What do you do if you can no longer eat onions, but still miss their flavour?
What’s a good alternative to onions in cooking? I have developed a severe intolerance to them, along with everything else in the allium family. Please help.
Jackie, London E18
“Don’t seek to mimic them at all,” is the characteristically blunt advice of Jacob Kenedy, chef/owner of two London restaurants whose kitchens are decidedly reliant on onions, Soho Italian Bocca di Lupo and the Cajun-Creole Plaquemine Lock. “Like any poisonous relationship, cut onion out of your life entirely,” he says, “otherwise you’ll be forever looking back like a lost lover. Take this as an opportunity for a fresh start, and look to recipes that have no thought or care for the onion.”
Like any distressing break-up, that’s a lot easier said than done, of course, but it’s really not the end of the world. “Raw onion and garlic, when added at the end of cooking, are often used to lend a dish some piquant pep,” says Kenedy, “so try something similarly spritely, such as lemon zest, capers, raw chilli, pepper or horseradish. They all have very different characteristics from onion, true, but they are still worthwhile replacements.”
Browned onion, on the other hand, adds savoury complexity – “Try a little anchovy, ginger or cumin for that,” Kenedy says – while softened onion brings body and sweetness, so turn to other vegetables to provide similar-ish texture: “Bridge the gap with chopped celery, fennel or bell pepper. And a little sugar, for that sweet hit.”
There is nothing that replicates onion exactly, but chef Merlin Labron-Johnson agrees that celery, and indeed celeriac, adds the required body and depth to soups and stews in particular. “Its subtle, earthy perfume goes with all sorts – meat, fish and other veg alike – so it’s very versatile, too.”
While onions are the bedrock of European cuisine, it’s worth looking farther afield for inspiration, says Labron-Johnson, former head chef at the widely acclaimed Portland and Clipstone in London, who recently ditched the bright lights to open Osip in Bruton, Somerset: “Many Asian recipes ask for alliums only at the end, often deep-fried, just-cooked or raw, which adds a totally different dimension.” They get their oomph from other sources: “Depth, umami and savouriness are provided by soy, fish sauce, miso, bonito or dashi, so experiment with those in recipes that call for cooked alliums.” (Like Kenedy, Labron Johnson also recommends a little finely chopped or grated ginger instead of garlic when sweating vegetables: “It adds a nice, subtle heat without being overpowering.”)
Karam Sethi, co-owner of what many regard as the UK’s top high-end Indian, Gymkhana in London, is on a similar wavelength. “We rely on onions so much to build depth and flavour, in Indian cookery especially,” he says, “but that doesn’t mean they’re irreplaceable.” For vegetable-based dishes, he suggests a combination of tomato, ginger and coriander seed; in meat marinades, ginger powder and fresh coriander: “Use the stalks and roots, too, for pity’s sake: they’re absolutely packed with flavour”. And in curries, lightly roast poppy, coriander and fennel seeds with fresh coconut, then grind or blitz to a paste for the curry base.
Jackie’s best bet at replicating allium also hails from Asia, namely the Indian spice asafoetida, or hing, which is a particular favourite of the Brahmin and Jain communities, whose religion forbids the use of onion and garlic. “Its predominant flavour is remarkably similar to that of onion and garlic combined,” Sethi says, “so it’s a good all-round substitute in the base of all kinds of dishes, not just curry.”
Derived from ferula root, a kind of wild fennel, asafoetida powder does, however, have one major flaw: not to put too fine a point on it, hing mings, with sulphuric notes that rival those of a spectacularly off egg (it also goes by the name of devil’s dung and stinking gum for good reason), so use it sparingly, even though the smell does dissipate once cooked. On the plus side, the spice also alleviates bad odours of our own making – hing is a popular treatment for flatulence, so, onions or no onions, it comes in especially handy in anything involving pulses.