Onion lovers throughout the world are weeping, and they simply can't help it! What is this phenomenon all about, you wonder? It boils down to a few biting facts recognizing that onions, a mere vegetable, have that certain power to bring us to tears.
Onions contain complex sulphur compounds. When you cut into an onion, two chemical reactions take place. First, when a knife cuts through the cells of an onion, its enzymes release a strong odor. Second, the onion releases allicin, a volatile sulfur gas that irritates the eyes and sends one rushing for a tissue.
Historically, the onion is nothing to cry about. Over many centuries it occupied an exalted position as a work of art as well as a food. Not many people today would burst into tears if they were asked to consider the onion as a work of art, but they might do so if they had to eat one raw.
Eaten and cultivated since prehistoric times, onions were mentioned in first dynasty of ancient Egypt, circa 3200 BCE, and have appeared in tomb paintings, inscriptions and documents from that time on. Some paintings depict onions heaped onto banquet tables, both the robust bulb onions as well as scallions.
Of all foods in the plant kingdom, onions set the record for the most frequent appearance in ancient Egyptian art. It certainly is no wonder since they were the staple food of the poor along with bread and beer. Onions often appeared in Egyptian art as a sacrifice that appeared on their altars.
Strange as it seems today, in ancient Egypt a basket of onions was considered a very respectable funeral offering, rating only second to a the highly revered basket of bread.
Archeologists discovered small onions in the eye sockets in the mummy of King Ramses IV who died in 1160 BCE. To the Egyptians, the onion, with its concentric layers, represented eternal life and was buried with each of their Pharoahs.
The origin of the name "onion" comes from the classical period when it was given the Latin name uniothat means oneness or unity, or a kind of single onion. The French call it oignon. Martin Elcort in his book The Secret Life of Food writes, "The word (onion) was created by adding the onion-shaped letter o to the word union, yielding a new spelling ounion. The letter u was later dropped to create the modern spelling. A union is something that is indivisible and which, if taken apart, is destroyed in the process, like an onion."
Wild onions presently grow in Central Asia where the whole family of onions is said to have originated, though some say it was in the area of Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. Those familiar looking, round, mature bulbs are in the Allium cepa genus that is part of the lily family. There are 325 species of onions, 70 of which grow in North America. The grand allium family includes onions, shallots, green onions (often called scallions), chives, leeks, and garlic.
Food historians shake their heads regarding the exact origin of the onion. Some varieties of onions have been given popular names like Egyptian onions or Welsh onions with no evidence that they actually grew in those countries. For instance, the Welsh onion, A. fistulosum, is considered quite primitive in that it has never developed a bulb, but rather resembles a scallion with a slightly thickened stem. The Welsh were not inclined to cultivate them on any large scale, and they weren't even introduced into the country until 1629.
More confusing is the Egyptian onion, a tree onion that was actually unknown in Egypt. A specimen of this unique onion variety came to the attention of Frenchman Jacques Dalechamp, in his country in 1587. The Egyptian onion, never having developed a substantial bulb, did not become popular because it has difficulty developing seeds to reproduce itself. This variety was officially introduced into Great Britain in 1820 from Canada. Historians have been puzzled to see the tree onion, along with the Welsh onion, growing wild in North America.
In their immature state scallions are called spring onions in Britain, though spring onions and scallions are terms sometimes used interchangeably. This causes some confusion. In the southern United States scallions are called green shallots.
The Sumerians of Mesopotamia, the first to establish a written language, developed cuneiform inscriptions. Archeologists found one of their inscriptions dating back to 2400 BCE that read, "The oxen of the gods plowed the city governor's onion patches. The onion and cucumber patches of the city governor were located in the gods' best fields." The inscription actually referred to the property of the temple as the "gods' best fields" that were being misused as an onion patch by the city governors.
One cannot deny the power of the onion on the olfactory senses. The rich found the odor downright disgusting. In spite of their negative attitudes, though, this "odorous" vegetable was cultivated in the gardens of the ancient kings from 2100 BCE to 716 BCE from Ur to Babylon.
From ancient history up to the 19th century, onions were relegated as the food for the poor. The Code of Hammurabi, known as the ancient law of Mesopotamia, shows great concern for the needy by providing them a monthly ration of bread and onions, a ration that comprised the mainstay of the peasant diet. As disagreeable as the onion was to the aristocrats, the peasants devoured them completely raw.
Apparently onions took on dual status in the attitudes in the ancient world. In Egypt they were highly revered by the poor and eaten extensively along with bread and beer. A small sect of Egyptian priests, however, were forbidden to eat them. Historians are unsure of the reason for this taboo. On the other hand, onions may have been reviled by those in high positions. In India Brahmins and Jains are also forbidden to eat onions, even today. Presently in France there is a sect with only a few thousand followers who revere the onion for its immortality and consider it divine.
By 500 BCE onions were a common peasant food in Greece. Though the variety of vegetables eaten by the ancient Greeks was limited to onions, garlic, peas, cabbage and lentils because most were expensive, the onion, however, was the exception. Because it grew easily and extensively, the poor could afford onions as a staple.
Onions played a role during the period Alexander the Great was leading his armies in conquest of other lands. It was believed that if one ate strong foods, one would become strong. Alexander fed his men onions believing they would increase their strength and courage.
In ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome the common folk relished their onions and even ate them raw. We're all familiar with onion breath. Perhaps that is why the upper classes, such as the Brahmins of India, turned up their noses. Apicius, Imperial Rome's first cookbook author, never featured onions in his cuisine of the wealthy but only used them as flavorings in sauces or to enhance a mixed dish or a dressing. The common folk frequently started their day with a hearty serving of raw onions on bread, a recurring theme throughout the peasant world, and one abhorred by the upper classes.
In Pompeii those "lowly vendors" who sold onions were rejected from the guild of fruit and vegetable vendors, and had to form their own guild. In the brothels of Pompeii, however, onions were held in high regard. Archeologists discovered a basket of overcooked onions in the ruins of one of the city's best-loved brothels where the elite co-mingled with the onioneaters, and, no doubt, enjoyed a few raw slices themselves.
By the first century, Rome developed a healthy respect for onions, which were suspended from numerous strings that hung from the ceiling of the Trajan market. It was during the Middle Ages, that the onion finally achieved status, where the low-born as well as aristocracy relished them equally. In fact, they were so appreciated that Emporer Charlemagne ordered onions to be planted in his royal garden, they were written into the French feudal deeds, and strings of onions were even accepted as payment for the use of land.
On his second to sailing to Haiti during the period of 1493 to 1494, Columbus brought the varieties of the cultivated onion to the New World. Though there were some native wild onions growing in America, they didn't compare to the intense flavor of the new variety from Europe. The Indians quickly adopted these new onions with great enthusiasm, especially the garlic.
Not so insignificant after all, America's native tree onions and nodding onions provided sustenance to Pere Marquette, a French Jesuit missionary and explorer, in 1624 when starvation threatened during his explorations from Green Bay, Wisconsin, to Lake Michigan's southern shore. The city of Chicago, a region that grew wild onions in abundance, received its name from the Indian word that described the odor of onions.
Had it not been for onions, the civil war might have turned out differently. General Ulysses S. Grant, who headed the Union forces, sent a note to the War Department that read, "I will not move my troops without onions." He promptly received three cartloads. Grant also employed the juice of onions medicinally as a wound healer.
American cowboys favored another native onion, the prairie onion, that they called skunk egg. No doubt it earned this descriptive name because of its powerful odor. Odor aside, the onion lends exceptional flavor to any raw or cooked dish and was always included in a favorite cowboy plat du jour called son-of-a-bitch stew.
What Famous Writers Have to Say about Onions
French writer Raymond Dumay affectionately expresses his thought on the onion in this way, "Garlic is peasant, rustic; the onion is urban. The onion brings to the kitchens of the cities a little of the countryside . . . the onion offers always, and especially in winter, a little of the springtime of the soil, preserved in its bulb."
Juvenal, a Roman satirist, created this poem about the Egyptians:
Makes gods of monsters but too well is known.
'Tis moral sin an Onion to devour,
Each clove of garlic hath a sacred power,
Religious nation sure, and best abodes,
When every garden is o'errun with gods!
When plague raged throughout Eastern Europe, people thought it was caused by evil spirits, and they used onions and garlic as good luck charms to chase off those spirits.
People hung strands of onions and garlic from their doorways, their windows, and even around their necks to keep the vampires away.
Some cultures thought of the onion family as having sexual powers. Even today, a Middle Eastern bridegroom wears a clove of garlic in his lapel to assure himself of a successful wedding night.
During Colonial times in the U.S., a slice or two of wild onions was thought to be a cure for the measles.
In Chinese medicine, globe onions (allium cepa) are said to calm the liver, moisten the intestines, and benefit the lungs. Raw onions are prescribed for constipation, for lowering high blood pressure, and for healing wounds or ulcers of the skin. Spring onions, or scallions (allium fistulosum), are used to induce sweating. One application for the common cold is to take 20 spring onions and simmer them with rice to make porridge. Add a little vinegar and eat while it is warm. Then wrap yourself up in blankets to induce sweating.
Some health studies have shown raw onions to be effective in lowering overall cholesterol while raising HDLs, the good cholesterol. Additionally, onions kill infectious bacteria, help to control blood sugar, aid in dissolving blood clots, and help to prevent cancer.
At the University of California at Berkeley, researchers found that yellow and red onions, along with shallots, contain quercetin, a powerful antioxidant that acts as an anti-cancer agent to block the formation of cancer cells. One and one-half to three and one-half ounces of raw onions eaten regularly contain enough quercetin to offer cancer protection. White onions lack this antioxidant.
Researcher Terrance Leighton, Ph.D. of the University of California at Berkeley also learned that quercetin deactivates the growth of estrogen-sensitive cells often found to cause breast cancer.
Asthma sufferers may also benefit from a hearty dose of onions. Researchers discovered a sulfur compound contained in onions that can prevent the biochemical chain reaction that leads to asthma attacks.
Selenium, a trace mineral found in onions and garlic, has also demonstrated anti-cancer abilities.
Know Your Onions
Onions are grown in practically every one of the United States, with varieties developed specifically for each climate. There is hardly a country in the world that doesn't grow multiple varieties of the allium family, since wild varieties existed from prehistoric times. Today onions are bred to adapt well to their different climatic conditions.
Some varieties were quite small like pickling onions that were about one-half inch in diameter, while others became giants. One of the largest onions ever grown appeared in Scotland and weighed in at 6 1/2 pounds.
Onions come in a variety of colors--white, brown, yellow, and red (or purple), while flavors range from mild and sweet to strong and biting. Nearly all onions will make you cry when you cut them--the stronger they are, the more tears you will shed.
Onion breeders closely studied the onion's sulfur compounds, resulting over time in the development of several varieties of sweet onions that were high in water and sugar content. Sweet onions are mostly grown in California and Texas, with Georgia, New Mexico, Washington, and Arizona producing them in smaller quantities.
Mild sweet onions include the following varieties:
Bermuda onions: another category of mild onions that come in red, white, or yellow.
Walla-Walla Sweet onions: originally came from Corsica at the beginning of the 20th century and arrived in Walla-Walla, Washington where they are grown today.
Texas Sweets 1015: available mid spring through early summer.
Among the hybrid sweet varieties are Vidalia which come from Vidalia, Georgia and Maui onions that come from the island of Maui in Hawaii where the volcanic soil contributed to their sweetness.
Uses in Foods
Onion-skins are usually considered the discards of the vegetable, but not always. Some people have discovered their powerful ability to lend a rich golden color to soups and to dye yarn and fabric. The Greeks traditionally use red onion-skins to dye their Easter eggs a bright pinkish red.
On the protein scene, 1/2-cup of cooked onions touts 1.4 gms, while the raw have .9 gms. The fat content of this quantity barely registers at .2 gm for cooked onions, and .1 gm for raw.
The folic acid content offers a surprising 15.8 mcg for the cooked, and 15.2 mcg for raw.
Both raw and cooked onions have trace amounts of B vitamins, iron, and zinc but stand out with potassium, magnesium, and calcium. While potassium registers 174.3 mg for 1/2-cup cooked onions, raw onions come in at 125.6 mg. Vitamin C, though not record-breaking, delivers 5.5 mg and 5.1 mg respectively.
Scallions pack a powerful punch of vitamin A with 193 IU for 1/2 C. raw with their tops. Folic acid registers 32.0 mcg, and vitamin C offers 9.4 mg.
Be sure to include scallions in your salads frequently for their high calcium, potassium, and magnesium scores.
And don't forget the powerful antioxidants delivered by onions. Quercetin has anti-cancer agents.
To avoid a bitter flavor never, never purchase onions that have begun to sprout greens from their stem portion. This indicates they are old. If you see sprouts forming in your onions stored at home, simply snip them off and use them like chives.
Sweet Onions: Plan to eat these raw to take advantage of their superb flavor. Grown in the fall and winter, sweet onions come to market in the spring and summer. Look for the Texas Sweets and Bermudas during this season. Because sweet onions have a high moisture and high sugar content, they don't store for long periods. It's best to purchase them in small quantities and use them quickly, within a week or two at most. Some special sweet varieties, like the Maui onions, are available in the supermarkets almost year round, but you'll notice they are quite pricey.
Storage Onions: Ideal for longer cooking dishes, these onions add depth and flavor to soups, stews, and casseroles. Their assertive flavors become sweeter during cooking. The stronger flavored varieties earned the term "storage onion" because they store well and keep for weeks in the supermarket due to their low moisture content. Grown in the northern areas of the U.S., they are harvested in the late summer and early fall. They go through a curing period during which they dry out before their long storage of several months. These are available as yellow, brown, or white onions from late fall through early spring, with another crop entering the market from March through September.
Pearl Onions: Only one-inch in diameter, these little pearls possess a delicate sweetness and are available year round.
Shallots: This mild onion variety is considered the gourmet of the allium family with a flavor that has qualities of both garlic and onions. Shallots are somewhat elongated, about 1 1/2 to 2-inches in length and about the same in diameter. From its garlic relatives it has developed its unique appearance of two to four individual cloves covered in a golden brown skin with just a hint of garlic flavor.
Onions keep best in a cool, dry place, perhaps a pantry or a low cupboard away from excessive heat or light. Plenty of air circulation is beneficial to prevent spoilage. Avoid storing them under a sink where excessive dampness will hasten their demise. It's common practice to store onions and potatoes together but not an ideal one. Potatoes have a great deal of moisture and give off a gas that causes onions to spoil more quickly. Stored carefully, onions can keep for several weeks.
Peeling Without Tears
A method that does work successfully is to plan ahead and put the onion in the refrigerator until it is quite cold. Seems it has a chilling effect on the volatile sulfur oils. Voila! No tears!
How delightful is the addition of half-moon slices of sweet onions to a salad of crisp mixed greens!
Raw, dehydrated bread would taste even better with a slice of sweet raw onion perched on top.
Add raw onions to a raw blended soup to lend a robust flavor.
Chopped raw onions or sliced scallions make an ideal garnish for raw soups, salads, dips, and pates.
Another easy garnish is to cut off the root end of a scallion, and make several cuts downward, about one and one-half-inches long, through the root end in crisscross fashion to make a scallion flower. You can cut the flower off the green portion. A grouping of these can add flair to any presentation.
Make a chop salad with scallions or onions, peppers, celery, cucumbers, radishes, cabbage, jicama, carrots, and any other favorites you want to include. Squeeze some fresh lime juice over the salad and toss with a little salt and pepper for a delicious and crunchable experience.
Add a bunch of scallions to a raw vegetable appetizer tray.
Why not pickle a few scallions. Wash them thoroughly, cut off the root end, and leave some of the green portion on, about an inch. Pack them into a pint-sized jar along with a tablespoon of pickling spices. Then fill the jar with two parts apple cider vinegar to one part water. Cover the jar with a tight-fitting lid and store them in a dark cupboard for a month and prepare to enjoy a rare treat
An enhanced version of roasted onions includes a light sprinkling of salt, a hint of dry red wine, and a few dashes of balsamic vinegar, taking care not to create too much liquid. Turn them frequently during roasting.
Scallions develop a succulent sweetness during the roasting process and can be served as an appetizer or a side dish. Wash them and discard any discolored areas. Toss them in a little extra virgin olive oil, lay them on a lightly oiled baking pan, and roast at 375 for about 15 to 20 minutes, turning them frequently with a spatula. To avoid drying them out, you can cover them with aluminum foil, dull side up.
Creamed onions can be a rich accompaniment to almost any meal. While the pearl onions are braising, prepare a vegan cream sauce. Into a 2-quart saucepan, add 2 cups of soy milk,1 or 2 teaspoons of nutritional yeast, and salt and pepper to taste. Bring to a boil. Prepare a thin paste of 2 T. each cornstarch and water, and add to the bubbling sauce a little at a time until thickened to desired consistency. Add onions and simmer 5 minutes. Serve and enjoy.
Here's a vegan approach to a classic soup that provides a satisfying warm-up when the weather turns chilly.