Whenever people asked me what was my favorite vegetable, I answered without hesitation. “The potato, of course,” I said.
This would usually cause boring, preachy lectures about the potato not really being a vegetable. It is, in fact, a starchy food, I would be told in a disapproving tone. (Yeah. And technically, the tomato is a fruit. So what? We treat both like vegetables.)
I’m now so sick of these lectures about the potato not being a vegetable that I’ve formulated a new answer. When people ask me now what my favorite vegetable is, I look them straight in the eye and say “onion”.
It causes almost as much consternation as my love of potatoes. The difference is that while the potato has such a bad reputation that it’s easy to disapprove of it, the onion is hard to criticize for health reasons. (In fact, a Japanese study even suggested that onions might help people with diabetes.) scientifically, onions are a vegetable.
The only objection that has intuitive appeal (though no scientific basis) is that an onion is a flavoring, not a vegetable. We use onions to flavor things, I am constantly told, not as vegetables on their own. Others say, “In that case, even garlic would have to be said to be a vegetable,” as if that would destroy the argument for the unfortunate onion.
In fact, garlic is also a vegetable, as untrue as it may seem intuitively to some people. The science is clear. Garlic is a vegetable that belongs to the large onion family. (In fact, I’m now starting to wonder if I should have said ‘garlic’ instead of ‘onion’ when I was asked what my favorite vegetable was…)
I know what people mean, though. Too often we use onions like we use garlic, to infuse hot oil before adding the main ingredients of a recipe or to flavor dishes in other ways.
But the thing is, I love onion on its own, not just as a flavoring. I can and do eat raw onions often, especially when eating an Indian meal. In my opinion, a good Indian meal is incomplete unless you bite into a crisp slice of onion and let its juices fill your mouth.
I recognize that there are many people who would disagree with this on religious grounds. There is an ancient Hindu idea that onion can inflame the senses and lead to adverse consequences. (I wish!) And many of my Jain ancestors would not eat onions due to religious injunctions. I respect their reservations, but I wonder if my grandfather and his ancestors knew what they were missing! (Still today, restaurants use ‘Jain’ as a prefix for dishes from which most of the flavor has been extracted, as in ‘Jain Pizza’ or even ‘Jain Bhelpuri’.)
But those of us who aren’t held back by religious restrictions will know what 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 was normal to offer ‘Sirka Pyaaz’ (vinegar onions) as a side dish with the pickles and papad. Now, alas, we have come to view raw onions as too simple for the fancy restaurant table.
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 cartoon depicts a Frenchman in a striped shirt riding a bicycle with a garland of dried onions around his neck. Onions, the Anglo-Saxons have taught us, are rude. The smell is too disgusting. If you go on a date and eat onions, expect not to be kissed.
Frankly, even during my wasted 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 order kachcha pyaaz in an Indian restaurant anywhere in the world and enjoy the sharp flavor and textural richness that onions bring to our food.
It’s not just my love of raw onions. It’s also that we Indians use onions in most things we cook. And we also like Baked Onions when they’re the stars of the show, not just the supporting players. One of my favorite things in the world is Maharashtrian kaanda bhajiya. This makes the North Indian pyaaz pakora look like a poor cousin. This bhajiya consists of onion strips covered in besan and then fried until crispy. You can sprinkle a dry lasan chutney on top, but usually bhajiyas are so good they don’t need any additional flavoring.
And then there are the onions cooked like a sabzi. When I was young, my mother did what we Gujaratis call kanda-bataka nu shaak. It was just potato chunks and onion slices cooked together. The potatoes gave you something to chew on while the onions provided both crunch and some sweetness. My wife always makes Maharashtrian scallion sabzi (she got the recipe from our friend Manik Karanjawala) and it’s one of my favorite dishes.
Or what about those little onions that go into the sambhar? Many people would say drumstick is the king of sambhar vegetables. But for me it’s the onions. I love how if you put one in your mouth, each layer begins to melt, releasing an enticing blend of sambhar and onion flavors.
Despite their reputation as onion lovers, the French are more restrained in their love for onions. Even dishes that have “onion” in their name have their secrets. A French onion soup is based on caramelizing a mound of onions, but the liquid part is basically beef consommé. Because they’re French, the waiters don’t usually tell people it’s beef soup when they order it.
There was a phase in my life where I was vegetarian on Tuesdays, which was fine in most countries but posed huge problems in France. I remember once ordering an onion tart in a Parisian restaurant and loving it. But, I was worried about little bits of a pig-tasting substance that I kept biting into. I asked the server what it was. “Ham,” he said briefly. “But isn’t it an onion pie?” “Yes,” he replied. “In France we make onion tart with ham.”
So, even though onions seem to be the stars of French cuisine, they are just the vegetarian sidekicks of beef or pork.
I guess the French don’t know how to use onions just for themselves. Indian cuisine, on the other hand, makes the most of onion.
Consider the sophistication of a Kerala dish like Ulli Theepal, which takes shallots or pearl onions and makes them the star of a sauce where coconut, coriander, chillies and methi mingle in the water. of tamarind.
So yes, the onion is a vegetable. You can make curries or sabzis with it. Or better yet, you can just bite into one and let its juices delight your taste buds.
That, my friends, is my kind of vegetable!
The opinions expressed by the columnist are personal
From HT Brunch, April 30, 2022
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