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Unlocking umami from onions

  • The trick is to give time and love to this essential aromatic and get umami in return
  • Roasted and caramelized, here are two flavour-packed recipes that champion the onion in all its glory

Caramelized onions
Caramelized onions (Photo: Nandita Iyer)

Always the bridesmaid, never the bride—this idiom could very well convey the status of onion in our daily cooking. Used mainly as an aromatic in both Indian and continental cooking, onions make a good starting point for almost any savoury dish.

I once read this beautiful piece by Sadie Stein in The Paris Review on dealing with writer’s block. She makes a poetic analogy recalled from a cookbook she had read. “If you don’t know what to make for dinner, just cut up an onion and put it on to cook. The action, the aroma, the fact that an onion is the basis for so many dishes—these factors will conspire to prompt a plan." As someone who cooks a lot and gets stuck a lot, I find this is indeed a foolproof way to kick-start dinner.

If I had to rate foods on the basis of flavour, caramelized onions would feature way up on my list. The term “caramelized" in caramelized onions is a misnomer. This slow browning of onions is not exactly caramelization but Maillard reaction, in which sugars and amino acids in the protein content of the onion break down in the presence of heat. This leads to browning and development of umami and a bunch of complex flavours, making it irresistible. Another common instance of this process is the development of a golden brown crust on bread. A milk or egg wash makes this even more pronounced.

Fire-roasted onion chutney
Fire-roasted onion chutney (Photo: Nandita Iyer)

As someone who is a lazy cook, I am guilty of trying to find ways to caramelize onions fast. Let me break it to you that “Caramelize onions in 10 minutes" is the most common lie peddled by cookbooks. There is only one secret to perfectly caramelized onions and it is time. Low (heat) and slow (cooking) being the mantra. However, one little science-backed hack you could employ is adding a tiny pinch of baking soda. Maillard reaction is accelerated at a higher pH and addition of baking soda (sodium bicarbonate) provides an alkaline environment. Getting impatient and adding more than a tiny pinch will lead to a terrible tasting end result.

Use caramelized onions on a toasted slice of sourdough along with scrambled eggs. Toss a little bit in a salad. Use it in a pie, tart or galette.

While onions are used as a reliable flavour base, there are recipes that use onion as the main ingredient.

Ever had onion jam? An acidic ingredient like balsamic vinegar adds a tartness to this sweet jam, with the addition of herbs like rosemary and bay leaf. Chez Mariannick, in Whitefield, Bengaluru, is known for its wood-fired oven pizzas. There is one with tomato, goat’s cheese and onion jam, which makes excellent use of this condiment. Another winning combination is to top a slice of toasted sourdough bread with onion jam, extra sharp cheddar cheese and sliced figs.

Onion sambhar is typically made with small Madras onions. But given that anyone who can peel 400g of these onions deserves an award for his/her patience, we make do with a whole lot of quartered, medium-sized onions. The layers open up as the onions cook down. The sweetness of the onions, along with the heat from chillies and the tanginess of the tamarind, is what makes this sambhar truly delicious.

Fire-roasted onion chutney is one of my favourite accompaniments to idlis and dosas. Whole onions roasted on the fire until charred on the outside and partially cooked inside, ground with roasted spices and dals, are nothing short of a flavour bomb.


Makes around 1 cup


1/2 kg onions

1 tbsp ghee or butter

A pinch of baking soda (less than 1/8th tsp)

3/4 tsp salt


Peel, halve and slice the onions, around 1/2 cm thick.

Heat ghee in a heavy-bottomed pan such as a cast-iron one. Transfer the sliced onions to the pan. Sauté on medium high heat for 5-6 minutes.

Sprinkle the baking soda and stir well to combine. Keep the flame at the lowest setting and allow this to brown over an hour to 80 minutes. Stir once in a while to ensure that the onions aren’t burning. Add one tablespoon of water at a time if the browned onions stick to the bottom of the pan. When the onions are caramelized, sprinkle salt and cook for another 5 minutes. Remove and save in an airtight container in the fridge. This should stay for a week.

Use on toast with cheese or in salads or in a tart.


Makes½ cup


4 onions (small-sized regular onions, not Madras onions)

1 tsp oil

3 dried red chillies

2 tbsp urad dal

1/2 tsp coriander seeds

1/4 cup coconut, grated

1 small piece of tamarind (~2cm)

1/2 tsp salt

For the tempering

1 tsp oil

1/4 tsp mustard seeds

4-5 curry leaves


Place the onions directly over a flame and allow to char all over. Using a pair of tongs, remove from the flame and allow to cool. Pull off the outer skin. Chop roughly and keep aside.

In a pan, heat 1 tsp oil. Fry the red chillies, urad dal and coriander seeds until the dal turns golden brown. Transfer to a mixer jar. Add coconut, chopped onions, tamarind and salt. Grind to a coarse chutney and remove into a serving bowl.

Heat 1 tsp oil in the pan. Fry mustard seeds and curry leaves. Once the mustard seeds start to splutter, transfer the tempering over the chutney.

Serve with idlis, dosas or rice.

Double Tested is a fortnightly column on vegetarian cooking, highlighting a single ingredient. Nandita Iyer is the author of The Everyday Healthy Vegetarian.

Twitter - @saffrontrail

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