I was granted the gift of a decent ability to remember things. My capacity for recall has served me well enough; through years of English Lit exams, countless passwords and PINs, phone numbers and postal codes, and all the other scraps of information deemed vital these days.

For the longest time, I had my brother's Social Insurance Number memorized. I was without specific reason to do so, I just did.

Mysterious how the mind works. Doubly mysterious how it sometimes chooses to abandon you completely. In my case? That memory of mine has one specific failing, and a funny one at that. Pakoras.

It's not that I've forgotten them, that would be impossible. Those vegetable fritters were one of the reasons that ours was the most popular house for after-school snacks on our street.

My grandmother and mother made them with onions or with sliced potatoes most often, sometimes with cauliflower too. Crisp and tender, touched by spice, they were like onion rings and potato chips and french fries all rolled together, made that much better by the combination.

Sitting at the table, I'd concoct an accompaniment to the pakoras as we waited for them to be cooked. The glass bottle of ketchup and a plastic bottle of chili sauce was all it took. You'd pour some ketchup into a little bowl, then stir in a swirl of firey-hot chili sauce, being as miserly or as generous as you'd like. That's it, that's all, you were ready to go. (This sauce is not at all authentic, but the thing to a six-year-old palate.)

My preferred pakoras were onion ones. They would emerge from the oil open-weaved, with rings of onion coiling around each other. In those few spots where the batter collected, the pakora was soft and fluffy; where the batter was thin, it shattered with a delicate crunch.

Trouble is that Grandma, the maker of superlative pakoras, firmly disavows these lacy versions of my childhood memory as her intended result. For a split second I foolhardily considered a defense of my recollection, but you don't argue with Grandma.

Of course the mistake was mine.

As I examined this lapse in my reminiscence, I had two epiphanies. First, my well-documented greed is probably at the root of this. I wouldn't be surprised if my childhood self (or my adult self for that matter) saw it fit to only select the thinnest, snappiest, pakoras of the bunch; only those ideal specimens would have been squirreled onto my plate.

Second, I shouldn't expect myself to be a faithful narrator to this story. It is inherent to the nature of our most treasured childhood memories that they be viewed through the blurred lens of nostalgia. Of course it would be that in my recollection every pakora was my exact favourite.

Lucky for me, pakoras are not only in my memory. And now that I'm the one at the stove, I can indulge my fancy and make sure that every pakora out of the oil is, in fact, my exact favourite kind. Yes, I know, greedy of me. Again.

But I'll sit with spine straight and head high. To me, these are memory brought to life, or to our plates to be specific, with the bias of sentiment fully, marvelously intact.

INDIAN ONION FRITTERS

Pakoras are often made with a batter that includes a variety of spices and a leavening agent. This is my Grandmother's recipe, who believes that simplicity is best when appreciating the qualities of each ingredient. As I said, you don't want to contest her opinion; I'm smart enough to be a good little granddaughter and report it faithfully.

Since I do deviate from tradition in the way they are shaped, I've called these fritters to avoid any confusion. Ramshackle and rustic, the messier your clumps of onion, the more texture there will be in the finished fritter.

For the full pakora experience of my childhood, the ketchup chili sauce combination is a must.

INGREDIENTS

  • 1/2 cup gram (chickpea) flour
  • 1 small red chili, seeded and minced
  • 2 teaspoons minced cilantro
  • A generous 1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
  • Water
  • Oil for deep frying (peanut, vegetable or canola)
  • 2 medium onions, trimmed, peeled and sliced into thin rings horizontally
  • Salt and fresh lime wedges for serving
  • Ketchup and chili sauce for serving (optional, see above)

METHOD

In a medium bowl, stir together the flour, chili, cilantro and salt. Slowly stir in enough water until the mixture reaches the consistency of whipping (heavy) cream. Beat the batter well, so it is lightened and foamy at the edges. Set aside.

In a heavy-bottomed pot on the stove or in a deep fryer, heat oil to 350°F (175°C). When that's reached temperature, separate the onion layers into individual rings and drop them into the batter, stirring gently to coat. Using a fork, pick up a clump of onion rings and allow the excess batter to drip off.

Carefully drop the tangle of onions into the oil and fry until lightly golden on one side, around 30-40 seconds. Flip the fritter and cook until crisp on the other side. Remove from the oil and drain on a cooling rack set up over newspaper or on some folded paper towels.

Repeat, frying a few at a time, until all the onion and batter is used.

Enjoy immediately, with additional salt sprinkled over and a squeeze of lime juice. Offer a condiment of ketchup blended with chili sauce for dipping.

Serves 2-4, depending on appetite. To be safe, let's say 2.

Notes:

• A small amount of crushed dried red chili can be used in place of the fresh.

• Pakoras can be made with a variety of vegetables. Melissa has some phenomenal versions to offer.

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I will never be a great Indian cook.

I've been set up to fall short of that goal by being born into a family of great Indian cooks. (If I could, I would double underline the word great right there and surround it with a beatific halo of twinkling, sparkling lights, just to give you an approximation of my conviction to that belief.)

As a result of this fortunate misfortune, the Indian meals that come to being under my hands, in my own estimation at least, will never, ever measure up to the meals of my parents and grandparents and aunts and uncles.

Theirs are just so much better. They've absolutely ruined me for anyone else's Indian cooking, even my own.

I do try. The trouble is, even if I meticulously weigh and measure and take note of every single flick of the wrist and dash of spice and cooking time down to the millesecond, I cannot replicate the magic of the food that is served from my parents' kitchen.

I am respectably proficient in the recipes I consider essential to the recreation of childhood meals, and I might even be so bold to call myself good at cooking them. But honestly, if it came down to a bowlful of my channa masala (spiced chickpeas) or a spoonful of Mum's, I would most assuredly pick the latter.

Frustrated and hungry, I branched out on my own. My immediate and extended family is of a diverse enough background that a variety of Indian cuisines are often represented at our table. I took that thought and ran with it - seeking out recipes that had no particular tie to my family but had a general place in the geography of our heritage.

The practice has been a successful one. The dishes have been familiar enough to have an emotional resonance for me, which really, is such an essential part of the way we cook and eat, but yet their unfamiliarity saves them from comparison or prejudice.

I'm not giving up on those family recipes, my word no. But while I'm learning, it's a start.

I fry chopped bindis (okra) among onion and tomatoes, and can stir up a thick gravy for kofta (meatball) curry. I have served generous bowls of peppery Mulligatawny, puréed until velvety smooth (an utter departure from my family's recipe). Then there are recipes like this cauliflower, that isn't classically Indian at all, but retrains enough of that spirit that it feels comfortable to have around. It feels like something I've been eating for years.

When making dal, the ubiquitous stewed lentils that are found throughout India, the dish is usually finished by tempering - a process called tarka (that's the way we pronounce it, but it can also be spelled tadka). It is a last-minute seasoning of the lentils with roasted spices cooked in ghee (clarified butter) or oil (often mustard). Here the aromatic butter is poured over roasted cauliflower, for an unexpected vegetable.

The cauliflower is presented in thick slabs, like a coral specimen from the mysterious deep, pressed under glass with it's spindly-limbs artfully arranged just so. After roasting, even the fibrous stalk looses its tenacity as everything goes soft and sweet. Hot from the oven, the cauliflower gets bathed in butter thick with spice and succulent nuggets of onion. It's taste is so reassuringly that of home to me that I get woozy with nostalgia just thinking about it.

And see in the photographs where the sauce collects and pools? I'll let you know now that you'll want to drag your cauliflower through those collected juices so that every crenulated tip is filled with the piquant liquor.

One swipe, and you'll thank me. Scratch that, no thanks necessary. Just be sure to save me a piece.

ROASTED CAULIFLOWER WITH CUMIN AND CORIANDER BUTTER

The spice blend is called garam masala, from the Hindi words "warm" and "spice"; with masala suggesting a combination of spices rather than a singular. It is without a standard recipe, with each household seemingly with its own version, but the basic components of coriander, cumin, cinnamon and cardamom, along with chilies are fairly universal.

INGREDIENTS

  • 1 medium cauliflower, leaves removed and cut into 3/4-inch vertical slices
  • neutral oil for drizzling
  • salt and freshly-ground black pepper
  • 1-2 dried red chilies, stemmed and broken in two
  • 4 black peppercorns
  • 1 teaspoon coriander seeds
  • 1/2 teaspoon cumin seeds
  • 2 cloves
  • 1-inch piece of cinnamon stick
  • 1/4 teaspoon cardamom seeds
  • 2 tablespoons clarified butter (ghee)
  • 1/2 cup finely diced onion
  • 1/8 teaspoon ground turmeric

METHOD

Preheat an oven to 450°F (230°C), with rack on the lower third.

Drizzle a rimmed baking sheet, lightly with oil. Lay out the cauliflower on the tray and season both sides well with salt and pepper. Roast, turning once, until tender and golden, around 25-30 minutes.

Meanwhile, in a small skillet over medium high heat, dry roast the coriander seeds, cumin seeds, cloves, cinnamon, peppercorns, cardamom and chili until fragrant, tossing or stirring often. They might darken, but you do not want to see smoke or for the spices to catch. Watch them closely. Remove the spices to a spice grinder and allow to cool. Once warm but not hot, process the spices to a fine grind.

In the same skillet, warm the butter over medium heat. Add the onions and cook, stirring often, until translucent and sweet but without colour. Add some of the spice mix (see note below) and turmeric stirring them thoroughly into the butter. Continue to cook the onions and spices for another minute.

When the cauliflower is finished roasting, spoon the butter and onion mixture over. Serve immediately.

Serves 4.

Notes:

• If you prefer, the cauliflower can be cut into florets and then tossed through the butter. Adjust the cooking time accordingly.

• Use as much or as little of the spice blend as suits your taste, a teaspoon or so would be a good starting point. The onion mixture should be well-spiced and pungent, to season the mild vegetable. Any leftover spices can be stored in a sealed container for a week or so.

• If you have a favourite garam masala recipe of your own, feel free to use it here.

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It has only been in the last few years that my father started to foray into the kitchen (save for our childhood favourite of his French toast fingers). But since then, he has taken on the majority of culinary duties, exploring and expanding his repertoire of specialities to include his Thanksgiving turkey roulade, his mahogany-hued beef and broccoli stir fry, and his fabulously decadent caramel custard. But none of these can come close in fame to his true calling card; Indian food.

The French may have their mirepoix (onion, celery, carrot), and Creole cuisine may boast its trinity (onion, celery, green pepper), but in my father's pan there is but one triumvirate - onion, ginger and garlic.

In fact, it is the frequent refrain when I call to ask him for recipes; "start with onion, ginger, garlic ...." As soon as the three hit the heat the scent immediately brings me back to thoughts of my parents home. Slowly cooking on the stove, this fragrant tangle forms the basis of much of the Indian menu; the backbone flavour of many dishes, both meat based and vegetarian.

This succulent spread of sweet blackened eggplant and barely-caramelized onions is lifted by handfuls of grassy cilantro and spiky rings of green chili. Simple to make yet boundlessly versatile, it can be served as a vegetable offering in an Indian meal, combined with spiced ground meat (keema) for something more substantial, mixed with thick yogurt and topped with ground toasted cumin for a dip, or simply spread on griddled flatbread for a quick snack.

My father's eggplant spread
His own recipe

Ingredients
Canola oil or other neutral oil
1 medium eggplant (aubergine)
1 large onion, cut lengthways then into thin half moons
2 teaspoons ginger, grated (see note)
3 cloves garlic, grated
1 small green chili, sliced finely
1/2 cup cilantro leaves, coarsely chopped
salt to taste

Use a few drops of canola oil to lightly grease the skin of the eggplant. Over the dying coals of a charcoal fire, place the whole eggplant on the grill. Cook, turning occasionally, until the eggplant has shrivelled and blackened. The flesh should yield easily to pressure, and most of its moisture will have cooked away. Do not panic if the skin splits while cooking, this is perfectly fine. Remove from the heat and set the eggplant aside to cool.

In a medium saucepan, heat about 2 tablespoons of oil over medium-low heat. Add the onions, ginger and garlic. Cook, stirring often, for about 10-15 minutes or until the onions are translucent and the garlic is sweet. Add the green chili and cilantro, cooking for 5 minutes more.

Using a spoon or your fingers, peel away the skin from the eggplant. Scoop the flesh into the pan with the aromatics, breaking it up and stirring to combine. Season lightly with salt. Increase the heat to medium and cook the eggplant for 10 more minutes, or until it begins to slightly darken in colour and any residual moisture has dissipated. Check for seasoning and serve.

Makes about 1 cup.

Notes:
• My parents store their ginger in the freezer; it keeps forever it seems and can be easily grated while frozen. The measurement in this recipe is using frozen ginger, and may vary if using fresh.
• Carefully remove the seeds and ribs (white pithy veins) from the green chili for those prefer less heat.