Pakoras in the park: My family's chaotic summer tradition — and why you should absolutely adopt it
A box of pakora mix and a bit of patience make for great moments and memories
Every family has its summer traditions, and my massive Indian family is no different. As fans of public infrastructure, we tend to take ours to local Scarborough, Ont., parks — one in particular that I cannot name because my family loves that it's rarely busy. I'm not kidding when I tell you that if anything changed at that park, I — and this article — would be blamed.
Our love for our park is as strong as our love of fried food, particularly pakoras. It's a chaotic tradition — and so fun and memorable that I think you should steal it. Here's how.
First, gather and stake out your space
Both the people and the place are key for the pakora-making to go smoothly. Check local bylaws to see if your park allows for outdoor cooking and if you need a permit to bring your own stove or go with a large group. Ideally your wacky crew will also be good for some serious memory-making and include some eager cooks as well. Take mine as an example.
Picture a group of 25 excited faces setting up their picnic spot. Some open up lawn chairs or lay out blankets from India, while others run toward the swings. Oh, and surrounding the picnic table are enough filled-to-the-brim reusable market bags to fill an 18-wheeler. Five packed cars and vans have just been unloaded after an intense few minutes of searching for perfect parking spots and hunting down a coveted picnic table. Gujarati cuss words are muttered over the tiny family that's inevitably hogged two tables and made our tiring search longer than needed.
Still, it's Saturday, the sun is out and everybody is ecstatic that we got there only an hour later than our intended 11 a.m. arrival time.
Next, set up a smart station
If we're lucky, mission control has been set up in a corner of the park with some privacy and protection from the wind, which could threaten the flames of the two small portable gas burners we've brought along, one topped with a large saucepan filled to the brim with chaa (tea), the other with a wok filled with oil.
This workstation is monitored by watchful guards on lawn chairs, working to ensure that the wind doesn't put out the fire. Next to them stand photographers to ensure that family members in India don't get left out in the slightest. And at the centre of it all stands Bibifoi — my dad's first cousin and our family matriarch — preparing the batter or supervising the frying, and either way, overseeing the whole process.
Get cooking — and get as complicated as you want
Before the frying begins, the batter must be made. Remember the numerous shopping bags that I mentioned? They contain everything needed to make next-level pakoras anywhere you can keep a steady flame going: packs of pakora mix, water to prepare the batter with, fresh mix-ins such as chili peppers or spinach. From time to time, Bibifoi will decide to prepare the batter from scratch in which case there'll be another bag filled with chickpea flour, a masala dhaba (an Indian cook's go-to spices) and baking powder. As exhilarating as it is to discover what lies within those bags, there's a catch — we end up rooting around for ingredients and often unsuccessfully.
My advice: settle on a pakora mix. The store-bought packets taste great and since you only need to add water, that's one million fewer things to bring. Then, do like Bibifoi: carefully combine the dry mix and water to create a batter that's neither too thick nor too thin, adjusting it by adding more of either as needed.
Whether you go pre-made or from-scratch, make sure you keep your best chefs at the heart of the operation so things go smoothly amidst the chaos and memory-making. The process is pretty forgiving, but I find that like most things food-related, it's best done by Bibifoi. Others who wish to help will typically prepare the mix-ins or just gossip with Bibifoi (they can be seen in the frame of the images that will ultimately circulate on WhatsApp).
Too many hands? All the better
Once the batter is ready, it's frying time. In my family, this is when — without fail — an argument erupts about why the frying oil wasn't heated up sooner.
To the side, the chaa is made while cups to serve it in are gathered by the teenage cousins — a far more laissez-faire operation, since the only goal is to have tea prepared by the time the first batch of pakoras are ready. My older cousins Femi api or Nazah api are likely at the heart of it with the help of their husbands. Conversations fly back and forth between the chaa and the pakora burners, and unsolicited commentary and video-taking ensue.
This is the perfect time to pull up a lawn chair around the wok, giving you a good vantage point to see the frying and a chance to get first dibs on the pakoras.
Eat, enjoy, repeat
The first pakoras are the product of a week of anticipation and about an hour of work. Just as the smell has become overwhelmingly tantalizing, the first batch of pakoras are taken out of the oil and placed on a plate lined with paper towel, and the munching begins. Those seated around the wok deftly grab their pakoras first, then the teenage cousins make the rounds doling them and the chaa out until everyone has been served.
This process is repeated until all the batter has been used. By then, most of us are full and a few final arguments break out over the remaining pakoras. No one has the energy to finish them, and after a loud five minutes of relatives insisting others eat the rest, Bibifoi will bring an end to the commotion by wrapping the pakoras in paper towel and tossing them in someone's bag. All that's left to do is to carefully pour the cooled oil from the wok into a container or bottle for disposal. And to wait for the next time.
Because in spite of all the chaos of preparing and serving pakoras, this tradition is what gives us something to laugh about and long for week to week, all summer long. We always end up at the same park, at the same time, and try to get our coveted picnic table under the trees, because there's not a thing that we would change — except perhaps the fact that we never arrive on time.
After we eat our park pakoras, the embarrassment of arriving with our overwhelming amount of supplies and the good-natured scolding over the heating of the oil fades from our memory. The only thing that remains is the residual grease on our fingers and the desire to do it all over again.