O dashehari aam, how I miss thee!

I like summers in Indiana, like a thousand times better than winters in Indiana. I actually dread winters here – the sub-zero chills, the driving on ice and snow, make me want to go hide somewhere warm. Summers are way better. Never too hot and almost perfect.

This summer though has been a little warmer than usual. Just recently Indianapolis had a record high temp day (about 110 F/41 C). You actually sweat when walking outside. I have rarely seen that happen here before. Most people are complaining about the heat. But in a crazy, convoluted way, I like the ‘bad weather’ – because it reminds me of home.

It is amazing how the smallest thing – a smell, a taste, a feeling – can take you to a time and place completely different from the present. A couple of days ago, I went for my daily 10 minute walk in the afternoon. It was hot outside, and the cold air from the air-conditioning hit me as soon as I entered the building. That immediately reminded me of coming back from school in the summers. My brother and I used to ride our bicycles to school ever since I was 11 or 12 and he was 9 or 10 years old. We used to be drenched in sweat when we came back home in the afternoon and immediately ran to the air-cooler to claim the place directly in front of the cooler (the kind that you fill with water so that the fan throws you cool air – middle class people in India did not have air conditioners back then). Mom usually had cold neembu-paani ready for us, which is a drink similar to lemonade made with water instead of soda. It has been 20 years since then, but the tastes and the sensations are as clear in my mind as yesterday.

I say summers here are ‘almost perfect’ because there are two of my favorite things missing – monsoons and dashehari aam (mango). Monsoons brought the much needed respite from the heat. We kids went crazy whenever it rained. We used to go out or on the terrace and play in the pouring rain and the puddles for hours. No schedules, no special swimming costumes, no tickets were needed for that pure, unadulterated fun.

And then there was Dashehari aam. For those of you who don’t know, Aam is the Hindi name for mango and Dashehari is a variety of mango very popular in the northern part of India. There are few other things in the world quite like peeling a whole dashehari aam using just your teeth and then digging into the cold deliciousness till there is no more left except the stone. During summer vacations, we would hunt the refrigerator multiple times in a day for seconds, thirds and fourths. Summer is not really summer without the heavenly taste of dashehari aam. Any other varieties just don’t cut it for me.

I could go on and on about how happy my childhood was, how uncomplicated the life back then and how things are just not the same anymore (a classic sign of getting old). A couple of other things are worth mentioning about the summers of my childhood – sitting down on the cold floor at my Daddy’s home (my father’s older brother, we call him Daddy) and eating the really spicy and yummy food Mummy (Aunt) made. Visiting and staying at my Beeji and Bauji’s (maternal grandparents) home during summer vacations where an extended family of anywhere between 10-20 people ate dinner together in the veranda everyday, and followed it up with bucket-ful of mangoes. The countless trips to the comic book store close to their house to rent comic books that I finished reading so quickly and voraciously that no one believed I was actually reading them (of course all expenses covered by grandpa). Sleeping on the terrace of our home at night (that was the only way to beat the heat when it got so hot and stuffy inside), counting stars, making shapes, making up all kinds of stories about the stars and the universe along with my brother.

What would I give to take a trip back to that time and place, to eat one more dashehari aam? Quite a lot, I would say, quite a lot.

Food. Memories. Comfort.

Bread pakoras were one of my favorite childhood foods. Typical street food in India, prepared and sold by vendors on the road-sides, although much better when made at home for a once-in-a-while Sunday brunch. Pakoras and tea in general are considered great comfort foods on a rainy day.

So it rained today here in Indy. It doesn’t usually rain this hard here and for only a few minutes it was like monsoons were here in Indiana. Needless to say, it made me crave pakoras. I have made them before for pitch-in parties at work or friend’s homes. Always found that they were quite appreciated by the American friends and colleagues, so I thought why not share the recipe for my friends who like to try new foods!

Just to clarify the terminology before I go on to the recipe – ‘pakora’ in general is fried batter. Dip different things in the batter before frying it and you get different varieties of pakoras. Here’s what you will need:

  • Chick pea flour – Also called Gram flour or Besan in Hindi and can be easily found in any Indian/Pakistani store: 2 cups (makes enough for a family of 3-4)
  • Salt: To taste (I used 2 teaspoons)
  • Turmeric, red chilli powder, cumin powder: to taste (I used 1 teaspoon each). If you do not have these spices, no worries. You can be creative and use black pepper powder, oregano powder or any other spices you have on hand.
  • Baking powder: 1/8th of a teaspoon
  • Water: 1 cup (approximately)
  • Oil: for deep-frying.
  • Bread: 8 slices of wheat or any not-too-soft bread
  • Veggies: alternately, for different types of pakoras, you can use onion rings, very thinly sliced potatoes, chopped spinach and even cauliflower or broccoli (see? that just turned it into a healthy dish).

To make pakoras, mix the dry ingredients (flour, salt, spices and baking powder) well in a somewhat flat-bottomed bowl (if you are making bread pakoras, the flat bottom will make it easy to dip the bread slice). The chick pea flour may have lumps. Squash them with a spatula.

Slowly add water to the dry ingredients, mixing constantly with a spoon/spatula to remove any lumps. If the batter is too thin, it will not stick to the veggies/bread and will fall off when you fry it. That’s why water should be added slowly and not all at once. Keep mixing until all the lumps are gone and the batter is smooth and of the consistency of pancake batter.

In the meantime, heat the oil on medium heat in a wok-style pan (or whatever you use for deep-frying). Drop a tiny bit of batter in the oil to check if the oil is ready. If the batter immediately pops up and dances in the oil, you are ready to go! Dip the bread completely in the batter to cover all sides, and drop it really slowly in the oil (be careful not to splash oil on yourself). Let it cook till it is golden on one side, then slowly turn over and cook the other side.

For veggie pakoras, mix chopped veggies in the batter and drop a few spoonfuls in the oil giving them enough space to dance around. Cook both sides till golden. Place the hot pakoras on a paper towel so that any extra oil is absorbed (healthy!) and enjoy with ketchup!

If you like this recipe, or have any questions about it or any other indian recipes, do let me know. I like cooking and blogging and would love to blog more about food and cooking :)