I was in Bangkok last week and sought out my favourite Thai food: chicken and rice. The dish is related to the better known Hainanese Chicken Rice, which consists of slices of poached chicken with flavourful white rice, served with clear chicken soup and condiments. This dish, though theoretically a specialty from Hainan in China, can now be found all over the world (Singapore claims it as one of its national dishes) but the Thai version, Khao Man Gai, which is lesser known, is far superior.
My favourite Thai dish, however, is not Khao Man Gai but yet another variant in which the chicken is first battered and then deep fried so it looks a little like Kentucky Fried Chicken. This chicken is then cut into slices and served with rice. Contrary to the usual rule for deep-fried, battered food, the great thing about the Thai fried chicken is that though it is usually served cold (street vendors make the chicken at home in the morning before going out to set up their stalls), it still tastes delicious and retains its crispy texture in a way that most American fried chicken simply does not.
Sadly, it is hard to find either Khao Man Gai or its fried variant outside of Thailand because Thai restaurants are run by chefs who think they can do better than churn out mere street food dishes. I’ve grown tired of telling the chefs at India’s Thai restaurants that if they put the fried chicken on their menus, it will become their fastest-moving item. They point to Hainanese Chicken Rice which does appear on some Chinese menus and rarely moves. But the difference, as I keep telling them, is that Hainanese Chicken is not batter-fried. It is the texture of the fried chicken that makes the dish so delicious.
There is, however, an Indian version of fried chicken. When Arun Jaitley was minister for Law and Commerce in the NDA government, he launched Monish Gujral’s Moti Mahal’s Tandoori Trail recipe book and said that he had been invited to the event not because he was a minister but because he was a fan of Moti Mahal and its chicken pakora in particular.
Moti Mahal is famous in India (and perhaps all over the world) as the restaurant that popularised tandoori chicken, but these days the Moti Mahal name is shared by many different owners. The original Moti Mahal in Delhi’s Daryaganj is no longer run by the family of Kundan Lal Gujral who founded the restaurant. The Moti Mahal Deluxe in South Extension is owned by somebody else. And then there is Monish’s own chain, Moti Mahal Tandoori Trail, which is easily the biggest of all the Moti Mahals with over 100 outlets in India and the Middle East.
Monish owns the Moti Mahal Deluxe in Greater Kailash, where Arun Jaitley is a regular and serves what he says is the cuisine created by his grandfather Kundan Lal Gujral. His chicken pakora is every Punjabi’s idea of heaven so it is not surprising that it came in for so much praise from Arun Jaitley and is legendary in Delhi
According to Monish, the chicken pakora was invented by Kundan Lal in Peshawar in the 1930s. There were no fried snacks on the menu of his Peshawar restaurant and so Kundan Lal had the idea of batter-frying a chicken, marinated in tandoori chicken spices and serving it as a chicken pakora. I’ve included Monish’s recipe here but it may be a slightly simplified version meant for the home cook. Other chicken pakoras I’ve eaten elsewhere use a partially cooked (in the tandoor) chicken tikka, which is dunked in a pakora batter and then deep fried.
What you think of Kundal Lal’s invention probably depends on what you think of fried food in general. Personally I think it is delicious, but at the risk of sounding unpatriotic I have to come clean and say that the Thai Fried Chicken is subtler and better.
Indians demonstrate a strange reluctance to adapt the pakora-style of cooking to meat and fish. The Moti Mahal chicken pakora is probably the only great non-vegetarian pakora in Indian cuisine, and it is a 20th century invention. I would make a claim for golden fried prawns as worthy rivals to the chicken pakora but the problem is that we regard them as a Chinese dish.
In truth, of course, the notion of a prawn pakora is alien to Chinese cuisine. They do a certain amount of deep frying in Sichuan and so when the Golden Dragon opened in Bombay in 1974, India’s first Sichuan restaurant did serve ChSadly, it is hard to find either Khao Man Gai or its fried variant outside of Thailand because Thai restaurants are run by chefs who think they can do better than churn out mere street food dishes. I’ve grown tired of telling the chefs at India’s Thai restaurants that if they put the fried chicken on their menus, it will become their fastest-moving item. They point to Hainanese Chicken Rice which does appear on some Chinese menus and rarely moves. But the difference, as I keep telling them, is that Hainanese Chicken is not batter-fried. It is the texture of the fried chicken that makes the dish so delicious. inese-style fried prawns. But in no time at all, the dish was transformed into a pakora, leaving behind its Chinese origins and thin translucent batter. Today you find golden fried prawns done pakora style on most Indian-Chinese menus, earning the dish the right to be hailed as yet another triumph of Indian cuisine.
Other than that, we seem to have a Hindu-Muslim divide when it comes to pakoras and fried foods. If a dish came to India from the Islamic world – such as the samosa, for instance – then we have no hesitation in putting meat, chicken or whatever into it. But if a close relative (say the kachori which is not dissimilar to the samosa) is of Hindu origin then it remains resolutely vegetarian for the most part.
Which, of course, leads to a bigger question: how do we distinguish deep-fried foods like the samosa, the kachori or the batata wada from pakoras and bhajiyas? One answer is that pakoras must, almost by definition, have a besan batter while samosas and the like can be made from wheat. But this is not a hard and fast rule. The batata wada or potato bonda (which is made from mashed potato) has a besan batter but is not usually regarded as a pakora or a bhajiya. The Moti Mahal chicken pakora uses a batter made from both besan and maida, but calls itself a pakora.
You could say that the distinction has to do with how the flour covering is used. The samosa is made from dough (or puff pastry) while pakoras are made from liquid batter. But that still leaves the problem of the aloo bonda or the batata wada. The bonda uses a liquid batter and yet we do not normally regard it as a pakora or a bhajiya.
My answer is that the distinction lies in shape. A samosa, a kachori or even a batata wada must be made in a certain shape. (If it is not a triangle, then it is not a samosa, for instance). Pakoras, on the other hand, must take on the shape of their ingredients. A mirchi bhajiya must look like a mirchi that has been lightly battered. The vegetables choose the shape: the batter is no more than a way to preserve the flavour of the vegetables. That is why the ingredients of a vegetable pakora are rarely spiced but go into the batter in their rawest and purest form. The ingredients of a samosa, kachori or a vada, on the other hand, need cooking and spicing.
What then is the tempura? It has long been speculated that the Japanese learned how to make the tempura from Indian cooks. Though it is not made of besan (like the Indian pakora), a tempura is really no more than a bhajiya. It turns up in Japanese cuisine only after Westerners (chiefly the Portuguese) started visiting Japan and yet, it resembles no European (or Portuguese) dish.
One explanation is that Indian cooks on Portuguese ships taught the Japanese how to make bhajiyas. We know already that Portuguese Jesuit missionaries went vegetarian on certain days of the week and that when they were in Goa and other parts of India, they ate bhajiyas because they were unspiced and suitable for their delicate palates. It is reasonable to assume that they took their food habits to Japan with them. And that their bhajiyas eventually became tempuras.
So, is it too much of a stretch to see the Japanese prawn tempura as no more than the first Indian prawn pakora? As a precursor of our golden fried prawn?
I think not. In fact, it is a pakora, no matter how fancy the Japanese make it sound. The tempura follows all the rules of pakora cooking: light batter, deep fried, raw vegetables and ingredients, takes on the shape of the ingredient under the batter, etc. So let’s treat it as yet another triumph for Indian cuisine. Long before we put a chicken tikka into a batter, we taught the Japanese how to cook. (Well, how to cook one dish, anyway…)
Chicken pakora at home
Chicken, cut into 8 pcs (750 gm)
Lemon juice – 1tbsp / 15ml
Ginger-garlic paste – 1tbsp / 6gm
Salt to taste
Red chilli – 1tsp
For the batter
Egg – 1
Gram flour – 5tbsp / 50gm
Refined flour – 1tbsp / 15gm
Salt – 1tsp
Black pepper – 1tsp
Refined oil for deep frying
Chaat masala – ½ tsp, to sprinkle on the chicken pakora
Make deep incisions into the chicken pieces
Marinate the chicken with lemon juice, ginger-garlic paste, salt and red chilli powder for about 30 minutes
For the batter:
Mix all the ingredients in a blender
Heat oil in a wok, dip the marinated chicken in the batter and lower gently in the hot oil
Deep fry on medium heat till light brown
Remove with a slotted spoon, prick each piece with a fork and keep aside for 10 minutes
Fry the pieces again till golden brown
Remove and drain excess oil on absorbent paper towels
Sprinkle chaat masala before serving. Serve hot with mint chutney