Samui Wining & Dining
Knowing your Onions

There’s a lot more to this popular vegetable than meets the eye.

P5-(1)We use them almost every day, rarely give them a second thought and they’re perennially cheap. No, I don’t mean your work colleagues, I mean onions. People will often describe life as like an onion, peeling away each layer to reveal something new. Actually I think life is like an onion, because, well, they make you weep, but that’s a whole other story for another time!

Food historians tend to shake their heads regarding the exact origin of the onion. A liliaceous plant, Allium Cepa, onions belong to the same family as garlic, chives, shallots and leeks. Some of the 325 varieties of onions have been given popular names such as Welsh onions with no evidence that they actually originally came from Wales. In fact, the Welsh onion – Allium Fistulosum – is considered quite primitive as it’s never developed a bulb, and they weren’t even introduced to the country until 1629. More confusing is the Egyptian onion: a tree onion that was unknown in Egypt, but did come to the attention of Frenchman Jacques Dalechamp, in his home country in 1587. It was introduced to into Great Britain in 1820, from Canada.

However, Egypt is the place where onions were first recorded. Over the years they have occupied an exalted position as a work of art as well as a food. Mentioned in inscriptions, documents and tomb paintings from around 3,200 BC, onions set the record for the most frequent appearance in ancient Egyptian art. They tended to be a staple food along with bread and beer. No problem with halitosis there then

Onions come in white, yellow and red colours, and in globe, round, flat or torpedo shapes. As a rough rule of thumb, white onions tend to have a glossy appearance and are pungent. Often they are used

raw on burgers, sandwiches and salsa dishes and cook well in just about any recipe. Yellow onions have a relatively strong flavour and can be used both raw and in cooking. Long, slow sautéing at very low heat brings out sweet, mellow flavours. And red onions, which are really purple in colour rather than red, are relatively mild in taste and are used raw in salads, or often stir-fried with other vegetables. Adding a bit of vinegar, wine or lemon juice helps keep the colour from fading.

Of course, one of the most notable attributes of the onion is that they make you cry more often than your favourite football team. But why do onions make you cry? Well, like other plants, they consist of cells, and when you slice through one you break open a number of onion cells. The enzymes inside decompose some of the other substances to form sulphenic acids which quickly rearrange themselves into a volatile gas. When it reaches your eyes it reacts with the water that keeps them moist. This changes the chemical’s form again, producing, among other things, a mild sulphuric acid which irritates the eyes. Our brain reacts by telling the tear ducts to produce more water to dilute the irritant and protect the eyes. And while the desire to rub your eyes is great, if they are covered in onion juice, it’ll just make it worse.

To prevent crying you can cut an onion under a running tap of cold water or place the onion in a freezer for ten minutes before you cut it. Cold temperatures slow down the reaction between the enzyme and the sulphur compounds, so fewer of the burning molecules will reach your eyes. Undoubtedly though, the most effective method is to get someone else to cut the onions, while you have a cold beer and watch the big match. Simple really!

There are a number of medicinal uses for onions. In 6th century India, onions were used as a diuretic, and were also considered beneficial for the heart, eyes and the joints. And in Chinese medicine, globe onions are said to calm the liver, moisten the intestines and benefit the lungs. Some health studies have shown raw onions to be effective in lowering overall cholesterol whilst killing infectious bacteria. At the University of California, researchers found that yellow and red onions contain quercetin, a powerful antioxidant that acts as an anti-cancer agent to block the formation of cancer cells. White onions lack this antioxidant. Asthma sufferers may also benefit from a hearty dose of onion. Researchers discovered a sulphur compound contained in onions that can prevent the biochemical chain reaction that leads to asthma attacks. And the trace mineral, selenium, found in garlic and onions, has also demonstrated anti-cancer abilities.

For external use, the liquid from freshly-mashed onions can disinfectant insect bites and stings. Also warts can be eliminated by applying a plaster with the juice of an onion smashed in vinegar, two or three times a day. And for those of us with a receding hairline, onion juice can stimulate the hair follicles. Though I suppose it probably helps to have some follicles in the first place!

So now you know a bit about your onions. A term which was coined in the 1920s, to indicate that the many varieties of onions cultivated over the years had different names from one place to the next. ‘Knowing your onions’ meant becoming familiar with those varieties grown and sold in the area where you lived. Later, it became an idiomatic expression used to describe a thorough knowledge of a subject.

And, according to the Guinness Book of Records, the world’s heaviest onion weighed 10 pounds 14 ounces and was grown by V. Throup of Silsden, England. That’s the size of a huge baby, which is what most of us are reduced to when chopping up onions!

        

Johnny Paterson


 


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