Corruption, incompetence, nepotism and institutional incompetence are some of the things that may or may not determine the future of a government in India.
Unlike the onion. With onions, there is no such uncertainty. Shake the nation’s faith in its ability to provide affordable onions copiously, and a government is as good as gone. When we went to press, a kilogram of onions in Mumbai cost anywhere between Rs65 and Rs80. On 6 January, Pakistani authorities stopped 300 India-bound trucks of onions at the Wagah border to control rising prices in their own country.
India is a sovereign, socialist, secular, onion-obsessed nation. Don’t mess with our bulbs.
But, in fact, this is not a purely Indian phenomenon. The onion might not have the starchy heft of potatoes, the flavoursome gravy-ty of tomato or the satisfying, eyesight-redeeming crunch of carrot. But it is among the most popular vegetables in the world. Depending on whom you ask, the onion is somewhere in the top five of all vegetables when it comes to share of households who consume it and the quantity consumed. Not only does everyone buy it, they also eat lots of it.
Therefore, the obsession with onions is not just an Indian thing like, say, the tendency to wrap remote controls in plastic sheets for permanent preservation, but it is a global phenomenon with a history as old as humanity itself.
If you are the religious type, you might be pleased to know that the onion finds a mention in the Old Testament, in the Vedas, the Puranas and several other ancient Hindu texts.
But one of the most popular historical references to the onion is also now widely believed to be a false one. Greek historian Herodotus lived five centuries before Christ and is often called the father of history for his pioneering work in writing down the things people did. Herodotus, however, had a certain carefree approach to his work. He had no qualms whatsoever in writing down things that he had not seen, but what other people described to him. Thus becoming the first person in recorded history to share a “this happened to a friend of my friend” type anecdote.
Stinking: (clockwise from top) A worker packs onions at a wholesale market in Chandigarh (photo: Ajay Verma/Reuters); French post-Impressionist artist Cézanne’s Still Life with Onions (de Young Museum/Bloomberg); and the blooming onion (Kevin Pham, www.flickr.com/photos/phamuk)
Among his more popular anecdotes is that Egyptian pharaohs spent 9 tonnes worth of gold buying onions to feed labourers who built the famous pyramids (onions have never been cheap.) But later, historians have said that in his enthusiasm to retell stories, Herodotus may have repeated apocryphal stories told to him by dodgy tourist guides. In this case, the onion fact, it is suspected, may have been made up by a guide who was interpreting hieroglyphics on pyramid walls.
Given its rich history and widespread popularity, you’d think that mankind, by now, would have developed a consensus on the onion’s impact on the consumer. Anything but.
While some people believed, and still do, that onions have a cooling, antiseptic, even medicinal effect on the body, others believe they are nothing but little spheres of pure evil. The latter include Jains, some Vaishnavites and other sects and denominations. Aristotle, the famous Greek philosopher, was also a supporter of bizarre medicinal “ideas”, some of which involved the onion. For instance, to help mothers who’ve just given birth, Aristotle recommends applying, to the womb region, onions powdered with oil, and cinnamon. And if that doesn’t drive you to a proper doctor, this will: For patients suffering from piles, Aristotle recommends taking an onion, boring a hole through it, filling it with oil, roasting it, then crushing the onion and applying it to the area in question.
Detractors believe onion is a tamasik food that creates heat, aggression and passions in the body. Thereby leading to lusty behaviour. Indeed in The Perfumed Garden, a 15th century Arabic erotic manual, author Muhammad ibn Muhammad al-Nafzawi refers to a certain Abou el Heiloukh whose “member remained erect for thirty days because he did eat onions”.
This might explain that gentle glow of satisfaction that follows a hearty lunch of Onion Uthapam at Café Mysore in Mumbai’s Matunga area. Last we checked, the Mysore Rava Dosa there had no onions, given the scarcity. It was being compensated for by a generous quantity of cashew.
Gentlemen may be advised to be cautious while ordering an “onion bloom” in certain American and Australian restaurants. The “bloom” is an entire onion, cut carefully and dipped in a rich eggy batter and then deep-fried whole. During the frying process, the onion’s layers open up into a glorious golden flower-like shape. The bloom is then served hot with a dipping sauce. Not convinced? In 2008, Men’s Health magazine called the onion bloom the second worst food, and absolutely worst starter, in the US. The average bloom weighed in at 2,500 calories and more than 200g of fat.
Perfect before a night of passionate lovemaking, pillow talk followed by relaxing piles-free cardiac arrest in your sleep.
Closer to home, onions are consumed in a variety of forms. Most noticeably in do piaza dishes that use double the usual quantity of onion, usually in both fried and boiled form. Do piazas, like baltis and tikka masalas, are among the most popular South Asian dishes eaten in the UK and other countries. A popular legend is that the dish was created or discovered by Abul Hasan, one of the nine navaratnas of Mughal emperor Akbar’s court. So obsessed did Abul Hasan get with the dish that he was popularly known as Mullah Do Piaza. The Telecom Raja of the Mughal age.
These days, onions have pretty much become a part of our daily diet. From onions in your omelettes for breakfast, to onions in your raita for dinner, the vegetable is impossible to avoid.
But you are not without alternatives. Other vegetables from the same species as onion— Allium—include leeks, shallots and garlic. You could try using any of them. Alternatively, you could try using asafoetida. One popular Vaishnavite cooking website recommends lightly cooking cabbage with asafoetida to get something that tastes exactly like onion.
For true onion connoisseurs, however, there is no substitute for the real thing. In which case, we must patiently wait for prices to drop before once again tucking into this most unique, historic and versatile vegetable. No wonder they say that the onion is among the most complicated vegetables—it has many, many layers to it.
The no-onion twist
If the bulbs are making you cry, Bengali grannies can offer solace
‘Niramish maangsho’, or vegetarian mutton, is an oxymoron if there ever was one. But the traditional Bengali curry, usually offered as ‘prasad’ to goddess Kali or Durga, is a staple of every housewife’s repertoire. The ‘niramish’ or vegetarian part of the dish’s name derives from the fact that it doesn’t use onion or garlic, both considered non-vegetarian in a Bengali kitchen. In fact, even Kashmiri Pandit cuisine lists several ways to cook mutton without onion or garlic. So despair not.
Rajyasree Sen, chef-restaurateur, Brown Sahib, New Delhi, shares her grandmother’s recipe of ‘niramish maangsho’:
Thamma’s piyaj-chhara maangsho (Grandma’s mutton sans onion and garlic)
500g mutton, cubed
500ml hot water
3 tsp turmeric
1 tsp salt
1 tbsp mustard oil
2 tbsp ‘ghee’, or refined oil
3-4 bay leaves
4 tsp cumin, freshly ground
4 tsp coriander, freshly ground
4 tsp ginger, ground
4 tsp mustard, ground
2 tsp red chillies, ground
‘Garam masala’ powder made with 2 cardamoms, 4 cloves and a 3-inch piece of cinnamon
Marinate the mutton in yogurt, turmeric, a teaspoon of salt and mustard oil. Refrigerate for an hour.
Heat 1 tablespoon ‘ghee’ or oil in a thick-bottomed pan and throw in the bay leaves. Add the meat with the marinade. Cook on high flame for 3-4 minutes. Reduce the flame to medium, cover and leave for 5-6 minutes. Once the meat lets out a little moisture, add all the spices other than ‘garam masala’. Keep stirring till the moisture evaporates. Add the hot water, cover and simmer till the meat is tender.
In another pan, heat a teaspoon of ‘ghee’ and stir in the ‘garam masala’ powder. Pour it over the meat and cover immediately to trap the fragrance.
Serve it with ‘luchis’ (‘puris’), ‘parathas’ or steamed rice.
— Amrita Roy
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