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In praise of the onion

Whenever people would ask me what my favourite vegetable was, I would answer without the slightest hesitation. “The potato, of course,” I would say.

This would usually provoke boring and preachy lectures about how the potato is not really a vegetable at all.


It is, in fact, a starch, I would be told in reproving tones. (Yeah. And technically, the tomato is a fruit. But so what? We treat both as vegetables.)


   I have now got so bored of these potato-is-not-a-vegetable lectures that I have formulated a new response. When people now ask me what my favourite vegetable is, I look them straight in the eye and say, ‘onion’.


   This causes almost as much consternation as my love of potatoes does. The difference is that while the potato has got such a bad rap that it is easy to be disapproving about it, the onion is hard to diss on health grounds. (In fact, one Japanese study even suggested that onions may help people with diabetes.) And the usual objections that people have come up with—that it is actually a bulb, it is an allium—are nonsense because there is no getting around the fact that scientifically, the onion is a vegetable.


   The only objection that has an intuitive appeal (though no scientific basis) is that an onion is a flavouring, not a vegetable. We use onions to flavour things, I keep being told, not as vegetables in themselves. Others say, “In that case you would have to say that even garlic is a vegetable”, as though this destroys the argument in favour of the hapless onion.


   In actual fact, garlic is also a vegetable, no matter how wrong that may sound intuitively to some people. Science is clear. Garlic is a vegetable that belongs to the larger onion family. (Actually, I am now beginning to wonder if I should have said ‘garlic’ rather than ‘onion’ when asked about my favourite vegetable…)


   I do know what people are getting at, though. All too often, we use onions just as we use garlic, to infuse hot oil before we add the primary ingredients in a recipe or to flavour dishes in other ways.


   But the thing is: I like the onion on its own, not just as a flavouring. I can eat onions raw and frequently do, especially when I eat an Indian meal. In my view, a good Indian meal is incomplete unless you bite into a crunchy slice of onion and let its juices fill your mouth.


   I recognise that there are many people who would disagree with this on religious grounds. There is an ancient Hindu idea that onion can inflame the sense and lead to naughty consequences. (I wish!) And many of my Jain ancestors would not eat onions because of religious injunctions. I respect their reservations, but I do wonder if my grandfather and his forefathers knew what they were missing! (Even today, restaurants use ‘Jain’ as a prefix for dishes from which most of the flavour has been extracted, as in ‘Jain Pizza’ or even ‘Jain Bhelpuri’.)


   But those of us who are not held back by religious restrictions will know how much power the onion has: it can transform a meal. In fact, there was a time when, if you went to a restaurant (especially one that served North Indian food), it would be normal to offer ‘Sirka Pyaaz’ (vinegared onions) as an accompaniment along with the pickles and the papad. Now alas, we have come to regard raw onions as being too unsophisticated for the table at fancy restaurants.


"So, even when onions seem to be the stars of the show in French cuisine, they are merely the vegetarian sidekicks to beef or pork."

   This reflects a Western prejudice against the smell of onions. In the Anglo-Saxon world, the French are often made fun of for their love of onions and a popular caricature has a Frenchman in a striped shirt riding a bicycle with a garland of dried onions around his neck. Onions, Anglo-Saxons have taught us, are impolite. The smell is too disgusting. If you are going on a date and eat onions, expect not to be kissed.


   Frankly, even during my misspent youth, I would never have kissed a woman who hated onions. And I don’t see why we should adopt Western prejudices. I will always ask for kachcha pyaaz at an Indian restaurant anywhere in the world and I enjoy the sharp flavour and textural richness that onions bring to our food.


   It isn’t just my love of raw onions. It is also that we Indians use onions in most things we cook. And we also like cooked onions when they are the stars of the show, not just supporting players. One of my favourite things in the world is the Maharashtrian kaanda bhajiya. It makes the North Indian pyaaz pakora look like a poor cousin. This bhajiya consists of strips of onion covered in besan and then deep fried till they are crispy. You can sprinkle a dry lasan chutney on top, but usually, the bhajiyas are so good that they need no extra flavouring.


   And then, there are onions cooked as a sabzi. When I was young, my mother used to make what we Gujaratis call kanda-bataka nu shaak. This was just chunks of potatoes and slices of onion cooked together. The potatoes gave you something to bite into while the onions provided both crunch and a certain sweetness. My wife still makes a Maharashtrian green onion sabzi (she got the recipe from our friend Manik Karanjawala) and it is one of my favourite dishes.


   Or what about these little onions that go into sambhar? Many people will say that the drumstick is the king of the sambhar vegetables .But for me it is the onions. I love the way that, if you pop one into your mouth, each layer begins to melt away, releasing a seductive mix of sambhar and onion flavour.


   Despite their reputation as onion fiends, the French are more restrained in their love for onions. Even dishes that have ‘onion’ in their names have their secrets. A French Onion Soup is based on caramelising a mound of onions, but the liquid part is basically beef consommé. Because they are French, waiters don’t usually tell people that it is a beef soup when they order it.


   There was a phase in my life when I was vegetarian on Tuesdays, which was okay in most countries but posed huge problems in France. I remember once ordering an onion tart in a Paris restaurant and loving it. But, I was worried about the little bits of a piggy-tasting substance that I kept biting into. I asked the waiter what it was. “Ham”, he said shortly. “But isn’t this an onion tart?” “Yes”, he responded. “In France we make onion tart with ham.”


   So, even when onions seem to be the stars of the show in French cuisine, they are merely the vegetarian sidekicks to beef or pork.


   I guess the French don’t know how to use onions just for themselves. Indian cuisine, on the other hand, gets the best out of the onion.


   Consider the sophistication of a Kerala dish like Ulli Theeyal, which takes shallots or little onions and makes them the star of a gravy where coconut, coriander, chillies and methi mingle together in tamarind water.


   So yes, the onion is a vegetable. You can make curries or sabzis with it. Or best of all, you can just bite into one and let its juices tantalise your taste-buds.


   That, my friends, is my kind of vegetable!




  • Rao 02 May 2022

    The Onion is an amazing vegetable. The Indian red onion used across India has less water content & significantly more flavor than the Onions found in North America or Europe. I could never identity Onion flavor separately in any Continental or American cuisine but in India.., the Onion family is very prominent which I really love & miss in the US. There is also "Terroir" in different parts of India, macro & micro climates which adds to the Onion flavors.

  • Kavita Pandit 30 Apr 2022

    Basically : jab pyaaz khaya to Darna kya ??! Jab pyaaz khaya to Darna kya?? Pyaaz khaya koi mirchi nahi, chup chup muh mein dalna kya?? Jab pyaaz khaya to Darna kya??!! ??

Posted On: 29 Apr 2022 12:12 PM
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