The humble onion - how much do we take it for granted? The onion is one of our oldest vegetable foods – so old that many elements of its origins and early use are uncertain and mysterious.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines the onion as “the edible rounded bulb of Allium cepa, which consists of fleshy concentric leaf-bases with a strong pungent flavour and smell, varying in colour from dark red to white, and is used as a culinary vegetable, eaten raw, cooked, or pickled.” In English, the word is attested in one or other of its many spellings, since the fourteenth century – but the English word derives, not surprisingly, from the French oignon, and entered the language as a side-effect of the Norman invasion of 1066.
The onion originated in central or western Asia, and it has been cultivated by humans since very ancient times. It had distinct advantages over other vegetables in antiquity as it could store and carry well (so was useful on long journeys) and the importance of these attributes in the days before cold storage and Tupperware cannot be underestimated.
It is difficult to think of a national cuisine in which one or other member of the onion family is not essential (although several religious groups do eschew it.) Also not surprisingly for an edible plant of such antiquity, the onion has taken on many roles and accumulated many metaphorical attributions. For the ancient Egyptians, the multi-layered concentric globe of the onion root came to represent eternity and eternal life, and ancient Greek and Roman athletes ate onions and rubbed themselves down with its pungent juice to enhance their performance. As for its medicinal use, the onion has been used for a multitude of complaints from sore throats and headaches to impotence and the bite of a mad dog. Onions have even been considered appropriate as gifts and acceptable for rent payment, and the skins can be used to make dyes. Is the onion possibly the most interesting and fun vegetable?
I have heard it suggested that, should you be uncertain what to cook for dinner, put some onions on to braise anyway, because you will have the first step done when you do come up with a definitive dish. Such is the ubiquity of the onion in our cuisine. But surely the onion deserves more often to be a star, not a mere background note?
Here are a couple of recipes a couple of hundred years apart in which the onion really features:
A Fowl with large Onions.
Get a Fowl, clean and order it like that above*, lard it, spit it, and baste it with good Butter; cut large Onions into Slices, and put them in a Stew-pan with a Lump of Butter, then put it over the Fire; it being of a good Colour, strew it with a Dust of Flour; moisten it with Gravy, season it and skim it well; if it is not thick enough, put in a little of your Cullis: Your Fowl being done, take it off and dish it up; see your Ragoo be relishing, and put your Onions over it, with the Juice of a Lemon, and serve it up hot for an Entry.
[*truss the Legs inside the Belly, and lard it with thick Bacon, the Bignesses the Half of a small Finger; season it with Pepper and Salt, Sweet Herbs and fine Spices. ]
The Whole Duty of a Woman, Or, An Infallible Guide to the Fair Sex: Containing
Rules, Directions, and Observations, for Their Conduct and Behavior Through
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Rules and Receipts in Every Kind of Cookery ... (1747)
Slice as many onions as required. Simmer until cooked. Drain off water. Have ready two beaten eggs mixed with half a cup of milk. Season the onions. Add the milk and egg mixture. Stir over the fire until the eggs thicken. Do not let the mixture boil. Serve on buttered toast.
The Queenslander (Brisbane, Qld) 21 March 1929
Onions are my favourite vegetable. I've always wondered what people did with the rest of the onion when they only used a teaspoon in a recipe.
The second recipe reminds me a bit of sauteed onions cooked in custard from the "I Hate to Cook Book" by Peg Bracken. The recipes are dated, but the book is very amusing.
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