Eight years in the past, I spent my first 48 hours in the United States being pushed round the New Jersey suburbs by an acquaintance of my father’s. In his eagerness to familiarize me with the superiority of his (and now my) surrogate nation, he took explicit care to point out me the elementary establishments that, based on him, made America nice: the colossal gates granting entry to New Jersey’s very personal Mycenae, the Woodbridge outlet mall; a Dunkin’ doughnut store; the tube exterior a drive-in TD Bank that sucks in checks. Pride shimmered in his eyes, however he grew more and more irritated after I couldn’t muster a lot enthusiasm for iced espresso and doughnuts. (I didn’t have it in me to inform him that Dunkin’ additionally has outposts in New Delhi, the metropolis I left behind.) It was not till I got here nose to nose with a tower of grenade-size purple onions whereas shopping the organic-produce part at a Wegmans later that day that I felt my detachment towards this new nation start to ease a little bit.
I’m a grotesquely choosy eater, a time period that’s much more typically utilized to fractious toddlers than to individuals my age. I’m a vegetarian who eats precisely three greens. I can tolerate some dairy, however I nonetheless should repress a retch at the sight of yogurt. The sickly candy scent of a banana makes me politely excuse myself and flee the room.
When I used to be a fractious toddler, my mom, who was unemployed, making an attempt to look after a small youngster and finding out for exams, found that the one factor I’d eat with out gagging was one thing my grandmother additionally favored: a plain roti, together with finely chopped purple onions dusted with salt and spritzed with lemon juice. Later, via years of boarding faculty in India, the factor that stored me sane was wanting ahead to lunch on Thursdays, when alongside rajma chawal, we got razor-thin slices of onions that had been marinated in salt lengthy sufficient for them to have semi-dissolved. (My love for the onion doesn’t embody white and yellow varieties or Cipollinis. To me and my infinite pickiness, they’re simply pale, sludgewater-filled pretenders that include neither the astringency nor the chunk of their purple cousins.)
In my early 20s, I lived in a basement residence, the place my “kitchen” consisted of a mini-fridge, a rickety folding desk, an inexpensive dollar-store knife and a plastic reducing board. It was right here that I invented entire meals round purple onions in mixtures I can solely name ungodly and decadent. I dunked slabs of salted purple onions in Maggi Hot & Sweet Tomato Chilli Sauce and shoved them between slices of thickly buttered white bread. I ate them wrapped in the rubbery carpet of a Kraft white American cheese slice. I ate them dipped in olive oil and labneh. At Indian eating places, with my barely horrified American associates, I’d ask for onions, inexperienced chiles and salt on the aspect and proceed to chomp on them in eyes-closed pleasure all through the meal.
When cooked, the onion is a sturdy and gracious supporting character that quietly permits the dish to take heart stage. But when consumed uncooked, sprinkled with a little bit salt and pepper, a bitter alchemy transmutes its warmth into an expertise so intense that a single chunk comprises a whole sensory universe. I can conceive of no better pleasure than biting right into a slice of a uncooked purple onion and being suspended for a number of seconds in a cocoon of sensation: the sound of the primordial crunch as my enamel sink into it, even because it shoots rockets of discomfort up my nostrils.
I’m wholly conscious that confessing my love for uncooked onions is nearly akin to revealing myself as a believer in some fringe YouTube conspiracy principle. “But what about, you know. … ?” is the baffled response I typically obtain after I share this data, due to the apparent associations that onions have with dangerous breath and different violations of civilized society. The method we eat now could be tinged with a sure sterility that we demand from our meals — stripped of all its origins, the odors, the textures. But whether or not you’re peeling it, dicing it, wiping off the sticky tears attributable to it or scrubbing your fingers clear of its cussed perfume, the onion reminds you at each step that it’s alive.
My new residence has a kitchen, and I’ve discovered to do issues with meals that transcend merely realizing find out how to hack onions. I earn sufficient to sometimes order meals from a restaurant with out worrying whether or not it’ll depart me with out cash for a MetroCard. But in the winter months of 2020, when time slowed to a thick, tarlike sludge, it was my deranged method of consuming onions that stored me sane and fed, particularly on the days when a hulking despondency attacked my each try and stay usually.
There had been occasions after I may solely drag myself in three-day-old garments to face over the counter, knife in hand, inelegantly cube an onion, dip it in salt and devour it with white bread — a mix that also produced a burst of freshness and sensation so acute that it made my enamel ache. On days like that, simply glinting via the tears wrung out by these pungent talismans, as soon as believed to protect us from otherworldly evils, gave me a jolt of vitality. Tasting the stinging sharpness felt as if I had been borrowing a little bit of their aliveness, at a second when mine couldn’t be discovered.
Iva Dixit is an affiliate editor at The New York Times Magazine.