Out of the couple of hundred books I have on the subject of food, ingredients and cookery, I had never come across one where the subject of onions was dealt with as exhaustively as in Asma’s Indian Kitchen. The author, Asma Khan, London-based founder and cook of Darjeeling Express, who writes in the introductory chapter that cutting and frying onions is an art.
Before I started reading what she had to say on the subject, I tended not to take much notice of onions. In 1993, the year my son was born, I was outside my house in a quiet corner of Agra, buying vegetables from the cart that cycled past every morning. All the housewives in the neighbourhood would buy their day’s vegetables, including Mrs. Garg, who lived in the bungalow opposite ours. It was in the first few days after the earthquake in Latur that killed almost 10,000 people in that area. “How unfortunate for you that you just have to buy onions, no matter what the price is,” she murmured, as if in sympathy. At that time, a kilo was selling for Rs 70, an extortionately high sum for 1993. Her implication was that ‘pure’ vegetarian households were not held to ransom by the vagaries of nature because they did not consume onions, and asafetida was a much more stable product than an allium! All those years ago, the price of onions began to stabilize only after the next crop was sown and after parliamentarians made political points by wearing garlands of onions in the House!
In the week since I have been devouring Asma’s Indian Kitchen, I have scarcely stopped thinking about the allium that is at the top (or bottom) of every householder’s shopping list in most parts of the country. It is the character actor in preparations as wide apart as dals, vegetable ‘bhujias’, pakoras, gravied dishes, meat curries, biryanis and pulaos: they give a dish its body, sweetness or character, yet they’re always firmly in the background.
Asma Khan spends one full page on how to cut and fry onions. After peeling them, she tells you how to cut them evenly, from top to bottom. That means that one slice gives you the entire cross-section of the bulb. Evenness is prized above thinness, because of the all-important timing factor of frying. You’re supposed to heat a skillet of oil to as hot as it will go, then tip in the onions and stir gently from time to time, after adding salt to cause the onions to lose their moisture and hence brown faster. Half an hour is a reasonable estimate of how long onions will take to brown. I have spent whole evenings on Twitter convincing newbie cooks that it is simply not possible to brown onions in five minutes, no matter what the cookbook says. Asma’s Indian Kitchen tells its reader to scoop up the onions as rapidly as possible, arrange them on a plate in a layer to encourage crisping, and use once they’re cool and easily crushable into powder between the fingers.
Birishta, as crisp fried onions are called, are central to Muslim cooking in most parts of the country. Indeed, many home-cooks sell birishta by the kilo, ready to be sprinkled onto biryani, or crushed into qormas.
The specific term birishta and its use at a later stage in the process of cookery is a trademark of the Muslim community; indeed, even the slicing of onions is a fine art in some families. Persian scholar Salma Husain tells me of the time when she was newly married and her mother-in-law was aghast at the way the young bride lay an onion down on its side on the kitchen counter to slice it. Her mother-in-law used to hold an onion in one hand and slice it with a knife held in the other, in the air! Each slice, according to Husain, was as thin as paper!
But the humble onion has several tricks up its sleeve. First of all is their provenance. Nasik onions are the best quality one can find in Delhi, according to Kamal Kumar Veer of the Gurugram restaurant Kitchen of Awadh. You can peel each onion and find a single bulb sprouting from the basal disc. In a household where one or two onions are used in a day, the phenomenon of double onions may not be a very big deal but in a commercial establishment, the wastage from tough layers of double onions and layers that have black mould can add up to 50%, which is huge. With Nasik onions, on the other hand, the wastage is less than 40%. A single onion slice can yield several neat rings for the ‘salad’ that, along with green chutney, is de rigueur at most North Indian eateries. Peeling and slicing or chopping onions in quantities for the restaurant trade will result in the loss of man hours unless the onions are of uniform shape. Madhya Pradesh, Bihar and Rajasthan are other states that produce onions, yet savvy restaurateurs stay away from them.
Boiling an onion is not a process that many households have attempted or even heard of, but boiled onion paste is part of the mise-en-place of every Indian restaurant in India and abroad. Whole peeled onions are placed in a pressure cooker with a cup or two of water and given two whistles or until they become soft enough to smash with a wooden spoon. Strained through a double fold of muslin, the paste becomes dry enough to saute as the base of Bhuna Gosht. It can also be used, a tablespoon at a time, as a thickener of gravy. Its inherently sweet overtones can be neutralized by the use of a souring agent, of which tomato is one example.
Rocky Mohan of Mohan Meakin the makers of the iconic Old Monk Rum, and a cooking enthusiast with several classic cookbooks to his credit, says that how you use onions, in what quantity and at what stage of the cooking process will determine their taste and texture at the end. You can use an onion for flavour or richness, for body, or for sweetness.
Onions add sweetness and texture to pakodas, you can show off your expertise by making onion kheer where you first leach out every vestige of hotness from the aliums before cooking them in sweetened milk. But how do communities across Maharashtra use onions? Aditya Mehendale’s peerless book, Rare Gems from Maharashtra, uses roasted whole onions in some recipes, primarily in the Kolhapur preparations. Unpeeled onions are burnt on a flame till blackened, whereupon they are peeled, chopped and used as required. The quintessential farmer’s lunch in many parts of Maharashtra is a whole onion and a bajra roti. When he is ready to eat, the farmer whacks the onion with his fist and shatters it, giving rise to the name mukka pyaz. Onions broken open like that somehow never have any pungence at all: try it. It actually works!
Hardly any of us lose much sleep over onions, though we include them in our shopping list throughout the year. It is only when prices go up sharply that we give a second thought to this most elemental ingredient. However, recently the image of a farmer throwing his onion crop in helpless rage when the per kilo price sank to Re 1 (while we paid Rs 35 that week) is one that significantly closed the gap between the grower and his customers around the country.