Onion Pakodas

Eight Life Lessons from an Afternoon of Making Pakodas

I wrote this a few years ago. Nowadays, I make the tea as well.

Vidya wanted to eat pakodas, and I decided to surprise her by making them when she was taking her Saturday afternoon siesta. After making sure she was sound asleep, I chopped the onions, mixed them with the dough, heated the oil, and deep-fried them. As I was finishing up, Vidya woke up – from the smell of the oil, she said – and walked into the kitchen.

I proudly showed her my handiwork – fried pakodas resting on a newspaper shedding as much excess oil as they could. She popped one into her mouth, pronounced that it was delicious, except for a lack of both salt and chilli powder, both of which I had thought of, but had forgotten to add. She said we could toss them in salt and chilli powder and that should make them taste okay, and that was just what we did – before proceeding to eat them with some awesome tea she made.

Thinking of the whole pakoda-making process, and the ‘journey’ it was, I could not help but see how many life lessons were hidden in that short afternoon activity.

I started out with four peeled onions, and once I had chopped two of them, I could see I had enough. I stopped, storing the other two for later use. When initial estimates are wrong, it makes sense to revise them.

When I was mixing the onions into the dough, following the instructions, I could see that the mixture was dry, and it was mixing unevenly. I added a little bit of water, and the mixture came out smooth and even. When the instructions don’t make sense, it’s good to do what makes sense.

I’ve always been taught that the best way to make pakodas is to by hand – to drop the dollops of flour and onions into the hot oil with your fingers. This is messy, and involves washing your hands every time before taking a ladle to the continue the frying. I tried using two forks instead of my fingers, and it worked wonderfully well. I was able to control the size of each dollop, and the forks did not have too much dough sticking to them. Sometimes, it’s good to leave traditional wisdom aside and try out new things and tools.

Every time I picked up a dollop, it would seem the right size. Things rapidly changed as I approached the frying pan. A small or mid-sized dollop was often too large to be fried, and I ended up putting in dollops half their original size. Our estimates of magnitude are very often way off. Only by placing them in the right context can we get a realistic estimate.

The oil seemed to have been heated up to the right temperature when I started out. Very quickly I realized there was not one right temperature, but at least two different ones – a lower one when I dropped in the dollops and a higher one once the dollops were all in. The higher temperature golden-browned the pakodas, and I had to reduce it again when I took them out of the pan. I had to constantly keep changing the temperature as I was frying them. We always tend to look for the golden balance in everything. This is a myth, and only by constantly changing various things can we keep things balanced.

As I was into the frying process, I was so taken up by it that I did not notice the smell of frying oil had spread throughout the house. I had a door and window open, but I did not have any other door open to allow for cross-ventilation. Only when Vidya pointed this out, and opened another door, did I realize my oversight. Very often, we get so involved in what we do that we fail to realize the effects of our actions on our home life, and the lives of the ones we love.

When I was frying the pakodas, I realized it was a short step between golden brown and inedibly black. However, this wasn’t so short as to be impossible – I just needed to keep my eyes on the pan and not be distracted. Most of the time, concentrating on the job at hand and remaining focussed is crucial to success.

Finally, once the pakodas were made, it just took one taste for Vidya to figure out what was missing, and her simple solution set it right almost instantly. No matter how much we’ve planned and checked our actions, there is always bound to be something we have overlooked. We all have at least one person in our lives who can see what it is and tell us what we need to do to set it right. Keep such people close, and listen to their counsel.

It is not often that such thoughts strike me, or I feel like feeding onion pakodas to my soul. But then, it is not often that life’s lessons stand revealed to you.