Pakora Perfection (a.k.a. Indescribables)
The Shenaz, located behind the Mitchell library, is one of Glasgow’s oldest curry houses. I have good memories of going there as a child where I had my first taste of Indian food. I remember it well because I cried. The waiter told me he couldn’t take my plate away until I finished my food, little did I know this was just a bad joke. The Shenaz is the sort of place that still serves tinned pineapple and desiccated coconut in a little metal tray (whether you want it or not), and they give you those candied fennel seeds when they bring the bill. If you rooted around in the bowl, and were lucky, you could find a little sugar crystal. How many people have put their hands in this bowl and why was I allowed to do this as a child?
On a recent visit, in typical Glasgow fashion, there was a man at a table behind us who had passed out from too much drink, and the woman at the table next to us complained to the waiter her chicken was dry. We were going to suggest she dipped it in her glass of Irn Bru. As ever the waiters were impeccably polite, and behave far better than their customers. The flock wallpaper and the grotty carpet has gone but one thing that has never changed, I am glad to say, is the pakora.
The restaurant’s motto is ‘One Visit Means Many’ and if you have tasted their vegetable pakora this will come true. If you are of a certain age you may know the pakora as ‘indescribables’, as they were once affectionately known. And that they are.
On this recent visit a topic of conversation had been the demise of the old fashioned curry house, so I thought I better ask for the recipe, just in case they suddenly closed one day. It would be a shame for this style of curry house to die out completely. It is part of Glasgow, and Britain’s history. In the case of the Shenaz it may not be glamorous but the food is superb, and it is very good value for money, and the service is always excellent. What more do people want?
The waiter very kindly told me exactly how to make it, no secret recipe or anything like that. I was surprised by how simple the recipe was, and then again I wasn’t as it is so different and delicious. Other recipes are typically more complicated with elaborate mixtures of fennel seed, green chillies, ginger and rice flour added to the gram flour. The secret in the Shenaz pakora lies in its simplicity and few ingredients.
I have made pakora before and it was good, but nothing like the indescribables. At the Shenaz it is light, crisp and crunchy. The other best bit is the dipping sauce that comes with it. It is made in a style totally unlike anything in any other curry house. You may think the ingredients for it sound dire but it is essential and it is also the dipping sauce that makes it special. People have even been known to drink it.
Incredibly it is made of tomato juice, white distilled malt vinegar, red hot chilli powder and salt. Who knew? Do not be tempted to use anything like fresh or tinned tomatoes, or passata, as you won’t get the same texture or flavour. For an authentic taste it has to be from concentrate. The same goes for the vinegar, it must be distilled white malt vinegar. Any other and the flavour won’t be correct. This will give you a sharp, thin and very smooth tomatoey dipping sauce, the perfect foil for the crispy pakora.
I was extremely pleased with how the pakora turned out, however, in no way will they ever be as good when you visit the Shenaz. This amount makes more than enough for four people to start a meal. Best enjoyed with an ice cold lager.
For the Pakora
300g brown onions (3 medium onions)
150g gram flour
1 tsp salt
1/2 tsp chilli powder
sunflower or vegetable oil for frying (enough to fill a pot 1 – 2 inches deep, e.g. 1 litre for a 7 – 8 inch pot)
For the Chilli Sauce
100ml tomato juice (from concentrate)
1/2 tsp chilli powder (you may want to do this to taste but it must be spicy)
1 tbsp distilled white malt vinegar
1/2 tsp salt
To make the sauce simply stir all the ingredients together.
Slice the onion thinly. Put it in a bowl and toss with the salt. Leave the onions for 20 minutes to soften. Now mix with the gram flour and chilli powder. Incorporate the flour and onions well to make sure the onions are all evenly coated. Now sprinkle over some water (about 1 tbsp) and mix this in. It is important the mixture is stiff and not too wet. It should just stick to the onion otherwise the pakora will not turn out crispy.
Heat the oil in a heavy based pot to 170˚C. Drop the pakora into the oil in little pieces. Keep the heat on high as the temperature drops when you add the pakora. It doesn’t matter if they stick together a bit as it is nice to pull the pieces apart when you are eating them. Fry them until deep golden brown and transfer to a rack lined with paper towels. Enjoy while still hot and crispy.