Onion Pakora Weather
Editors' note: This piece has been a long time coming and is the product of collaborative creativity. Sourced has always been a project that thrives on collaboration and we are thrilled to see this piece come together to close out our Water season. A huge thank you to the three women who have made this piece come to life: Sejal Sukhadwala, Shobna Gulati and Emily Chao.
Before India’s monsoon rains unleash their almighty power, they start with a barely-there zarmar zarmar – a Gujarati term that aptly sounds like ‘murmur mumur’ and means a gentle drizzle. The weeping flowers, quivering hedgerows and whispering trees give way to the chhab-chhab-chhab-chhab – sounds of delighted children splashing about in sidewalk puddles, before they’re scared off by the roar of the lion that’s a thunderstorm. It’s between the drizzle and the roar that an Indian would typically think of whipping up onion pakoras or other fried snacks, invariably accompanied by steaming hot cups of masala chai.
I don’t know why rain is so heavily associated with deep-fried food all over India. If you type ‘onion pakora weather’ in the Twitter search box, you’ll find dozens of nostalgic South Asians tweeting about it – including me, twice, prompting familiarity from Indians and curiosity from non-Indians. Whenever I ask an older relative about it, I get the same answer I always get to my many questions of why’s and how’s of Indian food: “because it’s tradition.” But I have a few theories. The pitter-patter of a drizzle sounds a lot like the sizzle of pakoras and samosas and other ridiculously delicious things being deep-fried in a pan of hot oil. People usually want food that’s a stark contrast to the weather – so in the same way as you’d crave hot soup in winter and chilled drinks in summer, you need something that’s crunchy, crispy and too-hot-to-touch when it’s damp, soggy and cold outside.
Fruit and veg are in fact at their best during the monsoon in India, but when shops are closed and the markets flooded, suddenly the availability of fresh ingredients is limited and you have to wait patiently for the relentless rain to stop. Who wants to go out in wet weather anyway? Pakoras can be conjured up from everyday ingredients like onions, potatoes, gram flour and a few spices that most Indians would have in their pantry. They’re quick and easy to make, satisfying with instant gratification – a definite mood booster when the weather’s getting you down. On the other hand, the cinematic rain provides a romantic backdrop, bringing a sense of occasion to the simple, homely ritual of cooking with store cupboard ingredients.
But perhaps it’s not really about pakoras all – perhaps it’s about the masala chai. Many Indians – including all my cousins, aunties and uncles in India – almost always accompany their hot beverages with something to eat. This could be home-made or shop-bought nibbles from the very many jars that line their larders, appropriately known as ‘jar snacks’, a few biscuits, leftover chapatis from the night before, or a more elaborate naashta – a term for a whole genre of breakfast and teatime snacks lesser-known in the West, where Indian food remains firmly associated with curries. Just like in other cultures such as Ethiopian, tea and coffee are usually served with food on the side. It’s a mark of hospitality and, for me, greediness as I’m always thinking about eating even while I’m drinking. It’s not long before that roar of the lion turns into the roar of a rumbling stomach.
A Loose Recipe for Onion Pakora:
It will come as no surprise that there are many regional variations even with something as humble as onion pakoras. The only thing that all home cooks will agree on is that the pakoras should be light and crisp, not the large, hard golf balls you get in UK’s Indian restaurants.
Here’s how I do it: make a thick batter from gram flour and water, and add salt, red chilli powder, finely chopped green chillies, and a pinch of asafoetida. Add brown onions that have been medium-sliced in half-moon shapes and combine well. Then drop spoonfuls of this batter into very hot neutral oil (such as groundnut or sunflower) and fry until golden brown all over.
Tip: make sure the oil is hot enough, otherwise the pakoras will fall apart – but not so hot that steam starts rising from it, as the pakoras will burn. To make them extra crispy, I add about a tablespoon of hot oil to the batter before I start frying, which I do using a large round ladle with holes.
Sejal Sukhadwala lives in London, and has been writing about food and restaurants for nearly two decades for The Guardian, The Times, The Daily Telegraph, Time Out London, Eater London, Londonist, BBC Food website, Munchies, Vogue India, The Good Food Guide and many other publications. She was founding editor of Yum, a Southeast Asian restaurant trade magazine; and food and drink editor of Ryanair in-flight magazine for over five years. She is currently writing an Indian food dictionary (a long-term project); plus The Philosophy Of Curry (British Library Publishing), a book about the cultural history of curry, to be published in Spring 2022. You can follow Sejal on Twitter
Dr Shobna Gulati (voice actor) is an actor and author. Best known for her role on the UK's beloved Coronation Street, her acting career ranges from theatre, television and film work. Her debut book, Remember Me?: Discovering my Mother as She Lost Her Memory is available in hardcover and as an audiobook. You can follow Shobna on Twitter and Instagram
Emily Chao is a filmmaker with extensive editing experience in various film and video productions. Currently with Courageous Studios at WarnerMedia, Emily has edited many award-winning projects, including a Cannes Silver Lion-winning ad campaign, a short film that premiered at Tribeca Film Festival, and various Webby nominated digital projects. She holds an MA in History and Literature from Columbia University, completing her thesis on politically coded masculinities in Jean Renoir’s Toni (1935) in 2018. Emily speaks English, Mandarin, and French, and likes to sketch, paint, and play music in her spare time. You can see more of Emily's work on Vimeo .