The proper browning of onions

I feel as though I’ve stumbled upon a profound truth.  That the secret to good, north Indian, punjabi-style cooking is the proper browning of onions.  There I’ve said it.

This summer I was leafing through of a copy of Madhur Jaffrey’s Indian Cooking that I had found in our rental home.  We were escaping a hurricane in New Jersey, and had found ourselves in an isolated country home on the outskirts of Chatham in upstate New York.  Our nearest source of food, much to my delight, was the Old Chatham Sheepherding Company, that sold cheese and yogurt made from sheep’s milk.

It was late in the evening, and although I have the same book at home, something about the deep silence around the house improved my concentration.  Ordinarily, I would have quickly flipped over the introductory pages and the ‘techniques’ of Indian cooking.  But here I was, sitting at a table in a real kitchen in the middle of nowhere with a book that belonged to someone else.  I started at the beginning, turning the pages leisurely and taking the time to savor Madhur’s writing.  I read “Sometimes a recipe requires that you brown thinly sliced or chopped onions,  I have noticed that many of the students in my cooking classes stop halfway and then when I point out to them that the onions are not quite down, they say ‘Oh, but if we cook them more, they will burn.’  They will not, if you watch.  Start the frying on medium-high heat and turn the heat down somewhat as the onions lose their water and begin to turn brown.  They do need to be a rich reddish brown color or your sauce – if that is what they are intended for – will be pale and weak.”  

“Pale and weak…”  I sat up straighter.  I knew what she meant.  I had been closely observing my mother-in-law’s onions which she patiently cooked until they were a very dark brown, or I suppose, the technical term would be caramelized.  I hadn’t paid too much attention to why she did that, and had put it down to her fastidiousness.  But her north Indian cooking tasted remarkably different from mine and I hadn’t been able to figure out why.  Could it be that the onions made that much of a difference?

It only took a cooking attempt or two to resolve my question.  Indeed, the onions do make a huge difference.  Here lies the key to the essence of flavor in palak paneer, matar paneer, chole, rajma, kali dal, kala chana, lobia. Golden brown, light brown, sweating onions — none of these will do for the aforementioned dishes that really call for those deeply browned onions.

Here is a simple dal recipe that puts browned onions to delicious use.

Dal Tarka

Serves 2-3

1 cup of onions

1/2 cup of toor dal, cooked in the pressure cooker or boiled

1/2 tsp turmeric

Chopped coriander for garnishing

1 tbsp of ghee

Salt to taste

1.  Heat the ghee in a pot and add the onions on medium heat.  Cook, stirring occasionally, until the onions are brown.  Now add the toor dal, turmeric, 1-2 cups of water depending on how thick the toor dal is, salt and allow to come to boil.  Lower the heat, and allow to simmer for a few minutes.  Garnish with chopped coriander, and serve hot with rice or rotis.

Note: you can also add cumin seeds, heeng and minced ginger in the ghee at the beginning.

14 Comments Add yours

  1. namitalad says:

    even i didnt know what difference does it make…my friends from north used to fry onion till it turns brown but we do not fry it that much…yes but the taste differes…thanks for sharing the secret 😉

    1. devikakumar says:

      It’s true, not all Indian dishes and cuisines ask for the browning…but in some recipes the flavor difference is very obvious! Thanks for stopping by.

  2. An excellent lesson in patience! Taking the time to get it right – the onions in this case! Lovely post – and photos.

    1. devikakumar says:

      I know…it was a surprise to discover that the onions made such a difference although the less *pleasant* part is actually waiting patiently for them to brown.

  3. Very very true. I generally mention the same point especially when I give the biriyani recipe to someone. I also like to add salt to the onion to fasten the process.

    1. devikakumar says:

      My grandma adds a little sugar to the onions for the same effect!

    2. devikakumar says:

      I need your biryani recipe!! My mouth is watering already!

    1. devikakumar says:

      Got your fabulous biryani recipe! Thank you.

  4. Veena says:

    So important but so difficult for impatient people like me! I will sometimes make a larger batch and use the leftover browned onion for weeknight quick curries. I’d love to reblog this!

    1. devikakumar says:

      Sure, thank you!

  5. Veena says:

    Reblogged this on Veena's Market Blog and commented:
    While spending time in a lonely country home in upstate New York to escape a hurricane in New Jersey, Devika Kumar discovers something crucial to North Indian cooking. It is a well known secret, and even mentioned in many Indian recipes and cookbooks.It is something though, that impatient people, like me, are apt to do too quickly or stop too soon.

    But sometimes, you can’t hurry things up. And if you do, the end dish, the channa masala (chickpea curry) or palak paneer for example, will reveal the truth.

    Read the post on the blog, Calcutta Chow.

  6. Paul Munds says:

    Very, very helpful.
    I watched a programme with Madhura Jaffrey and she “fried off” all the water in the onion, then added a little more water and then fried this off and so on……about nine times. Then the onions were a deep reddy-brown and not burned.

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