When onions are too costly or unavailable, life comes to a standstill, in India. Onion is the basic ingredient for most of the Indian dishes. An Indian woman, staying in Africa, who cooks delicious Indian recipes, said that half of the ingredients required for Indian recipes are not locally available. So she uses substitutes. Her recipes are as good as the original.
If she can cook delicious dishes with only half of the original ingredients, we can do even better by substituting onion with something else.
Onion is required in large quantity to get a thick gravy. In case of scarce availability of onions, judicious housewives develop unadulterated techniques to thicken the gravy. For instance saute the onion slices till golden brown, add some tomatoes to it, cook for some time and then grind the mix to a paste. This tomato-onion paste makes a thicker and tastier gravy than plain sauteed onions.
What if there is no onion in the house! Some budget conscious husbands say “no more onions, till the prices get normal, cook without onion”. The wife has to cook tasty food with some kind of onion substitute.
Here are a few onion substitutes that can thicken the gravy and provide richer taste to the commonly cooked dishes like mixed vegetable curry, aloo-gobi (potato-cauliflower), channa masala (chickpea curry), butter paneer (Cottage cheese curry) and Butter Chicken.
Grate the coconut, grind to a smooth paste and add to the sauteed ingredients for the alloo (potato)-mutter (green pea) curry or chicken curry. The vegetables should be boiled separately. After adding the coconut paste the dish should be cooked only on low flame as the oil in coconut will ooze out on boiling. Sauteing the onion until golden brown before grinding can give a richer taste.
Grind the coconut without water. Use a strainer to squeeze the first milk; keep the milk aside. Again grind the coconut with some water. Squeeze the second milk and keep it aside. Again add some water. Grind and squeeze the third milk. After all the dry ingredients are sauteed and vegetables are added, cook the vegetable in third milk. When the vegetable is cooked add the second milk, cook on low flame for few minutes. Add the first milk and remove from stove as soon as the milk is warm. (Coconut milk powder is also available in the market).
Khus-khus or poppy seed is an excellent thickening agent and tastes awesome. Only a spoonful is required for regular cooking. Grate khus kush to a paste with ginger, garlic and chilly. Saute the paste with other ingredients like chilli powder, coriander powder and spices. Add the vegetables with water and cook for some time. (N.b. Poppy seed is banned in countries like UAE and some Arab countries. Carrying poppy seeds is a criminal offence,)
During the days of onions crisis make the cream at home, why buy the costly creams. When the milk comes to boil, reduce the flame and stir for a while. Remove from stove and refrigerate for a while. You get a thick upper layer of cream. Remove the cream and use in curries. (Milk separators are also available in the market)
After cooking the vegetable with the dry ingredients, add a spoonful of corn flour mixed with water. You get a thick gravy.
Cashew Nut Paste
Some shops sell minutely broken cashew nuts at rock bottom prices. Grind the cashews with other ingredients and saute for a while; mix with the vegetables and dry ingredients and cook. You get a thick, rich gravy.
The more coriander powder you add, the thicker the gravy. Adding more coriander powder can make the curry taste bitter. Coriander has antioxidants and dietary fibres, so they are beneficial for health. If fennel or cumin seed is added while grinding the coriander powder, the dishes will get better flavour.
Kerala recipes requires hardly any onion. The thick chicken gravy with onion is relatively a new entrant in the Kerala kitchens. Most of the recipes require no onion, or shallots are used in a small number. Shallots have medicinal properties than onions. Shallots are costlier than onion but they are required in small quantities. The price is around Rs 70 per Kg, and the prices do not fluctuate.