. . .it certainly has no baking soda [powder], and definitely no chemicals!!
But before we make this batter, which is made from chickpea [garbanzo] flour and is used for making the most popular ‘tea time’ snack in India, let me tell you how I learnt to make this superb batter using a simple, but effective, technique.
At the Taj Residency Hotel in Bangalore, back in the 80s, we were one of the very few 5 star hotels to have an in-house halwai, or Indian sweetmaker.
Not many hotels got into making such sweets as making Indian sweets is a highly skilled, time-consuming and frankly, thankless task.
Just imagine, after hours of ‘slow cooking’ milk and then reducing it without letting it stick to the bottom of the pan, you get ‘thickened milk’, also called khoya, which is something most hotels prefer to buy.
This dense milk forms the base to most sweets and along with chaina, which is unset paneer, will almost certainly be the ‘beginning and the end’ of Indian sweets, well, with some of the most popular ones at least!!
Now, at the Taj when the hotel was new and work was well, just Fun (capital “F’), we made our own chaina and certainly our own khoya!!
The man responsible for making all these milky bases, and more, was one Mr Mitthan Lal.
Lal had been raised a halwai and his family was seriously into making sweets and savoury snacks in Gwalior which is where Mitthan hails from.
When the dacoits of Chambal looted their village, Mitthan and his three younger brothers escaped with very little personal belongings.
As he was leaving the house, quickly hiding under a pile of hay in a bullock cart, his elderly father handed him two small matkas, or earthenware pots, covered with a red cloth. The young Mitthan Lal held on to these matkas and the hands of his little siblings, in turn, till he reached an unfamiliar territory called Bangalore. The unfamiliarity was compounded as no one spoke his ‘language’ either and so it seemed like a totally foreign land.
However, undeterred, on arrival he quickly found a small place where he and his brothers could get shelter and he also managed to place the two matkas in a water bath. Refrigeration was, of course, out of the question and with four hungry mouths to feed a simple alternative had to be found, quickly, so a water bath was the next best, and essential, thing to keep the matkas fresh.
Anyway, after a struggle to find a job, Mitthan Lal finally got his break and landed a job as a commis in a 5 star hotel.
Always one to seize an advantage, once in the job Mitthan made his moves and quickly established himself as a halwai even though there was no mithai [sweet] making section in that hotel.
He made some basic sweets with whatever resources the hotel provided. In spite of the lack of provisions, word spread quickly that finally there was a proper halwai in Bangalore who could make decent sweets, more than just the ubiquitous gulab jamoons and gajar ka halwa.
The Taj offered Mitthan Lal a job as a senior commis, which he gladly accepted, and he moved to a place called Ulsoor which was near the hotel.
It was here that he started a small shop or, as we call it in India, a mithai ki dukan for his brothers to run while he stirred the kadhais at the Taj. Work progressed at the hotel and Mitthan’s sweet shop also advanced.
In 1986 the Taj Residency made a record 3500 kg of sweets for Diwali which was a record that year for the company back then!!
It was during this mithai making process that I learned more about Mitthan Lal and his matkas. He told me how he would change the water in the ‘water bath’ (which kept the original two matkas that he had brought from Gwalior).
He performed this act for a few months till he got his first job in the 5 star hotel. He then transferred the pots to a fridge when the economy of the house improved and he could afford such ‘luxuries’.
Mitthan finally told me what the contents of the two pots were when I visited his mithai ki dukan.
“Chef Ji,” he said (he always called me Chef Ji), “They contain khamiri [or culture]. The one on the left is for making a savoury snack called pakora.” And he’d point to the left pot kept in the fridge in his mithai ki dukan.
The khamiri for pakora makes the batter light without the addition of any “soda” (baking soda) as Mitthan called it.
Well, that’s good enough for me and let’s get on with the making of this batter.
So, to show you just how well it works I am going to make the most popular ‘tea time’ snack of India, the pakora following Mitthan’s instructions.
However, my pakoras have a good twist too, as they’re filled with paneer-stuffed chillies!!
So, let’s get started folks!
1. 2 cups chickpea [garbanzo] flour or besan
2. 1 teaspoon salt
3. 1 teaspoon ajwain or carrom seeds
4. 1 1/2 tablespoons vegetable oil
5. 1 cup (approx.) water, or more if required
To make the batter:
1. Place the chickpea flour in a medium-sized bowl, add the salt and mix to remove any lumps.
2. Add the ajwain seeds and mix.
3. Heat the oil in a pan until it starts smoking, then immediately pour the hot oil into the seasoned flour.
4. Now add the water gradually and fold till it forms a smooth paste [or ‘dropping-like’ consistency].
5. Cover the bowl with cling wrap and set aside in a warm place for about 2 1/2 hours, or until the batter rises.
3 large & 3 medium-sized [banana] chillies
Ingredients for the chilli filling:
1. 100 g fresh paneer
2. 1/2 bunch fresh coriander
3. Salt, to taste
Preparing the chillies:
1. Wipe the chillies with a tea towel, then slit lengthways and remove the seeds, but do not discard. Set aside.
Preparing the filling:
1. In a medium-sized mixing bowl, roughly tear the fresh coriander.
2. Add the roughly crumbled paneer and mix.
3. Then add some salt, to taste.
4. Add the chilli seeds.
5. Mix all the ingredients so they are well combined and set aside
6. Now fill each chilli with the paneer filling.
To make the pakora stuffed chillies:
1. Take the batter and set set aside 1 teaspoon in a small bowl, cover with cling wrap and replace in the refrigerator. [This process is extremely important as this batter will become your khamiri [culture] for your next batch of batter!]
2. Heat 3–4 cups vegetable oil in a pan to fry the chillies.
3. Dip each stuffed chilli in the batter and fry in the hot oil, till crisp.
4. Serve your batter fried chillies with a tamarind chutney.
So, what is the big deal about this khamiri, since I have not used it in my recipe?
Well, if I had had the khamiri in my refrigerator as my ‘starter’ some positives would have been evident in my batter:
Firstly, the batter would have risen in about 1/2 an hour, or even less. (But then we must start somewhere and now I’ve got a small bowl of khamiri now sitting in my refrigerator, ready for the next time!)
Secondly, the batter would have been consistent in texture to the previous batch and therefore it would have a consistent taste.
Well, that brings me to the end of the khamiri process.
But before I go, if you’re curious about what was in the second matka in Mitthan Lal’s refrigerator it was a khamiri for making paneer.
These were his family ‘secrets’ that were passed on from one generation to the next. It was the equivalent of passing down grandmother’s jewels and Mitthan was the sole custodian!!
Well done, Mitthan, not bad for a guy who never went to school and thanks to you for sharing your family’s well-cherished recipe!!
Anah Daata Sukhi Bhava!!