Almost every culture has their own version of the esteemed dumpling. The freshly released anthology What We Talk About When We Talk About Dumplings collects tales and recipes about the ubiquitous food from around the world. In this excerpt, Angela Misri chronicles her childhood quest to learn her mothers cooking and rewards us with two hard-earned recipes for veggie samosas and onion pakoras.
The kitchen in my childhood home in Calgary was not a shared space. It was ruled by a maharanee who hated to be questioned. Unfortunately for her, she had sired a ridiculously curious child who not only questioned everything, but also cast doubt on recipes that had been passed down through generations, like a crazed toddler in a sweet shop.
That kitchen was the arena where I learned my mother’s/ her mother’s/her mother’s mother’s way of making pakoras and samosas.
The instruction would start in much the same way.
Angie: What are you making, Mom?
Mom: Pakoras. Go do your homework.
Mom: We have people coming over on Saturday.
Angie: Can I watch?
Angie: Can I sit here?
Mom: (Dramatic sigh, hands moving, mashing, folding, and then finally) No questions.
My mom was the youngest child in a family of six siblings in Srinagar, Kashmir. Her only sister (my masi) was married at age fourteen when my mom was five or six, which meant she grew up as the focus of the feminine energy of her mother – the only person in the household to pass on the feminine arts. My nani was in a hurry. Mom had to be married off at sixteen because her mother was a widow. My nani was terrified that she would die and leave her young daughter at the mercy of her brothers (a weird logic, if you ask me, since she instead handed her daughter to a family she barely knew).
I bring up this family dynamic because I can’t imagine that my nani’s kitchen was anywhere near as adversarial as my mother’s, both because my mother actually gets along with people and questions little, but also because when it came to preparing my mother for her future, my nani knew of two important things to pass on: cooking and caring for children. My mom had been raised to understand that not only was the kitchen her place, but it was her queendom. This was not to be the case for many frustrating years.
My mother went from her mother’s kitchen, where she learned by watching (and supposedly not asking questions), to her sister-in-law’s kitchen, where she was barred from entry as the youngest (and therefore lowest-ranking) wife in the Misri household, my father’s family. Those were hard years for my mom, and not just in the kitchen. When she and my dad moved from his brother’s home in Delhi to London, England, in the 1970s, she reclaimed her rightful place as the maharanee of her kila. Looking back, I understand why she put up some serious battlements.
In my mind, my mom’s attempts to turn my attention back to my homework had two motivating factors: to focus me on the future she foresaw for me as a financially independent woman who lived in Canada, and to get me to stop badgering her with questions she didn’t know the answers to, or didn’t want to think about.
Angie: What’s that?
Mom: Zeera. (Sprinkles the small, dark, seed-like spice onto the mashed potatoes already in the bowl)
Angie: What’s that?
Mom: I told you – ZEERA.
Angie: (Expert eye-rolling and as much teenage attitude as is wise this close to the wooden spoons) No, what’s the ENGLISH name of it?
Mom: Why does that matter? (Ramping up to exasperated, hands moving faster to try to end this conversation sooner)
Angie: How will I find it in the grocery store if I ask for zeera?
Mom: (Dramatic sigh, scooping spices back into the cupboard like I’ve insulted them) No questions.
This was one of the key arguments my mother and I had when making any kind of Indian food: she saw my demands for the translation of Indian spices into sometimes entirely different English names as a form of colonialism (though she never said that word), while I saw her intransigence as a way to keep secrets from me.
My mom shopped in the northeast end of Calgary for her spices. In those stores, she didn’t need to think about English names for anything; the sealed bags were, in fact, labelled with their Hindi names because they had been imported from India, like zeera (black cumin), ajwain (carom powder), and haldi (turmeric powder). She even bought special rolling pins and bowls from these stores. To my teenage eyes, these implements looked archaic. I sense now that they reminded her of the simplicity of her own mother’s kitchen back in Kashmir. But as the daughter of immigrants, I was determined to take advantage of all the variety that the ‘regular’ grocery stores afforded, so I was constantly trying to drag her toward what I saw as the future.
Angie: Mom, we should buy this!
Mom: What is this?
Angie: It’s called phyllo. I found it in the frozen section.
Mom: Put it back.
Angie: But it looks just like a samosa. Look at this picture. Doesn’t it look like a samosa?
Mom: We don’t need it.
Angie: But the samosa dough takes forever! Look, with this we can just make the potato and pop it into this dough! Can we try it?
Angie: Why? Maybe I could make samosas too, then? Maybe we could have samosas when people aren’t coming over.
Mom: (Dramatic sigh, throws the package into the shopping cart) Go get some milk.
Suffice it to say that the phyllo experiment did not work. But I’m not convinced it was the frozen pastry’s fault. My mother had a way of passive-aggressively using my curiosity about food to teach me lessons about this Western society I was so madly in love with. In my household, we ate Indian food almost every night, so I desperately craved the Canadian food I saw in TV commercials and my friend’s lunch boxes at school. I went to Girl Guide camp at some point and fell in love with Hamburger Helper, of all things. When I came home, I begged my mom to buy it for us. After a conversation much like the one about phyllo, she relented. She made it for us that night and served it to my sister and me while she and Dad ate their usual vegetable and rice dinner.
Angie: (Poking at the radioactive, orange-coloured stuff in the bowl) This doesn’t look right.
Mom: I followed the instructions on the box.
Angie: There’s no meat in it!
Mom: I don’t cook beef, you know that!
Angie: It’s called Hamburger HELPER. It helps the hamburger. Without the hamburger, it’s …
Mom: You wanted it. You eat it.
At some point my sister escaped this punishment, choosing no dinner over the concoction in front of her (fair, I guess, since I brought it upon us). But I had to eat a whole serving of Hamburger Helper pasta without the hamburger. Just so you know, the spices are in a pre-measured packet meant to be poured into a pound of meat. Without the meat, you are basically eating an extreme amount of salt and msg on a little pasta. I was sick for at least the weekend, and I never asked for Hamburger Helper again. My mother is an exceptional cook of Indian food, even Indian foods she didn’t grow up with. This was not a mistake. It was her way of teaching me that the Canadian culture I valued above her Indian one had its good points, but Hamburger Helper is not one of them.
Angie: (Mashing potatoes with a fork) Can we get an actual potato masher?
Mom: What for?
Angie: (Points at the bowl in front of her) This would go way faster with a masher.
Mom: (Takes the fork and the bowl, mashes the whole thing quickly and expertly, hands it back with triumph mixed in)
Angie: I still think a masher would be better.
Mom: Go do your homework.
The fact that I managed to absorb the way my mother makes pakoras and samosas at all is a minor miracle. If you asked her to write down ‘the recipe’ (and I have done this), so much of the direction would be ‘as much as needed’ or ‘until ready.’ I don’t know why my mother balked so hard against solid recipes with consistent bullet points and instructions. She never (to my knowledge) used them herself. But her non-Indian cooking suffered from her determination to recreate with just her mind and instincts. We, the recipients of these rare Canadian dishes, suffered the most.
My mom always felt that being married so young limited her potential to be financially independent – a problem she was determined to solve for her two daughters, with complete success. I have to think that part of her reticence in involving us in the kitchen work was pushback against what she had been burdened with and denied. Her mother, my nani, had made her into a homemaker. Mom wanted more for her daughters. So she had all the time in the world for us and our traditional education. But she had much less time and patience for passing on the family cooking skills.
Angie: How big do you need to roll those circles? (Squinting into the Facetime video call)
Mom: This big. I’m showing you. (Points to the perfectly symmetrical circles of dough rolled out in front of her)
Angie: Mom, we’re on Facetime, I can’t tell how big they are.
Mom: Here. (Demonstrates the rolling-out procedure again, producing a ninth perfect circle on her counter)
Angie: Like, the size of your hand or the size of a dinner plate?
Mom: I’ll just make them. Tell me how many you need.
Angie: No! I want to learn.
Mom: Then watch! This is how I learned. I didn’t ask questions. I just watched. I learned.
Thus endeth all lessons.
¼ cup green peas
Pinch of asafetida (heeng)
½ tsp salt (namak)
1 Tbsp oil (or melted ghee)
1 Tbsp grated ginger
2 chopped green finger chilis
1 tsp ground coriander (dhaniya)
½ tsp red chili powder (mirch)
½ tsp fennel powder (saunph)
2 cups all-purpose flour
¾ tsp salt (namak)
¼ cup oil (or melted ghee)
¾ tsp carom seeds (ajwain)
About 6 Tbsp of water
- Preheat the oven to 400°F and set aside two baking trays and parchment paper.
- In a big bowl, add all the dough ingredients, except the water, and mix well with your hands or a mixer. You want the dough to hold its shape. Add a spoon of water at a time and work it in – you are trying to create a dough that is more stiff than soft. Cover with a towel and set aside for 20 minutes.
- While the dough is resting, peel the potatoes, chop them into fours, then boil till just soft (not mashed-potatoes soft – just before). Then mash them in a bowl.
- Heat a pan with a bit of oil or ghee (1 Tbsp) and cook up the cumin seeds over low heat (do not burn – start over if they burn). When they are golden, add the grated ginger and fry for about 30 seconds. Add the green peas and sauté for a couple minutes.
- Add the red chili powder (the ½ tsp is a conservative amount) and the fennel powder, and sauté for 30 seconds before adding the potatoes and sautéing for 2 to 3 minutes on low heat. This is the opportunity to taste the mixture. You’re going to be wrapping it in dough, so if you don’t taste the salt or red chilis now, you should add some (a ½ tsp at a time) because the dough dilutes the taste of the salt and spices.
- Pop the dough out of its bowl onto a floured counter and start kneading. Make five smaller balls out of your original larger ball. Put four of the balls back into the bowl, cover them, and focus on one ball at a time on the counter.
- Roll this one ball into a circle/oval the size of a dinner plate about half a centimetre thick. You should not be able to see your countertop through the rolled-out dough. Cut this rolled-out circle of dough into two halves (this will make two samosas).
- Put a spoonful of the potato/pea mixture into the centres of both half circles, and then, along all the edges of the two half circles, apply water with your finger to make them a little sticky. Then fold them into the conical/ triangle shape of a samosa, pressing along the slightly wet edges to make them stick. At this point, you will find out if you added too much potato/pea mixture or if you made the dough too skinny. Adjust both as you see fit. I sometimes press down the edges of the samosa with a fork just to doubly seal them.
- Place the samosas on the parchment-lined baking trays as you make them, spaced apart so they do not touch each other.
- Before you pop them in the oven, lightly brush them with a bit of melted ghee or oil and then bake them for 15 to 20 minutes or until golden brown.
2 medium yellow onions
1 tsp chopped green chilis
¼ tsp turmeric powder
½ tsp garam masala
1 Tbsp carom seeds (ajwaim)
½ tsp asafetida (heeng)
½ tsp salt
1 cup chickpea flour
- Chop onions finely and add to a bowl with the chopped green chilis and all the spices, then mix well with a fork.
- Put the bowl aside for a half-hour to let the water leach out of the onions (so you will know how much water to add and it won’t be too much).
- Add the chickpea flour and mix. You want this mixture to be thicker than cake batter, and you’re going to drop spoon-sized clumps of it into hot oil, so you want it to hold together.
- I tend to taste it at this point for both spice and salt – add more of each if you can’t taste them (the batter tends to mellow everything).
You have a couple of options for cooking them, but, in either case, use a large spoon or a small ladle to measure out the pakora batter:
- If you want to bake them, set the oven to 400°F, lay out a baking pan with a layer of parchment paper, and bake for 20 minutes.
- If you want to fry them, warm up the oil in a deep pan till it’s hot but not bubbling/boiling, then drop in the batter from just above the oil. You will need to flip them in the oil to get them golden and put them on a paper towel before serving.
- I’ve heard that you can also air-fry them, but I’ve never done this myself.
Note: You can add almost any vegetable to the batter of the pakora (cauliflower, zucchini, potatoes) – just keep the pieces small.
Originally published in What We Talk About When We Talk About Dumplings, edited by John Lorinc, Coach House Books, 2022.