Bhelpuri without finely chopped onions, kanda vada minus the kanda that gives it its name, mutton do pyaza sans the pyaz... where would life be without the sweetness and crunch of the bulb that adds
flavour and texture to your dishes? We might soon find out if onion traders go ahead with their planned strike from July 10.
"Traditionally, India is a storehouse of recipes that can be made without onions. The onion came to Indian cuisine later as it is considered to be heat inducing. Kashmiri Brahmins, Marwaris and Jains cook their meals without using onion and garlic. South Indian dishes can also be made without onions," says Rushina Ghildiyal, food writer and consultant. "According to the scriptures, onions have aphrodisiac like qualities and thus widows are given food prepared without onions or garlic," adds Purva Davjekar, an engineer and keen cook.
Non vegetarians need not despair if onions disappear. "Mutton rogan josh is prepared in the juice of the mutton and onions are not used. Bhuna masala can be made by frying makhane (lotus seed) instead of onions in the gravy," adds Ghildiyal.
Onions provide texture, bulk and taste to the gravy. But innovation is the key to dealing with scarcity. "When preparing a typical mutton dish, we need onions. If we usually use four onions. we try to make do with just one-and-a-half.
Coconut, sesame seeds or chana is used to thicken the gravy, says Jessica T Shah, a homemaker.
Dhania (coriander) powder is another option. Onions add a tinge of sweetness to the dish and so one can also replace it with a little sugar, says Ghildiyal.
Fish can also be prepared in various forms without using onions. "Bengalis make paturi maach in which you wrap fish with mustard and steam it. Similarly bhapa Ilish, chorchori, labra, shoshe Ilish are some of the many dishes that do not require onions," says Davjekar.
Nuts, melon seeds, cashews and poppy seeds, according to Davjekar, can all be used instead of onions but the flavour changes. We also use kalonji (onion seeds) by roasting them. They provide the flavour of onion but as they are black the dish does not look too appealing.
Hing (asafoetida) is a good alternative to onions as it gives the same smell, says Himanshu Saini, a chef at Mumbai's Masala Library. "Leeks can also be used to get the onion-like texture," he adds.
Onions also provide a host of benefits, from controlling diabetes to helping with a sore throat. But there's no need to despair if it goes missing. There was a time when it was not such a crucial factor — historically, the onion came to Indian cuisine later and options to using the bulb are present in almost every culture.