Fried crispy shallots is an essential condiment in many parts of Asia. It is especially popular in Vietnam, Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia, Singapore, China, and Taiwan. These little morsels of oniony flavor are used to add another dimension to dishes, and often go as a topping for vegetables, tofu, savory rice cakes, snacks, fried noodles, fried rice, and noodle soup dishes.
Where to find it?
You can find it usually in jars, or bags at markets that carry Asian groceries. Alternately, if you don’t have access to an Asian market, Trader Joe’s carries a similar product.
Can I Make It From Scratch?
Yes, but making it from scratch is a project unto itself. Making a good batch requires perfect temperature control, a keen eye for browning hue, and great knife skills or a mandolin. In fact, there are aunties that make it better than other aunties.
Pictured above: Vietnamese-aunty homemade crispy shallots
Sometimes I get a bag of homemade crispy shallots from my mother-in-law’s relative, whose call to fame is the most perfect, golden brown crispy shallots (that stays crispy forever) when stored in the right conditions. It’s usually hard to find this type of quality at the store, but if you want to try making your own, here’s a recipe from Epicurious. Caveat: You might not yield the above level of results, but it’ll work where dishes call for crispy shallots.
Homemade crispy shallots do taste better, but every recipe I’ve tried so far tend to get soggy after a day, so they don’t keep as well. Unless, you have mad secret aunty skills as per the above (or access to her recipe), I would just to buy it from the store. 🙂
What to look out for
Where is it produced?
The next best thing though, is just getting the ready-made crispy shallots from whichever store carries it. I tend to favor the crispy shallots that are made by small, trusted producers in my hometown in Malaysia, so I would get a kilo of that stuff and bring it back to the U.S. If i run out, I would get those made in Taiwan, or Thailand. It’s usually fried to a lighter color, and has a more refined texture as far store-bought crispy shallots are concerned.
Most of the commercially available crispy shallots tend to be browner, crunchier, chunkier, or a tad greasier; they can be produced anywhere from South East Asia, Or China. I also noticed that the Netherlands (which is a big exporter of onions), has crispy onion products at specialty grocers and Trader Joe’s.
There’s really a spectrum here in terms of quality, and if you haven’t been eating crispy shallots all your life as I have, you’re probably not going to care about the difference. Just get what’s available, and if you don’t like what you got, try a different brand.
How clean are the ingredients?
I would say, look for a clean source as far as possible. I’d worry less about products that are exported to the U.S., U.K., Canada, or Australia, as they have to pass health safety standards. However, for those living in humid Asian countries with more lax food safety standards, you’d want to make sure your source of crispy shallots is clean. Make sure you read the ingredients label.
There was a time when there was a conspiracy about some unregulated producers melting plastic straws to the mix to prevent the crispy shallots from getting soggy. Buy from trusted producers. Best way to test whether or not your crispy shallots are safe to eat, is to leave a tablespoon of crispy shallots out for a few hours in humid conditions. If your crispy shallots are still perfectly dry and crunchy after exposure to moisture over time, I’d dump the bag out.
How oily does it look?
Perfect crispy shallots shouldn’t look too shiny or oily
Sometimes, you’ll be able to see inside the jar or transparent bags, but other times they come in containers where you have no way of knowing. Good crispy onions shouldn’t be glistening and sitting in a pool of wet oil though. If you end up getting just a jar like that, just blot the excess oil using kitchen paper towels.
What color or hue should it be?
Perfect hue, size and texture. Left is a perfect darker color, and right is golden blondish brown.
Much like there is a spectrum of hues when it comes to browning butter or caramel sauces, there’s a spectrum of colors when it comes to crispy shallots. It’s not really something you should concern yourself too much about unless you have access like I do. I tend to like crispy shallots that sit in the middle of that spectrum, because the paler one (pictures on the right) is milder and have enough browning to have that subtle fried taste, and the darker one (pictured on the left), picked up enough Maillard reaction for a more earthy taste without it getting to the over-toasted level.
When to use which?
The darker one works better on rustic soups and recipes, where a refined texture isn’t a big deal. However, if you’re eating imperial Chinese cuisine, or Vietnamese snacks like Banh Beo, Xoi, or Banh Cuon, you’re going to appreciate the more refined crispy shallots.
I tend to shy away from crispy shallots this dark, but most people don’t seem to mind it.
Saying that, at non gourmet grocery markets, you typically see less refined, darker and chunkier crispy shallots. You’re probably not going to find the blonder version, but just take the crispy shallots that look the best to you.
Is it gluten free?
Most crispy onions out there are made without a coating of flour, but some producers might use wheat or rice flour to lightly dust the shallots before frying to give it a crispier texture. Just make sure you read the label, and if you’re suffering from celiac, you might want to look for a gluten-free label, or make it yourself.
Do I need to worry about the details?
If you’re not as obsessive about technical details like I am, you would love it all the same and won’t care to note the difference. I thought I’d just add that side note, in case you’re just as particular about details as I am.
Let me know though, if you care about such details in the comments below. That way I know I’m not spending too much time on the minute details when it’s not necessary.