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Is it possible to have a gravy without  using onions and garlic? This question always comes up when the onion and  garlic prices begin to soar. And the answer is “Yes of course”.

It is not as if all the Indian cuisines use onions and/or garlic! Especially in the south of India, there are more dishes cooked without onion and garlic than with. Why only South, even the Jains cook without onions and garlic. And that is because their religion does not allow the use of anything that grows underground – which includes onions, garlic, potatoes, carrots, yam and so on. Despite this their food is extremely delicious.

Most cooks think that onions  overpower all other flavours as a result  of which the individual  flavours,  especially of vegetables, are  lost. It is  possible to cook very well without onions. In fact you can prepare food with less fat because onions do need some amount of oil to brown properly. Cooking without onions and garlic does not require that much preparation and cooking time too is less. 

There are many who think that if you cannot use onion or garlic, the end result will be uninteresting, bland and not very palatable.  And let me assure you that this is only a myth. 

There are many who don’t use onion or garlic

Especially in India there are many who do not eat either onion or garlic by choice.  The reasons being that either they do not like the flavour of these bulbs or find them too overpowering or because they find that they make their mouths smell foul.  And then there are those whose religion prevents them from eating these flavourful bulbs. Like the Jains.  Yet their food is extremely tasty and full of flavour. Again there are many who refrain from eating either onion or garlic when they are observing some religious fast.  And we all know that the food cooked during these fasts is absolutely lip smacking. So you can see that you can really cook delicious food without using either onion or garlic.  

Discover food without the bulbs

Recently we, which means that my team and myself, worked on a book of recipes which were cooked with neither onion nor garlic. And believe me, we enjoyed ourselves so much that now at my home we like to have this type of food at least two to three times a week.  In fact we even tried cooking non vegetarian food and the result was really extremely palatable.

Not just that - there are many dishes which are traditionally cooked with onion and garlic, but when the same dishes were cooked without them they were just as tasty if not more. We made Jain Pav Bhaji where we did not use onion or garlic and not even potatoes because Jains as we all know do not have any root vegetable.  We used raw bananas instead of potatoes and asafoetida instead of onions.  The other masalas were more or less the same and the result – divine.  Similarly I once made paneer makhni where the makhni gravy was without onion or garlic. This was a part of a party menu and the guests loved it so much that now whenever I invite my friends for a meal, they ask me to make this dish.

In conclusion I would like to say that what we should not forget is that each ingredient, whether they are vegetables, or spice, has its share of nutrients, taste and flavour and when they are used in the proper combination, the result is absolutely great where the taste is not at all compromised.  Because in order to enjoy food completely, the taste has to be paramount.  All that we must remember is to use each and every ingredient diligently and they will never fail to impress.  

Tips to cook

If you want to convert any recipe, that asks for onions/garlic, to one without, you need to understand the role it plays in the recipe and accordingly make changes. Browned onions add a good colour to the food. There are no substitutes as such but if the final taste and texture of the food are to be highlighted then here are some ideas that can help.

  • Use fresh tomato puree or packaged tomato puree to good advantage. They both add a deep red colour to the food. And use slightly roasted spices like cumin and coriander for a finished rounded flavour.
  • Nut pastes like cashewnuts, peanuts, almonds, melon seeds and even poppy seeds are a good addition to curries that require texture and thickening.
  • Yogurt is another good substitute. But remember to whisk in some gram flour (besan) into the yogurt before adding it to hot curry. It will not curdle and the texture will be smooth.
  • You can also add ground coconut – this will not only add thickness it will also give it a unique rich feel and flavour.
  • Other substitutes are ground spinach or grated cabbage or grated carrot. These will not only help make the gravy thick but will also make the dish more nutritive.

It is very easy to cook without onions and garlic. All one needs is the correct approach to the recipe. 

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