Pyaaz ke raaz

by Sanjeev Kapoor

The day has dawned, folks for the ultimate in biotech…the creation of the first ‘no tears’ onion by the New Zealand Crop and Food Institute by using sophisticated Australian gene slicing biotechnology. 

What have we all tried to do to stop crying while slicing onions? Submerged the onion in a basin of water and struggled to peel and chop it under water? Burnt a candle close by while chopping onions so that the heat of the flames draws in the onion gas? Chewed gum while chopping them? Or handed over the whole lot to the house help to chop and keep ready? 

Why do onions make you cry?

Tears and onions are inseparable! Onions, any from the more than distinct 300 species, will make you cry simply because when they are sliced, the cells break open and give off a gas that irritates the eye. Punjabis are smart: all they do is take a good strong fist and smash the onion! Peel it, sprinkle with red chilli masala and voila, the salad is ready. No tears. But we do need to use a knife so I give you the chef’s secret to avoid irritation while chopping onions: do not cut off the root of the onion, or do it last, as the root of the onion has a higher concentration of the tear makers. Use a sharp blade to chop onions as that will limit the cell damage.

Stating the obvious

It is a misty childhood thing my brother reminded me about the pyaaz: how we used to use it to stimulate fever and then bunk school! Remove onions from Indian food and you will remove one of the fundamentals of Indian cooking. Salted onion and bhakri are the staple food in many Indian villages. In urban parts, onions find their many ways: be it a curry, or a paste or eaten as a main course or a side dish. Go to any Indian restaurant and what reaches your table first: either a plate of sliced red onions or a bowl of small onions made red with a prolonged vinegar marination. Order a platter of kababs and the side will be covered with onion lachcha! Pav bhaji and chopped onions on top is like a marriage made in heaven. Never shall they divorce each other! Try my favourites (especially when you have unexpected friends!): pyaaz parantha or pyaaz ki sabzi with khichdi (Alyona has introduced this combination) or just simple pyaaz tamatar chunky gravy topped with ganthia or sev. 

Onions are indispensable in biryanis. A biryani sans onions is like a bee who refuses to buzz. Use a clove studded onion to boil in chicken stock for more flavour, prepare boiled onion paste for rich gravies (some even freeze the paste!) or add ground browned onions to hung yogurt to make a dip with crisp pita…uses are many in the kitchen. 

Health points

The World Health Organization (WHO) supports the use of onions for the treatment of poor appetite and to prevent atherosclerosis. In addition, onion extracts are recognized by WHO for providing relief in the treatment of coughs and colds, asthma and bronchitis. Onion is considered as one of the most important aphrodisiacal foods second only to garlic. However, consuming large quantities of onions can lead to a stomach in distress. Another old wives tale is chewing raw onion for three minutes is sufficient to kill all germs in the mouth. And who can overlook the fact that strong smelling onion can bring a person having an epileptic fit around?

The cousins

Let’s also take this chance to clear the confusion between onions, shallots, leeks and spring onions. Shallots and leeks are used big time in the west. Shallots are smaller than onions, with reddish skin and a pink tinged flesh. Leeks, though they look like fatter spring onions, have their own distinct flavour. Mild and sweet. Spring onions are nothing but simply early maturing varieties of onion. Spring onions have a mild sweet flavour and a green snap, which tastes good in salads.

Use your type

Onions have a universal appeal. When I have to pick onions I remember that the large red ones with dry (in monsoons not so dry!) papery skins are goods to eat kachcha in salads, when you fry them they burn as the sugar content is too high. The white ones fry well and turn a nice gold and crispy. If any onion feels hollow, discard as it might be already rotten from inside. It is easy to confuse onion seeds for kalonji that we put on top of naans. Kalonji is nigella, commonly called black onion seeds, though they look identical to onion seeds they are not even distantly related! Put the right amount of onions in a dish and create something tasting supreme but go overboard with them and the final taste will be sweet! Surprised?

Recommended recipe - Pyaaz Ki Tarkari

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MasterChef Sanjeev Kapoor

Chef Sanjeev Kapoor is the most celebrated face of Indian cuisine. He is Chef extraordinaire, runs a successful TV Channel FoodFood, hosted Khana Khazana cookery show on television for more than 17 years, author of 150+ best selling cookbooks, restaurateur and winner of several culinary awards. He is living his dream of making Indian cuisine the number one in the world and empowering women through power of cooking to become self sufficient. His recipe portal is a complete cookery manual with a compendium of more than 10,000 tried & tested recipes, videos, articles, tips & trivia and a wealth of information on the art and craft of cooking in both English and Hindi.