All of us have pantry staples, things with a long shelf life we tend to think of as indispensable. Most of them stay the same our whole lives—cereals, grains, canned and dried beans—but every so often something new comes along that makes us consider reshuffling the lineup. My latest item is fried shallots, thin pieces in big plastic jars you find in Asian supermarkets. I love them because they are so very simple, but add texture to many of the basic meals I make. For someone who always wants the crispy bits or end pieces, these things are a godsend.
Theoretically you could skin and slice shallots on your own, and fry them in a high-smoke-point oil like canola or peanut. But the pre-fried ones save time, and they’re expertly fried, much better than the French’s onion strings my grandma used to put on string bean casserole at Thanksgiving. You can both ditch the Lay’s and avoid hand-grating onion halves by mixing fried shallots into tuna salad for a simultaneous hit of salt and crunch. Add some to instant ramen. Sprinkle a few on scrambled eggs, meatloaf, or Trader Joe’s garlic rice. Heck, they could’ve saved Larry David a round of golf.
Fried shallots exist for me in an Indonesian context thanks to my girlfriend’s family, who call them bawang merah (“red onion”). They’re used as a garnish, sprinkled over nasi goreng or mi goreng. You occasionally see them in sambals, Indonesia's fiery chile pastes. Somebody told me fried shallots are also ground to a paste for the stock in oxtail soup. When I looked closely at the jar I got as a gift last Christmas, I realized I’ve been eating Thai fried shallots, fried in palm oil. This left me wondering about the cross-cultural possibilities, hungry to try more.
Justin Bolois is a writer living in Los Angeles. Follow him on Twitter @JustinBolois.
Photo of fried shallots by Chris Rochelle