I woke up this morning, sipped on a cup of warm water and looked out on to the trees outside and then glanced through the newspapers. My morning routine these days.
I saw that the front page was devoted to the rise in onion prices that the country has witnessed of late. Articles talking about the protests around it and how people are coping by substituting the use of onion in daily food. Of the political ramifications of it. Conspiracy theories on who might have caused it. The government's response to it and so on. There was a sense of deja vu as onion prices had gone up a few years back too, but I think the role of political parties involved were reversed back then. The angst was just as acute.
Deja vu it was once again, when I entered our kitchen to make breakfast. Our cook, Banu, had made saadi aata (plain wheat flour) parathas yesterday and my plan was to make egg rolls out of them for breakfast. I cracked two eggs and whisked them after adding in some coarse black pepper and Himalayan pink salt. I then took out an onion, cut it into half and then began to slice one half. As I did so, I was transported from our kitchen in Bandra in Mumbai today, to that in Bansdroni in Kolkata more than three decades back. To a time when I would come back from school every afternoon, change and then head down to play. With a stop first at the neighbourhood egg roll shop though, with the coins my mother would leave at home for the purpose. The stall was manned by two young Bengali brothers. They would come back from work and open their roll stall on the kerb for business at around 4.30 pm.
One brother would start cranking up the paraffin stove. The other would start slicing onions with a look of rhythmic concentration on his face. The stove would come alive and they would put a bowl full of solidified dalda on the tava (griddle pan) to melt. More onions would be sliced. Green chillies finely chopped. Limes sliced too. Trays of eggs taken out. Maida (flour) dough kneaded and then made into little dough balls with a bit of oil (moin) added to it. They would begun to roll out the dough balls on a broken marble top, the dalda finally melted, the flat tava deemed hot enough. They would stop slicing onions and begun making their first rolls of the day. I would usually be their first customer. It is funny how vividly I remember the scene even after all these years.
I took out a red bell pepper from the fridge and sliced it to add bulk to my breakfast today. They would use green capsicum in the Park Street roll shops of Kolkata such as at Hot Kathi Roll. Then, as I begun to make my breakfast, an array of memorable onion moments began to come back to me.
Still in Kolkata and the 90s, there was the sliced onion, cucumber and tomato salad that my mother would cut and serve with the Sunday chicken curry with a bit of salt sprinkled on it. The curry would run across the plate and then mix with the onion and the salt and that added a bit of adventure to the dish.
I also remembered going down on winter evenings to the tandoori shop that which had opened on Bansdroni pavement back then. I do not think that we ever realised in 80s and 90s Kolkata that one could walk on pavements too!
My mother would send me there on days when the cook had not come to work. To buy tandoori or rumali roti along with some green moong torka dal. They would normally put in a few quartered pieces of raw red onion with the roti.
Even today, when I have torka dal and roti in Mumbai, I add a few quartered pieces on onion in my plate.
Just as I cut, make and add a sliced onion, tomato and chilli salad on days when we have chicken or mutton curry and rice now. It connects me with my childhood that I have left behind.
(Updated) Interestingly, on reading this onion story, my younger brother reminded me that the onions sent with the rotis would disappear whenever onion prices would rise back in the day. He would know. He cannot eat a single meal without some sliced onion on the side!
There were also the onions that my mother would quarter and boil along with noodles before making the stir fried noodles that we call Hakka noodles in Kolkata. I do that in our kitchen in Mumbai now. The noodles cooked by my mother, that I loved to eat as a child, remains my favourite dish to eat still. And cook. I do it rather well I must say.
Then there was this time when we went to a restaurant called Princess at Lindsay Street in Kolkata during our B school days and ordered glasses of wine. Classy I know, but this did not leave any money left to order food with. The wine was served with, no not chanachoor which is what you expect in the bars of Kolkata, but tiny pickled red onions on the side. Hungry, I bit into one, after a sip of Golcanda Ruby Red (if memory serves me right).
The worlds of wine and Mughlai food food were rather different worlds I realised. The onion were a bit of a mood buster that evening!
Then came Mumbai and I must talk of the steak with onion fries that K and I loved at New Martin Hotel in Colaba. The meat was served well done. This was no grass fed beef after all. Just buff. Back then we knew no better and had not heard of a life medium rare. To us the combination of chewy fried meat and beautifully fried, inherently sweet and caramelised onions, gave the sort of joy which rivalled that the slices of Wagyu that one later had in Tokyo, or prime Italian steaks cooked in old school Parisian eateries, did in recent years. I still make it a point to order the steak and onions when I go to Martin's.
K and I then got married and set up home. We begun to cook and eat at home as we were too broke to eat out after the year of dating and eating out every night that preceded our marriage. Of the tasks we hated the most in our new life, it could be chopping and slicing onions. We would even buy and use dessicated onions instead. Eighteen years later, slicing and chopping onions is a task I happily delegate to our cook when I can and this came of use when I begun making the kosha mangsho for guests we would call home, once he had a place large enough for that. The sense of satisfaction that seeing the finely chopped onions turn brown would give, post which I would add the mutton and spiced and let the pressure cooker do its magic till we were ready to serve our guests, was precious.
If I was to think of a more recent and unforgettable onion 'memory,' then it has to be 'sirke wale peyaz' that they serve at Kake da Hotel at Delhi's Connaught Place. Sliced onions with a green coriander and mint chutney poured on it and some chaat masala too. They serve this once you place your order at the humble Delhi eatery which has become my favourite haunt in recent years. The plate of onions draws me back to Kake's at CP as much as the saag meat and the freshly made rotis there do.
Talking of street food highs, let me end this story which started with the egg rolls of Kolkata, with the pav bhaaji on the streets of of Mumbai. Specifically the ones I had as a young advertising executive at lunch time at a cart at Nariman Point and later, while conducting food walks at Fort, at Ashok's cart in the Khau Gulley there. The joy of getting a freshly made plate of bhaaji, with the sliced raw onions added to it while plating, cooking in the heat of the bhaaji into which melts a stick of Amul butter added to it, all scooped up together with a soft pav after a squeeze of lime is added to the bhaaji, is indeed primordial and very raw!
My Cinema Paradiso-like onion flashback this morning got over as my egg rolls got ready and I sat down for breakfast.
I am sure that onions are not going anywhere and I do hope that the prices come under control soon but till then, do me a favour and share your favourite onion memories in comment section here.
Let's celebrate our love for onions while we weather out the onion storm.
All pictures are from the Finely Chopped archives
More of places/ dishes mentioned in the article: