It’s all about the allium

A heritage that extends
back over more than six
centuries ….

When the first European settlers sailed for the new world in the sixteenth century, they took with them one of the staples of their cuisine, a plant that had by then been in cultivation for some seven thousand years. On arrival, they found that they needn’t have bothered, as it was already widely grown by native Americans. It is possibly the most widely used ingredient in the world; so how well do you know your onions?

And why does ‘know your onions’ mean to be knowledgeable? A rather plodding reason cites one CT Onions (1873-1965), celebrated in his time for his erudition, although it’s hard to imagine how this could evolve from a dry academic in-joke to common usage. Rather more likely, and certainly more interesting, is the derivation from rhyming slang, suggesting ‘Onion rings’ as ‘things’: this explanation, however, is seriously undermined by the fact that no-one has ever been heard to use the original formulation. So, nobody really knows, but a personal suggestion, endorsed by absolutely no authority whatsoever, is that it reflects the onion’s importance as a foundation for great things, i.e. ‘Know your basics’.

The world, fancifully suggested both Marvin Gaye and Blue Mink, is just a great big onion, and while geologists have convincingly proved them wrong they were at least on to something. Because by far the most impressive feature of the onion is its universality. From the sauce-based cuisines of the Mediterranean littoral to the more wintry fare of northern and eastern Europe; from the myriad culinary traditions of the subcontinent and Asia to the differently-evolved dishes of sub-Saharan Africa and the Americas – and in all the innumerable savoury dishes influenced by these widely different heritages – onions are a constant and universal presence grown in 170 of the world’s 195 countries,
with China and India between them accounting for some 45% of total production. Shallots, spring onions, summer onions, red, white, and yellow onions: all are variants or different stages of growth and maturity of the single species Allium cepa. And despite the global spread of their cultivation there is remarkably little in the way of variation from the original. There is evidence of onion cultivation from 5,000BC in Egypt and Persia – onions were placed in the eye sockets of the dead pharaohs, while the Romans were among those cultures that set great store by their medicinal qualities – yet by comparison with a relative newcomer such as the potato, onions worldwide conform to a single basic model with only small variations favoured by selective breeding. It would appear that very early in its history humanity felt that it had perfected the form, and need trouble itself no longer with attempts to improve the unimproveable. 

“ A weeping eye is a small price to pay for the inestimable virtues of the onion…

Capable of being used as a main ingredient in their own right, onions can be baked, boiled, braised, fried, sautéed, battered and deep-fried, roasted, pickled, dried and powdered for flavouring and – as final testament to their versatility – eaten raw. Bought in good condition and correctly stored, they will happily keep for weeks and months. In light of all of which, and considered alongside their function as a reliable and robust primary source of depth and flavour, the onion could be forgiven for feeling somewhat taken for granted.

From time to time chefs are asked to pronounce on their ‘favourite’ ingredient. Responses tend to divide into two camps. Some, generally the majority, pronounce on whatever they happen to enjoy eating most at the time or the flavour they find most satisfying, leading to unsatisfactory answers such as fennel pollen (yes, it’s nice; but really, your favourite ingredient?) or Jamie Oliver’s ‘obsession’ with chillies. Others, however, offer what appears to be a much more considered ingredient?) or Jamie Oliver’s ‘obsession’ with chillies. r the flavour they find most satisfying, leading to unsatisfactory answers such as fennel pollen (yes, it’s nice; but really, your favourite ingredient?) or Jamie Oliver’s ‘obsession’ with chillies. Others, however, offer what appears to be a much more considered ngredient?) or Jamie Oliver’s ‘obsession’ with chillies. Others, however offer what appears to be a much more considered approach to the question. Pierre Koffman opts for salty, surely the ingredient that deserves first place in all responses, while Marco Pierre White agrees with salt and adds butter: “the two ingredients you can’t do without”. 

Which is fair enough, but I’d challenge either to put together a savoury menu without an allium element. In fact, after trawling through rather more such surveys than is strictly good
for one’s sanity, it’s staggering how few chefs remember to acknowledge this kitchen essential. So, credit where it’s due to Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall. “If there’s one ingredient that will stand by you through thick and thin, come rain or shine, hell or, as seems increasingly on the cards these days, high water, it is surely the onion. After salt and pepper, it must be the single most frequently occurring ingredient in the whole pantheon of savoury recipes. I peel one, or several, practically every day of my life and, being a sensitive fellow, I shed copious and grateful tears every time I do so.”

As do we all, because just about the only downside to onions is the volatile sulphurous oil, often extremely irritating to the eyes, produced when chopping the larger white and yellow varieties. Although various methods have been devised to counteract this – from freezing the onion to wearing goggles (it would, I suggest, be a brave sous chef who tried that in certain kitchens) – none really work, although not cutting into the root where most of the oil is found certainly helps. However, a weeping eye is a small price to pay for the inestimable virtues of the onion, especially if it isn’t yours. Our parting advice is to get someone else to chop them for you, while you concentrate on getting the best once again out of these humble but glorious bulbs.