"No onions" lentil soup

Next month, I’m going to an event where there will be 40-50 people hanging out and playing games all weekend. It’s glorious. There’s an industrial kitchen on-site, and I’ve signed up to make lunch one day.

My plan is to make lentil soup, salad, and herbed cheese biscuits. Salad and biscuits are no problem. But there are about a dozen different food sensitivities in the group, and I need to provide soup options to meet all of them.

I’ll make two giant batches of lentil soup:

  1. Vegan, with all other good stuff. There’ll be onions, and peppers, and paprika.
  2. Lentil soup with sausage, but with no onions, peppers, or paprika.

My question is about the latter batch of soup. Namely, how do I make it tasty? I can use garlic, but not onions. I’ve literally never made an onionless soup, and I’m worried it’s going to come out totally bland.

Do any of y’all cook without onions? Do I need to make substitutions (like putting in some miso or Worcestershire or something)? What would you do?

I’ve used parsnip when onions are left out. Usually that means more parsnip for me, I’ll put some in a lot of dishes. Turnips and rutabaga should work as well, radishes maybe too. More garlic perhaps too. Check the ingredients in the sausage if people have food sensitivities. Also, try adding those bitter herbs often used this time of year: spinach, kale, mustard greens, even horse radish for a kick.

Not necessarily bland, there’s plenty of other seasonings to use, but so many dishes start by sauteing onions, I wouldn’t know how to start without them.

Probably an unnecessary question since it sounds like you have a clear and accurate idea of what people can and cannot consume, but are you SURE that the persons who can’t eat onion or capsicum can eat garlic?

I ask because I used to know someone who couldn’t consume any form of allium (onion, garlic, scallion, etc.), any form of capsicum (bell peppers, chili, paprika, etc.), or any form of peppercorn. I was skeptical that one person could have related problems to the last two, sure that they were conflating “pepper” (like green or red pepper) and “pepper” (like peppercorn) which despite the naming conventions are botanically unrelated.

As it turns out there is indeed a legitimate medical condition that makes consumption of all three of those food categories unwise. (I believe the late poster Lynn Bodoni had the same problem). Shame on me for my unwarranted skepticism.

Anyway, I’m sure you can make tasty soup without onions, especially if you can use sausage (though it’s true you need to check the sausage ingredients very carefully). Me, I’d probably use lots of tomato paste to give the broth body and depth. If you are feeling adventurous, hing is a way to pack an onion-and-garlic free punch.

Asafoetida is used a lot in Indian cooking. There it is referred to as Hing. You will find lots of articles suggesting that it can be used as a substitute for onions and garlic, largely because the Jains, who don’t eat either, use it that way. I use it quite a bit in Indian cooking and find that it certainly enhances onion and garlic flavors, in fact I use it in French onion soup. I have never tried it on its own however. It does need to be fried for a few seconds.

I use Madhur Jaffrey’s lentil soup recipe, which is much better than the “traditional” lentil soup i used to make, and doesn’t happen to have any onions. It’s also vegan.

2 cups lentils (one pound)
1 cinnamon stick, 3 inches
1 bay leaf
5 cloves of garlic
2 slices of peeled fresh ginger, ⅛" thick and a little under 1" diameter
1 tsp ground turmeric

Rinse the lentils, put all those ingredients into a pot with 6 cups of water and simmer 30-45 minutes

Then add
¾ lemon, sliced, with seeds removed. (I usually use a whole lemon, and just discard the two ends)
1½ tsp salt
⅛ tsp freshly ground black pepper
(She recommends ¼-½ tsp Cayenne pepper, but i don’t eat “hot” so we always leave that out.)

Stir, and simmer another 5-10 minutes

Just before serving, heat oil in a small pan until it’s very hot, and add ½ tsp whole cumin seeds and fry until toasted, but not burnt. This takes seconds. Then avert your face and dump the seeds and hot oil on top of the lentils.
(She also recommends a lump of asefetida, but that’s disgusting, so i don’t allow it in the house.)


It’s really delicious and we eat it all the time, because it’s also really easy.

I also recommend pretty much every dish I’ve tried in her “an invitation to Indian cooking”

I agree that it’s worth checking, but i know several people sensitive to onions who eat garlic. They didn’t eat leeks or scallions, though.

I don’t eat capsicum. It tastes disgusting to me, and too much exposure makes me ill. (Small exposure just make me unhappy with the food.) I like peppercorn in moderation, and can consume more than i like without any problem, and it’s always hard to convey that when people ask if there’s anything i can’t eat. “No peppers, but pepper is fine” just isn’t very clear. :wink:

You’ll be fine with just garlic. Taste and adjust seasonings as needed. I cook a lot with onions, but also a lot of time I cook with only one or the other (like a lot of traditional Italian recipes.) It’ll work out fine. Be aware (I’m sure you are) that if you use any premade stock it will have onion in it. If I had to on the fly make an onion-less lentil soup with sausage, I would probably start with a base of finely chopped celery, carrots, and then a bit of garlic. Season generously with salt and pepper, perhaps a dash of MSG, and you’ll be good to go. I also like to finish with a lot of parsley and squirt of lemon when it comes to lentil soups.

ETA: I quickly searched and here’s an actual recipe for more-or-less what I advised above:

Just add sausage to that or sub it for the bacon.

What’s the reason for the no-onions restriction?

Could you use shallots, perhaps, if they don’t trigger the same restriction?
Or leeks?

There are two folks with that restriction. One says, “Allergic to onions (green onions are fine, as is garlic).” The other says, “[One of us] is allergic to onions and neither of us eats tomatoes (sauce is fine) or peppers.” Given the specificity of the second one, I’m guessing they’re okay with garlic, but I should definitely double-check. [edit: double-checked, and the onion-allergic guy won’t be there after all]

Hing is an interesting idea. I’ve never cooked with it before (I think I said I did in a previous thread, but it was because I got it confused with fenugreek).

Thank you! That recipe looks great. I don’t even know if I need to sub out sausage–but I do like the idea of a sausagy soup, so I might add a little sausage as well as the bacon.

I can make a triple recipe of this one, and a triple batch of Deborah Madison’s Hearty Lentil Soup recipe, and I think I’ll be good to go.

I was going to suggest miso, which you already referenced. Reconstituted wild dried mushrooms add a lot of flavor. As do shiitake stem broth (you boil them then discard the tough stems and use the broth). Since it isn’t vegan, you can put out sour cream for people to optionally toss in a dollop.

Oh, you’ll know if you’re cooking with hing! The jar I have almost looks like a white medicine bottle and I had to keep the lid on and in a ziplock bag to make sure it doesn’t contaminate my airspace. I think you can also buy it in chunks, but I have the powdered stuff. It’s a dried gum resin.

Fish sauce, and/or chicken bouillon choices/Maggi powder. Will give almost anything a nice savory flavor.

Definitely going to use a rich stock in the meat soup. Probably chicken, since that’s what I know best.

I used to use a lot of onions… so many recepies start with something like “saute the onions until they begin to brown”.

But a while ago I sort of got tired of them: made everything have that vaguely caramelized onion flavor.

These days I use garlic or shallots mostly.

The onions in those won’t be a bother?

Yes, we used it twice, and then i insisted it leave the house. It’s English name, asofetida, is related to the word fetid. It’s really really nasty.

I am pretty sure they won’t. It’s not a allergy, it is a digestive thing, and small quantities of onions don’t seem to trigger it.

Couple of side notes:

One, I love doing a loooooong slow browning of onions in my smallest slow cooker. Just lube it well, fill it full of sliced onions, a sprinkle of salt, and forget about it for hours. So much less work than doing it in a pan. Although especially for sweet onions I’m serving in wedges, topping them and putting them in an air fryer works really well, just quarter when done and serve a wedge along a meat dish.

Two, in the case of the OP, I normally don’t find trying to find a substitute for a flavor I need to leave out. I normally prefer to turn up a different flavor. For lentils, I really like a strong smokey flavor as an option - so I might use Andouille normally (but since traditionally made with onions, maybe not in this case). A nice bit of diced smoked pork jowl (sadly my local Kroger doesn’t have this anymore) can do really well there.

Anyway more about not getting stuck for onions, and instead looking for ways to make sure you maximize the flavor!

The turmeric/lemon of the lentil recipe i posted is really awesome. (Yeah, there’s lots of other stuff, but those and the lentils are the dominant flavor notes.)

Why bother making 2 separate batches? Lentil soup is hearty enough that if you include chopped vegetables, it’s likely no one will even notice a lack of meat. Also, Field Roast vegetarian sausages are excellent; maybe one of their varieties doesn’t have onion (although doubtful).