Indian cooking technique: Fried onions

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The base for most North and South subcontinental curries is caramelized onions. This is what gives this cuisine its reputation for being time consuming and heavy on the belly. The onions are usually fried in a good amount of oil on a low heat for about 40 minutes — until they are soft enough to melt into the curry.

The technique isn’t that foreign to a western palate. Anyone who has had a Philly cheesesteak knows how sweet onions can get if you cook them long enough. The trick is to keep the heat low so that they don’t burn. You want them to take their time, or the onions will be too crisp to meld with your dish.

If they do get overdone, don’t stress. You can always use a blender to smooth our your onion-spice-and tomato or yogurt mixture to get a smooth consistency. As a good friend once said, desi food can be very forgiving.

For my health-conscious readers, I feel you. I cut back on the oil quite a bit, but that means I have to stir the onions much more often to make sure they cook evenly. You don’t have to pay much attention until you see the first signs of browning, but then you really have to stand over it and keep stirring every minute or so.

It can be a laborious process and it does take a while, but you can always brown onions in a batch and store them in the freezer. I’ve done it before with a dozen onions and had a supply that lasted me 4 months. I stick them in ice cube trays so I can just pop them out.

If you have the onions out of the way, desi food can come together very quickly. To try a recipe, check out my post on Goa shrimp curry, which is what the spices in these photos are for.

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