Sunday, January 02, 2011

The case of the sour onions

The dusk was setting in as I walked home on a chilly evening, strange, considering Mumbai has no extremities in temperatures and the December night being far different from the others; it was not a pleasant walk. I wrapped my muffler a bit tighter around my neck, keeping the chill at bay and warming my hands in my pocket. I noticed that the streets were oddly empty, but guess it was the time as everyone had wrapped up, an intelligent thing to do considering staying out in these temperatures was not something the citizens were used to. The two odd vendors, who were just about packing up, hurriedly gathered their wares and disappeared into a secreted lane. The street lamps flickered and winked in the smog which had settled low and I quickened my pace in the dark lane towards my home.

I had barely closed the door when the lights went out, pitch dark and momentary blinded I scuffled to the corner of my room and drew the curtains to let the splice of moonlight flood the area. Dropping my bag and scooting the shoes under the cupboard, I wondered where the rest of the household members were. I rummaged the old drawer beside my bed and found a used candle, lit it and made my way into the living room. The table was laid out for one; I went into the kitchen, covered dishes lay beside the microwave. I helped myself to the food, cold, as working the microwave would be pointless and I did not have the energy to pour out the food into flame proof pots and pans to re-heat on the gas.

As I sat there tucking away into the salad while I dialed the others who should have been present at home, it struck me that it was the corporate dinner so the members of my family would all be halfway across town. I looked around for the house-help; they seemed to be out of earshot too? Unnatural but I assumed they would be around somewhere. A little while into the meal I heard the door creak, I shouted out and suddenly a figure in white emerged casting a shadow against the candlelight, I nearly toppled over my seat, when it turned out to be one of the house-help. I was slightly relieved but kicked myself for having thought otherwise.

Now that I had help and could relax and eat, I requested that the food be heated. It came piping hot accompanied with my usual plate of freshly sliced onions, just the way I liked them – chilled and thinly sliced. I bit into one, and the acidic taste hit me like a bolt out of the blue, nearly gagging, I spit it out, at the same time yelling at the house-help as to what had been served. I looked closely and it definitely was a regular looking onion, but sour? He meekly obliged by telling me it nothing was out of the ordinary. I asked him to taste a slice as I have never had sour onions before except when they are pickled. I clearly remember not having any pickled onions at home, so I asked him if he had made a batch and served them to me. Denial came out so quickly, it sounded covered. I was a bit curious to know why he would say they are the usual sliced onions I had everyday – un-salted & un-touched my lemon? He tasted it and passed it off saying they were sour but that’s how some onions turn out to be.

An outright untruth I knew, but with much conviction he foretold a tale about how sour onions would sometimes make their way into the crops and it was a normal occurrence in their village. Odd again, I did not believe him and checked out the refrigerator. No sign of picked onions, I checked out the pantry – again no pickled onions. I went back to my seat and tasted them again. Here they were, sour as sour can be. Now I was a bit paranoid it obviously did not taste like a lemon had been squeezed and it seemed fresh enough to pass of as what I had been told it would be – Sour Onions!

I left them as is when I finished my meal, I certainly knew something was off and it did not seem right. Maybe they were spoiled and I was unsure as to what spoiled onions tasted like. So I let them be. I had barely finished my meal when the lights came on. I went to place my plate into the sink, when I chanced upon a sight which solved the mystery of sour onions.

I called out to the househelp and narrated exactly what he had served me. As the shock on his face settled down, he asked me daringly, how I had found out.

Elementary my dear Pandhre, you forgot to take out the trash.

Contrary to the narration above, I have nothing against sour onions, infact my favorite are those little pink pickled onions which accompany every Indian meal at restaurants. A simple recipe and I always have them in my fridge year round. I have people asking me the recipe for these onions when it’s nothing more than liquid mix of vinegar, sugar, salt with tiny madras onions submerged in them and left alone for a week. But I usually like mine with a little spice. This recipe is a bit time consuming but its worth the effort and definitely different from the sour onions we are used to. These can be used as is or mixed in a garden salad or even chopped up and tossed into your daily Indian dishes to kick things up a bit.

1 bunch Madras Onions
2 cup Vinegar (Malt is preferable, but white shall do)
2 tablsp Powdered Sugar

6 tablsp Table Salt
1.5 Litres Water

For the spice bag
Muslin Cloth
50 gms Ginger Root
1 inch stick Cinnamon
2 Bayleaves
1 Star Anise
1/2 tsp Cumin
Green Peppercorns, crushed

Peel and wash the onions, dry on a kitchen towel.

Heat the water till boiling point with the salt and keep aside to cool completely once the salt has dissolved. Place the onions in a deep pan and pour the brine over it. Weight it down with another flat plate as the onions will float to the top. Keep covered overnight till the onions absorb the brine solution well.

Make a bag of spice with the muslin cloth and keep aside.

In a clean stainless steel vessel, pour the vinegar and keep on a low flame to heat. Add the spice bag and the sugar and heat slowly till boiling. Heating vinegar can be quite troublesome as its acetic acid and when heated, definitely does not have a pleasant odour so make sure your work area is well ventilated. Once thoroughly heated, keep aside to cool completely.

To proceed, Rinse the onions from the brine solution and place in a clean and dry glass jar. Pour the liquid vinegar mix till it covers the onions completely. If you feel the liquid is not enough to cover it up, pour some extra vinegar over them till they are covered up completely.

Seal tightly and set aside in a cool place for at-least a week till the onions turn pink, they are ready to eat.

Just so you know how it was found out - the househelp had snuck out for an evening beedi at the local joint before the family members had left, leaving someone else to lay out the table for me. He did not expect anyone to be in for dinner and was taken aback when he returned and saw me tucking away. He went about with the everyday routine of serving dinner as though nothing had happened and realized that there were no onions in the pantry. Out of sheer desperation he had found a day old packet of pickled onions which had come in with an order of Indian food. Washed them in iced water, cut them up in slices and had decided to serve them up as is, so that nothing looked out of the ordinary. What he forgot to do was – throw away the restaurant packet in which these onions were stored.  

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