Mama’s Punjabi Recipes: Sirke de Piyaaz (Vinegar Pickled Onions)


In Northern India, especially among Punjabis, it is almost considered sacrilegious not to offer piyaaz (onions) with a meal, akin to making a hamburger without onions or eating barbeque without onions and Dill pickles. You’d hear somebody quickly complain, “Kuon bhai, piyaaz khatam ho gaye sun?” (Oh brother, did you run out of onions?). The truth is, the crispy crunch and pungent taste of onions adds to the enjoyment of Punjabi foods.

A little refinement to this has happened over the past decade or so in North India as more homes – and especially almost all restaurants and dhabas (roadside eating stalls) have gone beyond sliced onions and turned to small pickled onions. They have the same taste but you don’t have the bitter after-meal odor. People will start to eat them like a snack even before the waiter serves the meal.

In North India, the onions sold are usually the red variety and most often are quite small in comparison to the size of the onions sold in the US. It is fairly easy to find small red onions about 1 to 1.5 inches round, which are the ideal size for pickling, and have thick layers. In the US, the only small ones you can find are the pearl onions, which are often much smaller and don’t have the same crunchiness after being pickled, since they are thinner layered.

And although you can go to the local supermarket in the US and pick up a jar of pickled onions, more often than not, you can’t do the same in most of North India. You have to go to a pickle store and even then, most don’t have jars ready to be carried away: you order by the kilo from a large vat. Most people just pickle the onions at home, but not always properly; often they’ll just throw the onions in vinegar for a few days and serve them, which only make the onions slightly bitter but without the aroma of spices.

• 1 kg chotte piyaaz (small onions)         – 1 to 1.5 inches round
• 2 cups sirka (distilled white vinegar)
• 2 tspn namak (salt)
• Spices: 2 loung (cloves); 1 moti ilachi (large black cardomam); ½ tspn jeera (cumin seed)

1. Peel the onions and rinse them. Coat with salt and place them in a plastic bowl overnight.
2. In the morning, rinse the onions in water and leave them in a strainer to dry. When dry, place them in a jar with a tight lid.
3. Tear off a small piece of thin soft cloth; place the spices in it and tie off the top to make a pouch.
4. Pour the white vinegar in a small pot and place over medium heat. Put the pouch of spices in the vinegar and bring it to a boil.
5. Turn off the heat and let the vinegar cool down. When it is cool to touch, take out the pouch and throw it away.
6. Now add the vinegar to the jar of onions and shake well. Let the jar sit in a cool place for at least a week, shaking occasionally. After it is ready, store the jar in the fridge.
7. Serve with any food you enjoy: they go well with roti, daal and vegetables.



Apart from being eaten plain or as raita, dahin (yogurt) is an ingredient that is used in many Indian recipes or used in a marinade for meats to enhance the taste. Full fat dahin has 12% calcium and is high in protein, sugar and carbohydrates. Yogurt by itself has live cultures that can prevent antibiotic-associated diarrhea.

One common mistake that many unexperienced cooks do is to scoop the yogurt out of the container straight out of the fridge and put it in the pan or pot in which the dish is being prepared. This requires that the yogurt be immediately stirred in, but often it adds white specs of curdled yogurt onto the item being cooked. It is best to first take the yogurt out of the container into a bowl for 30 minutes, then beat it so it is easier to pour in and mix with the rest of the dish.

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Shakuntla Malhotra is a skilled cook of Punjabi dishes made in the old-fashioned style that she learnt as a young woman in her ancestral home in Lyallpur (since renamed Faisalabad), India before it became part of Pakistan after the Partition in 1947. People have often admired her cooking for its simplicity and taste that comes with each mouthful. Even in her mid-eighties, she continues to cook daily and agreed to share some of her delectable Punjabi recipes.