Whiting Pakoras with Coconut Chutney
Updated: Apr 6
”Take pride in the pakora. It is our gift to the world”
Vir Sanghvi (2015)
Are whiting like buses? You don't see any for ages and then they appear all the time! Well, there were a few on the stall at the farmers' market for the last couple of weekends. Whiting might argue it's something to do with seasonality, but who'd be suprised if bus drivers tried that argument too?
Whilst being very mild in flavour, whiting has the ideal texture for being breaded or battered as its flakiness is compensated for by the secure coating around them. And whiting is sustainable and probably the cheapest fish available in the UK!? Even when you take into account you do lose a bit due to the size of a whiting's head, this recipe is a quadruple-whammy for a seafoodie. Gentle spicing boosting the mild flavour of the fish, a chickpea flour batter keeping the flaky flesh intact, a pat on the back for the sustainability-mind, and a breath of fresh air for the wallet!
When I started making this dish I used to use plaice or lemon sole (and I still would, as well as dab and flounder). I consider it a creation of mine, but the recipe has travelled a long road to get here, with many influences met along the way so, in recognition and acknowledgement of those influencers, here is its history...
In an early series of the BBC's "Saturday Kitchen", Cyrus Todiwala OBE presented his delicious-looking recipe (I've made it many times, it is delicious) for onion "bhajias" prepared with a chickpea flour batter. They looked like onion bhajis to me. However, during the piece, he explained (that man does not have an OBE for nothing) that a bhajia was what we tend to think is a bhaji, and a bhaji is just a dish of fried vegetables (think bhindi or baingan bhaji). Are you still with me? Good. You see, I don't think I knew then what the difference was between a bhaji and a pakora and I was subsequently left not knowing what the difference was between a bhajia and a pakora. I don't think I still really know (please email me if you do!), and if you yourself want clarification, I urge you not to read the linked article below from the Peterborough Telegraph. Unfortunately I cannot find a link to the original programme.
Anyway, as an experiment, I used flavours and ingredients in Cyrus Todiwala's bhaji(a)s to cook some fish-in-batter and the outcome was a triumph. That's essentially the recipe here and I've been cooking variants of it every since (I recall making a variant for a couple of great friends - a school friend and his wife - and wifey was awash with compliments!). Several years later I went to Atul Kochhar's Benares restaurant with my then girlfriend and my brother, and whiting goujons were on the lunch menu. Much the same ingredients but the fish was coated in breadcrumbs, and the chosen fish was whiting (see comment above about price, not that I am being cynical, Mr Kochhar!). His recipe is in his book "Fish Indian Style", served with onion raita. Quite recently I was reading a recipe for "Amritsari Fish" in "Rick Stein's India" and the flavours are essentially the same but this one does use the traditional chickpea flour batter and the fish is sea bass. It is served with a green lime and herb chutney. It made me remember that I had seen a recipe for "Amritsari Fish" in Madhur Jaffrey's "Flavours of India" and guess what? Yep, essentially the same as our mate Rick's but this time using grey mullet, sea trout or cod and accompanied by a mint and white radish chutney!
So, my creation? Well, if I can't call this Bute St Seafoodie's "Whiting Pakoras with Coconut Chutney", then I do hope you enjoy this recipe for Todiwala-(OBE)-Kochhar-Stein-Jaffrey's "Any-Fish-in-Batter-or-Breadcrumbs with Whatever-You-Want-in-it Chutney"!
Ajwain seeds give a distinctive flavour to this dish, but are not always easy to find. They are also known as carom or lovage seeds and apparently also as Bishop's Weed. According to SPICEography (and I've heard this before), an acceptable substitute is dried thyme, but I'm not having any of that. If you can't get hold of ajwain, just leave it out until next time. It isn't essential to toast the cumin and ajwain seeds, though it does lend a slightly smokier, nuttier flavour. If you choose not to, just put them untoasted in the mortar in step 1.
Of course you don't have to serve these pakoras with the coconut chutney as they will go with all varieties of accompaniments (you may have noticed) but, to my mind, it's an ideal one and a recipe (it's a pared-down version of the chutney Cyrus Todiwala made to accompany his onion bhajias) is in the notes below. This chutney can be made well ahead of time, even a day or two before, and kept in the fridge, where it will improve with time. The recipe makes more than is likely to be needed here, but it can be used to serve with all sorts of things, for example, lamb chops or barbecued chicken, or just used as a simple dip with crudités.
Whiting Pakoras with Coconut Chutney
Ingredients (serves 4 as a starter)
200-225g skinned whiting fillets (this would come from a 500-600g fish)
½ tsp cumin seeds
¼ tsp ajwain seeds
1 garlic clove, coarsely chopped
1” piece of ginger, peeled and coarsely chopped
½ tsp coriander powder
½ tsp red chilli powder, or mild, unsmoked paprika
¼ tsp plus a pinch of turmeric
2 tsp finely chopped fresh coriander leaves
Lemon (or lime) juice
75g chickpea flour
Sunflower oil for deep-frying
Toast the cumin and ajwain seeds in a dry frying pan for a minute or so until they have darkened a little and begun to give off their aroma. Allow to cool a little, then put in a mortar and bash to a coarse powder. Add the garlic and ginger and continue to pound to a rough paste, then add the coriander powder, ¼ tsp of the chilli powder (or paprika), a pinch of turmeric and ½ tsp of salt (or to taste). Incorporate these into the paste then stir in the chopped coriander leaves and sufficient lemon juice to reach a consistency that can be rubbed over the fish to marinate it.
Cut the fish fillets into strips (goujons) about ½" wide and coat with the marinade (best to use your hands). Leave aside for 20-30 minutes.
Sieve the flour into a bowl and stir in the remaining ¼ tsp chilli powder (or paprika), the ¼ tsp turmeric and ¼ tsp salt (or to taste). Whisk in cold water a tablespoon at a time until you achieve a consistency a little thicker than that of double cream. This will probably take somewhere around 6-8 tbsp of water.
Heat sufficient oil in a saucepan so that the pakoras will be submerged (or use a deep-fat fryer). The temperature should be around 200-210°C but this can be tested with a dollop of batter.
Dip the marinated fish pieces in the batter to coat, allow the excess to drip away and deep-fry them until brown and crisp, approximately 3-4 minutes. Do this in batches so as not to overcrowd the pan. Drain on kitchen paper and keep warm. When all the pakoras are cooked, serve straightaway garnished with coriander leaves and lime wedges and, ideally, with the coconut chutney.
Coconut chutney. In a small blender put about 60g fresh or frozen grated coconut, 1 deseeded green chilli, 1 tsp cumin seeds and 1 large garlic clove. Blitz until the chilli, cumin seeds and garlic are well chopped (you may need to use a spatula to scrape the mixture down a few times). Then add the juice of 1 lime and blend to a paste. To thin it down to your preferred consistency add a little water or, even better, coconut milk.
"Fish Indian Style", Atul Kochhar (2008), pp. 38: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Fish-Indian-Style-Atul-Kochhar-ebook/dp/B01BY2ZUQG
"Rick Stein's India", Rick Stein (2013), pp. 164: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Rick-Steins-India-Stein/dp/1849905789
"Flavours of India", Madhur Jaffrey (1995), pp. 234: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Flavours-India-Madhur-Jaffrey/dp/0563370777
"Bhaji or pakora - what’s in a name?", Peterborough Telegraph, accessed 23 November 2019: https://www.peterboroughtoday.co.uk/whats-on/eating-out/bhaji-or-pakora-what-s-in-a-name-1-8174231