The time is here again. Harvest was bad and hoarding is back in fashion, so onions have increased in price drastically. The last time it happened was back in 2014 and here we are, in the tail end of 2019 with the same problem. The question now is what to do now? You could cut off onions from your diet. It is possible to do. There are thousands of families all over India who do not eat onions and they have been doing it for years. But why should you? Onions at ₹ 200 a kilo should not be a deterrent to you eating as you have been. So here we have, onion substitutes to the rescue.
The Obvious Substitute
Well now that fresh onions are out of our hands, we could turn to the obvious substitute: onion powder and flakes. These are dehydrated onion products, concentrated in flavour. You just have to mix it with a bit of water to form a paste and you can use it as a substitute for fresh onion paste. The problem of course is price. Even with prices so high on fresh onions, dried onion products cost too much, maybe even double the price of the fresh stuff. Plus availability is a problem as well. So obviously it’s a no go.
The Other Aliums
There are other members of the onion family that can be used in place of onions. Shallots are the first that come to mind. They are milder and sweeter than onions and are kind of rod shaped instead of the spherical onions. Sadly the scarcity has hit them as well. Leeks and green onions are seasonal and that rules them out as well. Celery, if you can get it, is an excellent substitute but it cannot be found easily in India. Then there is fennel. We are well acquainted with fennel seeds but the bulb itself is edible and can be substituted for onions
A Different Approach
As the obvious solution is not viable, let’s approach this problem from a different direction. What do we use onions in our dishes for? If we break it down like this we could take a blend of different methods to reach an ideal solution. Thinking like that, we use onions for three different reasons
- Thickening gravies
Onions are used in many dishes to add texture like in salads. Here you can use radishes in place of onions. The taste is a little sharp for an onion substitute but it can be mitigated by quick pickling radish slices in diluted vinegar and letting rest for 15 minutes. Personally, I don’t bother as I like the taste.
The other substitute is bell pepper or as we call it capsicum. The texture is similar, be it raw or cooked. However, bell peppers taste a bit different and you will need to spice up the food to mask the taste.
We regularly use caramelized or sauteed onions to thicken the many gravies we make here. It imparts a slight sweet taste to the gravy which can be felt if it is lightly spiced. The effect can be easily duplicated using finely diced gourds like bottle gourds, ridged gourds or snake gourds.
You could use grated paneer to thicken a gravy but it’s not cost effective. The better way would be to make a roux. Mix equal part maida flour and butter and heat it, whisking vigorously so the mixture does not stick to the pan and burn. Once the raw flour smell goes away, the roux is ready to be added to the gravy.
The other substitute would be cornflour slurry which is made by mixing equal parts cornflour and water. The advantage is that very little is needed to thicken the gravy. The disadvantage is that everyone can taste the cornflour, which is very distracting.
Finely mashed potatoes can also be used, but it is just too much effort for too little gain.
All the above methods are well and good but they cannot mimic the taste of onions. You can do this by using asafoetida, or hing as we call it. It is very pungent, so a little goes a long way. Just remember to bloom it oil to activate it before adding to your dishes. You can pir it with cumin to get that classic Indian taste we crave.
Ultimately, these methods are only cheats. We are doing this only because there is an onion scarcity in the country. The government has been very slow to respond to the signals that were visible early on. Even crackdowns on onion hoarders have failed to keep prices down. We just hope that this crisis is resolved soon or we will have to resort to eating an onion free diet by necessity. Meanwhile use this tricks to sate your cravings for onions while we wait. See you again soon.