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The Onion Sutra – A Tale of Spice & Intrigue
Onions often don’t get much respect – they are the Rodney Dangerfield of Indian cooking – but try imagining some of your favorite dishes without onions and you realize you’ve long taken this pungent vegetable for granted.
After all, what would bhel puri be without onions? Chole Bature without rings of raw onions? A Rogan Josh with the onions missing? Take away the onions from these delicacies, and it’s like a Technicolor world has suddenly been washed out and turned black and white.
So here’s a warning! Do NOT Separate an Indian from his Onions! It’s the one ingredient that no self-respecting desi cook would want to be without; whether you are whipping up a Mughal feast or a poor man’s meal – onions are absolutely necessary. In fact, a shortage of onions can cause a near revolution in India!
“Every time, the price of onions goes high, Delhi comes to a standstill because onions, potatoes and tomatoes are the backbone of Indian cooking,” says the noted chef Suvir Saran, author of ‘American Masala’.
In fact, during an onion crisis, a newspaper report noted that “India consumes on an average 40 lakh tons of onion a year and the projected imports of around 13,000 tons, of which 3000 tons has been sought by Delhi, would meet only a day’s demand,” Nor were massive imports from Iran the answer because according to shopkeepers people wanted their pungent red Indian onions and not the little bland white ones being imported from Iran, Oman and Dubai.
Be it a Mutton Biryani or Achari Aloo, onions are always in the background, making the dish what it is. Once in a while onions have a lead role, such as in onion bhajjias where the succulent, tangy sliced onions dipped in a batter of besan are deep fried into crisp fritters, to be savored with mint chutney. More often than not, though, onions are invisible artistes – you don’t see them but you know the show holds up because of them.The onion is known by many names in India – ulli in Oriya, villi in Telegu, erangayam in Tamil, eerulli in Malayalam, neerulli in Kanad, kanda in Marathi, dungli and kando in Gujarati and piaz in Hindi.
According to Suraj Bhan Dahiya of Agriculture Journal, it is one of the oldest vegetables in India and is cultivated throughout the country but Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, Bihar and Andhra Pradesh are the main onion-producing states with Nasik, the biggest onion market of the country generally controlling onion prices and supply.
According to Dahiya, Indian onions run the gamut of colors and taste and varieties include red, white and yellow globe, white Patna, Large red, Patna red, Nasik red, Yagiri or Bellary red and Dhulia. The more exotic varieties are white Portugal, silver skin, Australian brown sweet Spanish, Red Italian, California Early Red, Yellow Bermuda, Ebenezer and Mountain Danvers.
He says: “The white skinned varieties are mild and good flavored as compared with the red varieties that are relatively more pungent but keep better owing to the presence of catrechol and protocatechic acid in the skin.”Mad as Indians are over onions, the country which boasts the highest per capita consumption of onions, surprisingly, is not India. That honor goes to Libya, with over 66.8 pounds of onions consumed per person each year. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), India is the world’s second largest producer of onions (China is first), followed by US, Turkey and Pakistan. Fresh onions are being exported from India to many countries including Bangladesh, Malaysia, UAE, Sri Lanka and Bahrain.
In Egypt, onions can be traced back to 3500 B.C, and were so valued that they were buried along with the Pharaohs. In the Middle Ages in Europe onions were a staple for rich and poor, and were regarded as a cure for headaches and hair loss – and get this, were also used in lieu of wedding gifts and rent!! Hmmm, wonder if we could try to pay that Manhattan studio apartment rent in onions?
Onions: A Love-Hate RelationshipAn interesting aspect is Indians’ love-hate relationship with the onions. Some communities can’t do without onions and others won’t touch it with a ten foot pole. As the Chinese traveler Hiuen Tsang noted in his visits to India between 629 and 645 AD: “Onions and garlic are little known, and few people eat them; if anyone uses them for food, they are expelled beyond the walls of the town.”
T. Achaya in Indian Food: A Historical Companion notes that onions were not mentioned in Vedic literature till 2nd century BC and then as despised foods which were forbidden to those seeking an austere life. Ayurveda regards onions as rajasic and tamasic, leading to passion and ignorance, and not suitable for those trying to meditate and lead a pure life. Onions are also thought to be an aphrodisiac and so not suitable for those seeking spirituality.Many Vaishnavas, Buddhists and Jains stay away from onions while Punjabis, Sindhis, and Delhiwallahs have an absolute passion for them. This passion can be credited to the cuisine of the Mughals which was rich and used onions in many meat dishes and biryanis. A dish in which onions are major players is the Do Piazza ( twice fried onions), and this can be chicken, mutton or vegetables.
“In this dish, it’s all about the onions,” says Saran. “My mother used to make this dish with matter and onions –– it’s the most beautiful green pea curry that you can have. It’s all about the sweetness of the onion and the peas, and the acid and the sour that comes from the tomatoes.”
The Punjabis use the onions as the thickener, as the savory flavor so they contrast a dish’s sweetness by browning the onions, explains Saran. The non- Punjabis use hing to get the onion-garlic flavor that all North Indian Punjabi curries have, while still other dishes use poppy seeds, sesame seeds, and ground spices of other kinds which would be cooked in the sauce to thicken the sauce base.Onions are certainly king in Punjabi and Sindhi cuisine. The kebabs and curries of North India and the onion laden mutton and chicken ‘sail’ dishes of the Sindhis are legendary. The community can’t get enough of onions and even vegetarian dishes like Sindhi sai bhaji (spinach and vegetable stew) or sail mani ( rotis cooked in a mint sauce) use ample onions.
Saran himself is a lover of onions: “To me there’s nothing more beautiful than crispy, cold crunchy red onions with some fresh lime and cayenne – it’s the most beautiful condiment, especially when served with chole bature.” He points out that since Indian cuisine doesn’t have lettuce based salads, radish, tomatoes and cucumbers are the ingredients of Indian salads, along with crisp onion rings. A cooling salad like this goes perfectly with spicy Indian meals.
Asked if a lot of onions were cooked in his Brahmin household, and Saran says, “Absolutely. We make sauces with onions and tomatoes – dum ka masala – but only in certain styles of cooking. Not every dish on the table has to have onions. We always knew the dishes with the onions were more flavorful and more fancy dishes, and the simple dishes were made without onions. Still in a home where onions are used, the majority of the food is cooked without onions – that’s the paradox.”While onions are a mainstay in meat dishes, some vegetarian dishes are also greatly enhanced by onions. Saran recalls his mother’s rajma (kidney beans) with the onions bhunoed very dark and enriched with tomatoes. Another royal dish was the one made by his Brahmin cook, Panditji. This was called khilwan urad ki daal. It was cooked like a pullao, so each grain of the daal is separate and perfectly cooked, almost like rice itself.
“It’s yellow with the addition of turmeric but it’s sprinkled with deep fried, caramelized onion and to this day, it’s my favorite lentil ever,” recalls Saran. “When my father and I wanted the one dish which made us both smile, we’d ask my grandmother to tell Panditji to make this. It is phenomenal and even in America when I make it in my cooking class – my students just melt and have a breakdown because of that lentil dish!”
Happily for Indian-Americans, America has a healthy supply of onions available in fresh, frozen, canned, pickled, and dehydrated forms. Onions come in three colors – yellow, red, and white. Approximately 87 percent of the crop is devoted to yellow onion production, with about 8 percent red onions and 5 percent white onions.
Indian-Americans are possibly the only community who buy their red onions in the ten pound sacs and Indian grocery stores are probably the only supermarkets that sell them in such big quantities. For the busy onion-addicts there are also bags of deep fried dehydrated onions from both India and Pakistan: throw in a spoonful with tomatoes into a pot simmering on the stove and you instantly have thick onion gravy.
The Benefits of Onions, Aside from the TearsAccording to the National Onion Association, yellow onions are full-flavored and are a reliable standby for cooking almost anything. The red onion, with its wonderful color, is a good choice for fresh uses or in grilling and char-broiling. White onions are the traditional onion used in classic Mexican cuisine. They have a golden color and sweet flavor when sautéed.
The good news is that not only do onions taste great but are actually good for you. In India as early as the sixth century B.C., the medical treatise Charaka, Sanhita noted that the onion was good for digestion, the heart, eyes and joints.
The National Onion Association has all the health benefits of onions at its fingertips: Onions are rich in powerful sulfur-containing compounds that are responsible for their pungent odors and for many of their health-promoting effects. They are rich in chromium, a trace mineral that helps cells respond to insulin, plus vitamin C, and numerous flavonoids, like quercetin. Onions are supposed to be effective against the common cold, heart disease, diabetes and osteoporosis. They contain anti-inflammatory, anti-cholesterol, anticancer, and antioxidant components such as quercetin.Indians love their onion chutney, murabas and kachumbar and pickled onions. In fact, in the famous Moti Mahal restaurant in Old Delhi all the rich kebabs and tandoori foods were served with wonderful, tangy pink onions and the tradition continues. A bite of these onions just made the succulent meat dishes taste all the better.
From the dish of the Kings to the poorest of the poor in small villages – the onion is what brings a shine to the day. When villagers have nothing else, they will fall back on an onion and a roti.
Says Saran, “It’s called Mukhewali (punch) pyaz –– they give it a punch and crack the onion with their fist and the oils and the juices come out; they will take hare mirchi or green chilli and a roti with it – and that’s their meal.” The roti is a hathwali roti, shaped by hand rather than a rolling pin. It is thick and filling and eaten with a red onion, punched and succulent, it has all the drama of a great meal.
Onions may make you weep, but as addicts will agree, they are worth it.
© Lavina Melwani (Updated in 2017)
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