The name ‘Pakoṛa’ is derived from two Sanskrit words, ‘pakvavaṭa’, where ‘pakva’ means ‘cooked’ and vaṭa denotes ‘a small lump’ or its derivative ‘vaṭaka’ – ‘a round cake made of pulse, fried in ghee’. While this popular snack originated from the Subcontinent, it spread across South Asia, Africa and Europe. Known as ‘dhaltji’ amongst the Muslim Cape Malays of South Africa and ‘bajiye’ in Somalia, it remains a popular snack (and even meal) in Scotland, China and Nepal.
The best Pakoras are those that are spicy and deep fried in mustard or canola oil. It is because of this that a standard serving of this tantalizing golden brown crispy wonder, chalks up 250 calories, but very little cholesterol. It is perhaps coincidence or a connection with menus served in the ‘serais’ (or roadside inns) of antiquity, that two places in Pakistan, namely ‘Sarai Alamgir’ near Jhelum and ‘Serai Sualeh’ near Haripur produce some of the finest ‘pakoras’ in my reckoning. There is however one more spot somewhere in the F 8 Sector of the Federal Capital that ingeniously prepares and serves the item in a uniquely sanitized manner compatible to any modern day restaurant.
In my pre-retirement days, I was required to travel long distances by road. At times my destinations were remote and one had to carry sustenance wrapped in old newspapers, to keep ourselves going. It was during one of these trips that I stopped at a ‘pakora’ stand in Serai Alamgir. As I stood watching the huge sizzling wok, my nose picked up the unforgettable aroma of freshly baked ‘tandoori naan’. That day was the beginning of a passionate love affair with ‘Naan Pakora’, which continues unabated to this day. Soon, my preference for this simple, yet wholesome meal infected my entire family rendering high tea menus ‘incomplete and bland’ if they did not include this item. Families in the old walled city of Lahore have however, been using the ‘bread - pakora’ combination for breakfast since hundreds of years. The ‘Lonchra’ as this particular variety is referred to and its companion, the ‘Daas Kulcha’ is washed down with piping hot Kashmiri Tea. This ‘combo’ is available at only one spot inside Mochi Gate and sold out by the time modern elitist pseudo Lahoris are still in bed.
The spicy lump of golden brown fried batter, featured in this week’s piece has also affected our language. Take for example the simile that compares somebody’s proboscis to a pakora or in the latest form manifested during the Panama Case hearings, documents produced as evidence were categorized by political adversaries as “papers fit to wrap pakoras”.
The irresistibility of this snack is often exploited by practical jokers for a bit of fun and frolic. I remember, my elder brother (who being in his late seventies now denies the caper) and his friends, once preparing ‘pakoras’ liberally laced with ‘bhang’ and feeding them to a gentleman, who was a diet conscious well-known weight lifter. What ensued was side splitting as the young man began hallucinating and shying away from a puddle of water saying that it was an ocean. Needless to say that my parent were livid, when they saw what had happened and immediately force fed the victim with raw ‘white radish’. I don’t know whether it was this local remedy or the fact that the effected individual fell into a deep sleep lasting many hours, but got out of bed completely cured, with a lingering bad taste in the mouth and (mercifully for my brother and his friends) unable to remember what had happened.
There is one interesting question related to ‘pakoras’ that needs asking. Why is it that our craving for this snack increases to new levels, when billowing monsoon clouds cover the skies from horizon to horizon or when freezing weather engulfs the land? Many food lovers say that the notion gained ground because of a traditional legacy that generations grew up with, others attribute this to a linkage with tea drinking and winter. In my opinion ‘pakoras’ can be enjoyed anytime of the day and in any season, simply because they are easy to prepare and eat, embodying an amalgamation of spicy exotic flavors that remind you of grandma and home.