of batter coated deep fried dishes evolved, continues Chef Gorai, “as it not only helped create this pocket kind of protection for the produce to steam in but also use spices to crank up the goodness of having such quality produce.”  

Concurs culinary whiz Chef Nimish Bhatia, who finds the idea of pakodas one of the most “amazing facet of culinary techniques.” Think about it, says the former Nimisserie founder, “when you batter coat a produce you are not just adding flavours to crank up the taste and health quotient of the produce, but also creating an amazing texture play where the batter is multi-roles as not just the crunch factor but as this cover which swells up by trapping steam that allows the produce to cook just enough (steam) to allow the goodness of the vegetable to concentrate. Result, you have these dual layer of flavours – one that the jugalbandi of the moisture in the batter and oil has created with the batter and then that of minimally cooked vegetable. Together it becomes a dish that has this

amazing taste, texture, and goodness, which not only makes you palate happy but the occasion memorable.”

In addition to that, adds Chef Bhatia, “a pakoda, especially those made of besan batter jig the digestive juices. And when paired with chutney which works both as a tastemaker and digestive start working quickly to facilitate the body with a continuous flow of energy.”

Technique wise, the quick digestion comes thanks to the frying technique, which while dehydrating the batter also recalibres the nutritional portion and sugar content in the batter, which is broken to a level it is easy to digest. Thanks to the low Glycemic Index of besan, says Bhassin, “it ensures that there is a constant supply of energy to the body along with important nutrients like Iron, Phosphorous, unsaturated fat, protein (after all it is made of channa dal), among others. And last not the least soluble fibre, which works the coronary function of the body.” Continues Bhassin, “the biggest nutritive value addition of pakoda is the produce within, which is cooked in the most nutritive way and more than often falls in the correct manner of eating the vegetable.”

The beauty, say the experts, “of pakoda is also that it ensures that our need to rehydrate is taken care of thanks to the dehydrated batter which demands a beverage (most likely water or tea) just for it to move down the food pipe. That thirst awakening along with food that is broken down enough to release instant energy makes it an integral part of the iftar meals or vrat ka thali, which was initially designed to take care of the body nourishment before it went into a craving stage which is often marked with muscle cramps, parched throat and such.” Thus, making pakoda in portioned quantity a better bet to have as part of your meal post any form of fasting, intermittent included.

Interestingly, says Chef Bhatia, “when it comes to bad rep, it isn’t the quantity that has earned pakoda the infamous repute, it is always the technique. Traditionally, the benchmark of a good pakoda would be not just how it is fried, but how it is assembled as well. Take for instance bhajia. It is a known fact that onion lose water and the way you cut the onion will determine how long the fritters take to cook and also the amount of oil the pakoda would soak in to cook the batter and soften the onion into sweetness. The way around is to keep the batter pancake thin, which can just coat the produce and thinly sliced.”

This is the reason that low oil soaking versions like that of potatoes, lady finger, pumpkin flowers and eggplant were designed who cook at the same time as the batter. Next, adds Chef Gorai, “is to ensure that it is one stage frying, since the idea is to cook the batter by extracting or drying the moisture out of it. Once that is done and the oil is maintained at the right temperature, the batter would have a nice light brown, yellowish colour and the sides have been cooked to taste. It is the second frying of these pakodas that results in oil seeping in and making the pakodas oily and heavy on the stomach.”

Avoid that, say the expert, and limit the portion (2-3 pakodas are enough for a working adult) and pakodas can be an indulgence that works as much for the body as for the palate.