Love ‘em or hate ‘em, onions play an essential role in many of the most popular cuisines around the world. The French can’t get enough of onion soup, whilst Asian countries like China utilise a variety of different specimens in their lengthy recipe repertoire.
India is no exception, and a vast number of curries, stews and both vegetarian and non-vegetarian preparations begin with the holy trinity of ginger, garlic and onion. However, deep in the southern reaches of India, in the beautiful, sunshine state of Kerala, the shallot is the onion that rules them all.
Also known as ‘pearl onions’ due to their delicate size and shape, shallots are favoured in Keralan cuisine due to their subtle flavour and the sweet notes they bring to a dish. Although in North India, regular onions are preferred for their strong, bold flavours, in Keralan cooking, the shallot reigns supreme.
One of the reasons this little onion is so popular, is that it is pretty darn versatile. It can be pickled in red vinegar as well as used fresh, added straight to the pot; it can be scattered over a finished dish as a garnish or take centre-stage in a recipe. Shallots are also served as a side, to be scooped up with papadums and mixed with zesty mint dips or fiery chutneys.
The shallot is also a key ingredient in a variation of the popular South Indian stew, sambar. Sambar is enjoyed on a daily basis throughout much of South India. It is a wholesome, vegetarian dish, laden with lentils and seasonal produce – a hearty combination of dal, shallots, dried red chillies, curry leaves, cilantro and a dose of tamarind paste for the tangy, distinctive flavour. The spicy essence of sambar, combined with the bitter taste of tamarind and sweet flavour of the onions, offers a uniquely Indian balance of flavours – a balance that simply would not be possible without the elements that shallots bring to the table.
Another particularly popular Keralan dish which simply would not be the same without the humble shallot, is the kunjukkithallalli curry. The recipe calls for sautéed shallots, green chillies, mashed tomatoes and aromatic curry leaves combined with an assortment of mouthwatering spices including turmeric, hot chilli powder and a generous dose of garam masala. As in many of the famous curries of Kerala, creamy coconut milk is added to create a sumptuous gravy, and after a gentle stir and simmer, the curry is ready to be served up with a portion of fluffy, white rice.
Onions form the base of a wide range of dishes on the Indian menu. To sample some of the ways this innocuous yet highly effective ingredient can be utilised, book yourself a table at one of London’s best Indian fine dining restaurants. Here, the creative chefs know how to turn a few simply shallots and a variety of spices into a recipe worthy of one of the old Indian maharajas. Each dish has been inspired by authentic Indian recipes and given a contemporary makeover to bring them slap up-to-date with the 21st century.