Even the most deeply spiritual Indian person is unlikely to disagree with the fact that our festivals are only notionally about the supernatural and entirely about the food that accompanies them. These are again symbolically offered to deities before being literally devoured by family and friends. And Diwali is the grand-daddy of festivals when it comes to food. At the very least, half of these dishes are sugar bombs in various configurations, but in this column, I will turn my focus to that other pan-Indian festival food category—savoury snacks.
Historically, the idea of kaccha and pucca foods defines what kinds of food can only be served and consumed by members of a family (the former) and what can be freely circulated to everyone at large (the latter), and the one process that underpins pucca food is deep-frying. Savoury snacks are the quintessential examples of pucca. They are largely devoid of moisture, crisp and deep-fried—properties that increase their shelf life and therefore their suitability for wide distribution.
Be it sev, chakli, murukku, nipatt, thattai, chekkalu, seedai or namak para, there is a common algorithm for this category of savoury snack, and it has the following components.
The first is the mix of flours. Depending on what you are making, it’s a mix of two or more of rice flour, gram flour (besan), urad flour, wheat flour and occasionally, millet flours. The flours bring a combination of mostly starch and some protein, and unless one is making a “healthy” version of the snack, it’s the finely-milled flour of the de-husked and roasted grain or legume that is used. But then, calling anything deep-fried “healthy” is the equivalent of adding medicinal herbs to a cigarette, so it’s best to treat these as delicious snacks that are meant to be consumed in moderation.
Also read | The complex, beautiful science of mixing dough
The mix of flours you use subtly alters the flavour of the snack. Gram flour adds a nutty flavour while rice flour adds crunch. Wheat flour adds a bit of chewiness because of gluten and urad is mostly bland but adds protein, which aids in browning reactions.
The second component is the mix of spices and seasoning. Depending on the region, this can vary from red chillies, curry leaves and asafoetida in the south to cumin, ajwain (carom seeds) and pepper in the north. And of course, salt.
The third component is fat, and this is particularly crucial when using wheat flours because fats shorten gluten structures and prevent your snack from becoming too chewy. A fat like butter also adds a rich flavour to the snack. The temperature of the fat used in the mixing process also makes a difference in the texture of the snack. Using hot fat not only gets you a crumbly texture in the finished product but also cooks some of the starches, which is necessary if your snack is on the chubbier side. Hot fat also unlocks spice flavour molecules into your dough, lending it a more intense flavour.
The next component is optional—a leavening agent like baking soda. This is typically added for two reasons. To add a bit of air inside the dough that will prevent it from becoming rock-hard post deep frying, and to also ensure an even brown colouring because soda accelerates the Maillard browning reaction. You can also use a small amount of semolina instead of baking soda. The tiny amount of moisture inside semolina is released only when the dough hits the oil, and this vapour gets stuck inside the snack, lending it a bit of airiness. Rava also adds textural contrast for a complex mouthfeel.
Then comes the most crucial ingredient—water. Too much water will make your fried snack greasy while too little will make it rock hard. The only way to get this right is with lots of practice. The goal is to create a dough that is neither too dry and crumbly nor too sticky, but harder than a chapati or puri dough.
After this, the dough is typically rested for 15-30 minutes so that hydration is uniform. Now, we have to consider the geometry of the savoury snack you want to make. Is it thin or hefty? Cylindrical or flat and circular? Is it laid out in a spiral? There are devices that let you squeeze out these shapes, but unless you plan to make these regularly, just use oiled hands to shape your snacks. The geometry adds to visual appeal but a chakli that resembles the small intestine tastes as good as one laid out in a perfect spiral. Use parchment paper to place the shaped pieces to avoid them sticking to any surface.
Then comes the frying oil temperature—for snacks that are thin (like sev, for instance), use a higher temperature like 170 degrees Celsius. For heftier ones, use a slightly lower temperature like 150 degrees Celsius and a longer amount of frying time. This will ensure that the outside browns evenly while the starches cook inside. When making thicker fried snacks, it’s also a good idea to use hot fat in the dough-making process because it pre-cooks the starches and you avoid the risk of an undercooked centre post-frying.
Snack-making is more science and craft than people give it credit for. You can adjust the flavour of a dal once you’ve cooked it, but savoury fried snacks offer very little margins for error. If you want to get it right, go help your grandmother make them before Diwali and learn through apprenticeship.
Also read | Why pani-puri is a marvel of deep-frying
Krish Ashok is the author of Masala Lab: The Science Of Indian Cooking.