The most ubiquitous product in the European kitchen, finding its way into so many dishes. I like to cook a mixture of onions, shallots and spring onions, which leads to a subtle gradation of textures and harmonious flavours.
Spring onions, or scallions
|Species:||Allium cepa, a. ascalonicum.|
Western Asia or Central Asia.
Onion is found wild across Western and Central Asia and in Europe it has been known since the Bronze Age. Together with garlic, onion it is mentioned in the oldest parts of the Bible. Both onion and shallot were grown in monastic gardens across Europe in the Middle Ages in accordance with Charlemagne's Capitulare de Villis.
Onion forms a bulb (a cluster of subterranean leaves designed to store energy to allow for a rapid growth in spring) and this part is most commonly used. Besides the bulb, the superterranean green leaves are also put to culinary use, most often in the form of young onion plants "green onion" or "spring onion". Their flavour is more similar to chives but stronger.
Alliaceae (onion family).
In its fresh state onion is spicy, pungent and lachrymatory. On cooking, the flavour mellows and can even become sweet, depending on the exact cooking procedure. Dried onion has an aromatic, spicy odour and a mild flavour.
For the etymology of botanical genus name allium, see garlic.
Names of onion in Romance languages (and botanical species name cepa) derive from Late Latin cepa "onion" and its diminutive, cepula. Examples include Italian cipolla, Provençal cebo, Romanian ceapă and Albanian qepë. Many names of chives in Romance languages come from the same root and may be quite similar. German zwiebel belongs to that kin (its similarity to zwei "two" is purely coincidental). There are a few related names in Northern and Eastern European tongues, probably due to loans from German, e.g. Estonian sibul, Finnish sipuli and Slovak cibuľa.
French oignon, English "onion" and Dutch ui derive from late Latin unio "onion", probably related to unus "one" because of the single, perfectly shaped onion bulb in contrast to the multitude of garlic cloves.
Swedish lök, Icelandic laukur and similar forms (also English "leek" for the related allium porrum) all belong to a group of words further discussed under garlic. The Russian luk "onion" is a loan from a Germanic tongue.
The Bulgarian name kromid is loaned from Greek kremmidi. The latter has a long history in Greek language and was used by Homer, who tells us that the Greek heroes of the Iliad (more than three millennia ago) used to eat onions with wine (kromyon poto opson "onion as a relish for the drink").
The names of onion in Semitic tongues are remarkably close, e.g. Arabic basal and Hebrew bazal. These derive from a common Semitic root šhl with the basic meaning "to peel". Arabic basal was loaned into Turkish in the Ottoman period, but has now been abandoned in favour of the Altaic-derived soğan.
All the names of shallots (including botanical species name ascalonicum) derive from the Western Asian city of Askalon. There is a legend that crusaders discovered the plant there and subsequently introduced it to Europe. It is, however, not clear whether shallots actually have their origin in Western Asia.
The German regional name for shallot, klöben, is related to English "cleave", referring to the several sub-bulbs of shallot. The same element is also found in knoblauch, the German name of garlic.
Onion is a borderline case between spice and vegetable, included in the spice list because it is an indispensable ingredient of almost every cuisine of the world to provide flavour or pungency as well as volume and texture, according to the recipe details.
Pastes prepared by grinding onions with a variety of spices are known in many countries. Because raw onions easily turn bitter, such pastes must be prepared fresh and used without delay. Alternatively they can be preserved by adding acid (e.g. vinegar or lemon juice). Indonesia displays a great variety of onion-based spice pastes (bumbu) and from the New World, Jamaican jerk is the most famous example. Both mixes are mostly used to marinate meat or fish.
The literary history of onion begins very early, with a collection of Akkadian recipes (c.1600) mentioning onion as a common flavouring alongside garlic, cumin and coriander, more frequently used than mint, fennel and juniper. A few centuries later onion and garlic were reported to be popular in Ancient Egypt.
In Ancient India, onion (and also garlic) were very unpopular, considered impure and rarely eaten. Chinese travellers from the 7th century report that people eating onions had to live outside the cities. Sanskrit names such as nichabhojya "food for low people", shudrapriya "dear to the Shudras (members of low caste)" and durgandha "evil smelling", testify to the low reputation of onions. The important position of onion and garlic in today's Indian cuisine developed only due to contact with Muslims in the 19th century. Even today, some Brahmin communities refuse to eat these plants and their cooking uses asafoetida in places where other Indian cooks would resort to onion.
In contemporary Indian cooking, onion is the basis of most sauces and gravies. Nearly every North Indian recipe starts with the same procedure - fry chopped onions slowly, add spices (frequently fresh garlic and ginger, coriander, cumin, nigella, turmeric, black cardamom, chillies) and fry until the onion turns golden. The mixture (wet masala) may afterwards be pureed, simmered with tomatoes or yoghurt, or added to boiling vegetables or meat.
The dishes called "curries" in Burma are meat cubes or vegetables braised in a rich spicy gravy prepared in advance by blending onions, vinegar, garlic, fresh ginger, cumin, coriander and chillies to a smooth paste and frying in sesame oil until the fat separates from the gravy. As a result of an exceptionally long frying procedure, Burmese curries acquire a very complex taste not found in the cuisines of other countries.
By frying, onion changes its taste and becomes more sweet and aromatic. The flavour develops best after long frying in comparatively cool fat (clarified butter ghee is preferred).
Fried onion rings are popular in Europe as a decoration, e.g. for German mashed potatoes, but they are also known in Vietnam and in Indonesia, where nasi goreng "fried rice" is nearly always topped with them. After removal of the fat used for frying, the onion rings can be stored for several hours without losing their crisp texture, provided they are kept in an air-tight container.
Onions may also be dried, in which case they again change their flavour and turn more garlic-like. Onion powder is a popular spice in the South of the US and in Mexico and forms part of commercially available chilli con carne spice mixtures (together with cumin, oregano, garlic, pepper and chillies). Dried onions are also in important flavouring in Eritrean cuisine.
Shallots stem from the closely related plant allium ascalonicum. They are smaller than onions, have a finer and less pungent taste and grow in clusters with up to five bulbs. Shallots are popular in Northern France, where they are essential for sauces based on red wine. Contrasting the usage of ordinary onion, shallots are never fried (because the French believe them to turn bitter on frying), but mostly cooked or braised (e.g. for sauces made from red wine). Shallots are called for by the classic recipe sauce Béarnaise.
Many Far Eastern cookbooks suggest the use of shallots instead of onions, as they are closer to Asian onions in size and flavour. Shallots are particularly suitable as a substitute for onions in the Indonesian spice paste bumbu.