Onions, Browning, and the East

We’ve looked at the yin and yang of garlic, and explored the multiple applications of brown onions in the West. In this final instalment of our exploration of alliums, we will turn our attention to our homeland and explore the role of brown onions in Indian and especially Mughlai cuisine.

Many Indian curries start with onions cooked low and slow with aromatics and spices. In most cases the onions are cooked till just translucent, but in certain cases it is cooked further so that it caramelizes and develops a complex flavour, the humble beginnings of Bengali classics like pathar jhol and kosha mangsho. This is quite similar to the technique of making onion soup in the West, where the caramelization of onions helps create a complex flavour base.

Kosha Mangsho

There is another, rather different kind of browned onion that is popular all over India. It is an import from Central Asia via the Mughals, but meat-loving Indians all over the country have adopted it and made it their own. Before their advent however, the food scene in India was rather different, with vegetarianism firmly in the social forefront.

They (Brahmins) condemned meat because it heightened the passions and encouraged the virile, animal side of human nature. Orthodox Brahmans avoided all foods which were thought to stimulate the passions (which were known as rajasic). These included meat, onions and garlic. Instead, they made a virtue of their light, nutritious and easily digestible, vegetarian (sattvic) diet which enabled their bodies to channel the energy that would otherwise have been used to digest food into the improvement of the mind.”

Curry, Lizzie Collingham.

The Three Gunas in Ayurveda (Courtesy : Veda Pathshala)

Onions and garlic were not commonly used in India before the advent of the Muslims, and even today there are households that shun onion and garlic and consider it taboo. The Muslims however, brought their share of rajasic meat-heavy dishes laden with onions and garlic, and soon this allium duo partnered with a pre-existing kitchen staple, ginger to form the aromatic trio that forms the basis for most Indian non-vegetarian dishes today.

Birista or fried onions is a staple of Mughlai cuisine. It is added to curries like korma and kaliya, both of which are Mughlai imports into Bengali cuisine. It is used to garnish haleem, that slow-cooked mix of meat and lentils relished by Muslims during Ramzan. And of course, it forms an integral component of biryani, either mixed into the marinade or layered with the meat and rice. Mughlai cuisine and its derivatives all over India would not be the same without it.

Kolkata Biryani

While making birista, it is essential to drain away as much liquid from the onions before they go into the pan. This is done by salting them and scrunching up the layers which, in addition to separating them, squeezes the water out of the onions. It is then added to hot oil, a little at a time so that the temperature doesn’t plummet which can make the onions fry rather than steam.

Unlike caramelized onions, making fried onions take just under 5 minutes to be ready provided the moisture is properly squeezed out and the oil is hot. Be sure to remove them from the pan earlier, as they continue to brown long from residual heat long after they are taken out.

Birista (Courtesy : Bong Eats)

While caramelizing onions is a low and slow process, frying birista is fast and furious. The difference is similar to that of making caramel by dumping a can of condensed milk in boiling water for 2-3 hours versus making one using just sugar in a dry pan. The latter happens much quicker and has a more potent flavour, but it also has a much narrower margin for error. Take it a bit too far and it can burn.

And this brings about a crucial difference in texture. While a low and slow cook in a little oil with a covered lid for most of the time results in a jammy consistency, birista is drier and crisper. Although it does soak in the liquids from the curry or biryani eventually, the crisp onions on top of a bowl of haleem for example provides texture in addition to flavour. From onion soup to korma, from pizza to haleem, brown onions have the ability of elevating simple dishes to the status of luxury.

Haleem with birista and other toppings (Courtesy : Bong Eats)

That brings us to the end of allium month. We’ve explored the multifaceted aspect of garlic, and inspected in detail the appeal of browned onions. Cooking wouldn’t be the same without these simple vegetables, a storehouse of potential hidden in plain sight. Tap into that storehouse, and you can create magic.


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