Assorted onions of all shapes and sizes resting on a wooden cutting board.
Food & Drink

A Requiem for an Onion

Consider the onion.

For thousands of years this pungent vegetable was recognized as not just a main source of sustenance, but as medicine, an object of worship, and a culinary muse.  Ancient Egyptians used onions in burial ceremonies as it was believed that the bulb’s layered circles symbolized eternity.  Traces of onions were even found in the eye sockets of King Ramses IV– a gift of eternal life to honor the pharaoh.  

Mesopotamian tablets from 1700 B.C. document Babylonian recipes that leverage the sharp acidity and sophisticated sweetness of a wide range of Allium – the genus from which the onion derives which also includes other flavorful plants like garlic, scallion, shallot, leek and chives. 

Before the Olympic games in ancient Greece, athletes who wanted to increase their vitality ate pounds of onions, drank onion juice and rubbed onions on their bodiesRoman Gladiators were known to pre-game in a similar way. 

And across the Atlantic in North America, there is a theory that the legacy of the onion lives on in what is now one of America’s largest cities, Chicago.  The indigenous Miami-Illinois who lived along the southern shores of Lake Michigan were known to name places after plants that grew nearby.  The word “Chicago” appears to be the French interpretation of the Miami-Illinois word “shikaakwa,” meaning “stink onions,” and refers to a plant in the Allium family that grew along the Chicago River.   

This is merely the tip of the iceberg of onion’s influence.  It is an ingredient with global reach that has touched hundreds of cultures throughout millennia. Encountering the onion is practically a universal human experience, and yet, this unassuming pantry staple doesn’t get nearly as much hype as other trendy vegetables – looking at you, kale and avocados.   

Despite its prevalence, the onion is underutilized in Western cuisine, perhaps because of its shaky reputation.

They are relegated to side dishes where they get lost in a sea of vegetable medleys. Sometimes they’re an unwelcome topping after you specifically asked the waiter to “hold the onions.” Many avoid them because their sulfuric compounds can make your breath stink when eaten and your eyes water when cut. Some onion flavored snack foods don’t even use actual onions in their recipes, only onion powder.

According to the National Onion Association, onion consumption in the United States has increased over 70% over the last couple of decades, rising to around 20 pounds per capita in 2018.  That’s nowhere near as much as in Senegal and other West African countries, where onions are one of the most consumed vegetables.  According to Faostat, an organization that provides agricultural data for 245 countries and territories, as of 2017, Senegal’s onion consumption is just over 77 pounds per capita.  

“I can’t imagine a world without onions,” says Chef Eric Adjepong, “the onion is involved in 85% to 90% of the food I cook.”  Adjepong was a finalist on Season 16 of Bravo’s Top Chef.  He has also cooked in several Michelin-starred restaurants and is the co-founder of Pinch & Plate, a mobile dinner party service in New York City.  As a first-generation Ghanaian-American born and raised in New York City, Adjepong pulls his culinary inspiration from not just Ghana, but from much of the African continent as well as the African diaspora. “A lot of the foods are very similar and the starting points to many of those dishes are also very similar,” says Adjepong.  For many African dishes, the starting point is the onion. 

Jollof rice, which is a staple in much of the African continent, begins with a stew of onions blended with ginger, tomato paste, curry powders and oil. After about 30 to 40 minutes, much of the sharp flavors from the onion, ginger and tomatoes get cooked out, and what you’re left with is a kind of “marinara sauce” as Adjepong describes it, in which the rice is cooked.

Another prevalent onion-centric dish is yassa, which is primarily seen in Senegalese cuisine.  To make yassa onions are caramelized along with mustard and lemon which amplify its bright acidity. The sweet and astringent vegetable is then served with a protein like chicken or shrimp.

In Adjepong’s kitchen, he uses onions as a base for stocks, stews, sauces and to braise meats.  A base he enjoys using is one he watched his mother make when he was a child – a blend of onions, garlic and ginger that served as a base for nearly every meal.  This blend also happens to be the same starting point for many of Aarthi Sampath’s Indian dishes. 

“Every culture has a different mix of vegetables that they start off with when they’re making a sauce builder,” says Sampath, Chef De Cuisine at Junoon, a Michelin starred Indian restaurant in New York City.  Born in Mumbai, Sampath spent a lot of time exploring Indian cuisine throughout the country, working in Delhi, Hyderabad, and Chennai.  She brought this experience to the Food Network where she won culinary competitions on Chopped and Beat Bobby Flay.  

This concept of flavor bases is often referred to as a mirepoix which can be found across many cuisines.  Though they vary depending on regional traditions, these regional mirepoix almost always incorporate onions. 

The mirepoix in French cuisine calls for onion, carrots and celery. The Spanish equivalent to the mirepoix is sofrito which is oftentimes garlic, onion, peppers and tomatoes cooked in olive oil.  Soffritto in Italian cuisine is onion, celery and bell peppers cooked in olive oil, a combination that is called “The Holy Trinity” in Cajun and Creole cuisines. The German Suppengrün literally translates to “soup greens” and typically includes carrots, celery, leeks (another vegetable in the Allium family) and may also contain onions.  For many Indian dishes, it’s onion, ginger and garlic.  “Onion is so integral to Indian cooking,” says Sampath.  She says the onion is crucial to not only enhancing the flavors of Indian dishes, but also to adding thickness, especially in curries.

Another kind of mirepoix is the West African nokos, a paste that is used as a flavor additive to many sauces and stews.  Made from raw onions, garlic, black pepper, ginger, green bell pepper and sometimes habanero or other chiles, it is blended to create a thick, wet paste that is added to dishes when they need extra zest.  It is a potent mixture that only takes a tablespoon or two to completely transform a dish.  “Most households will have this in their refrigerator” says Chef Pierre Thiam, a Senegalese chef and author based in New York City.  Thiam is best known for his fast-casual food chain Teranga, his company Yolélé Foods which advocates for farmers in Africa, and his cookbooks which celebrate West African cuisine.  “Nokos has this magical way of bringing back all the flavors that have evaporated from the cooking process,” says Thiam.

“A big part of our way of approaching food is to consider that food is medicine.”

When cooking with onions, developing a flavor profile doesn’t start with the mirepoix – it starts with selecting the right onion for the right dish. Onions can be applied in countless ways and can achieve a wide spectrum of flavors from pungency to earthiness, and even umami. 

“There are thousands of varieties of onions and there are new varieties developed every year,” says René Hardwick, Director of Public and Industry Relations of the National Onion Association.  Hardwick says an easy way to break down the onion kingdom is into four categories. There are yellow onions, also known as storage onions which can be stored up to nine months out of the year. White onions are mild, making them perfect to be served raw in salsa and guacamole.  Red onions are also tasty served raw, but they pack a bit more of a punch, making them a suitable accompaniment to sandwiches and burgers.  Lastly, there are sweet onions which are great for frying and roasting. 

When choosing your onion, you should not only be thinking about variety, but you should also look at the water content. “In general, I look for onions with less water content,” says Thiam. “The quality of onions will affect your cooking.  If there’s too much water in the onion, then your dish won’t turn out the way you want it to.” 

The onion’s cultural significance goes beyond the pantry and into the medicine cabinet.  “A big part of our way of approaching food is to consider that food is medicine,” says Thiam.  “Growing up, onions were part of the healing process. My grandma would serve us raw onions as medicine.” 

There have been many cultures around the world throughout history who have believed in the medicinal benefits of onions. In India onions were used to aid in digestion, heart health, vision and to limber up joints.  Pliny the Elder even documented that the Early Roman Empire used onions to cure insomnia, mouth sores, toothaches and dysentery. In the Middle Ages in Europe, onions were used to treat snake bites, headaches and onions were even believed to help with hair loss. 

Despite the benefits and the many extraordinary ways to enjoy the ordinary onion, Hardwick says this underrated vegetable has a lot of potential. “Studies show that onions are the most commonly found item on restaurant menus,” says Hardwick, “and they have a 93% market penetration.”  In addition to that, onions make up the third largest vegetable industry in the United States.  “And yet, the onion still hasn’t gotten it’s due,” says Hardwick.

There were times in history when onions were an invisible hand that moved markets. In medieval Europe, onions were used as currency.  They were used to exchange for rent and were commonly given as wedding gifts, both for their monetary value and the belief that onions were an aphrodisiac. The practice of using onions as a currency continued in Siberia through the 18th century. 

Today, onions continue to be an economic force, including in India where they are a political and economic weathervane.  During a massive flood, Sampath remembers a time in India when onions had gotten too expensive for the average citizen.  “If you could afford 2 pounds of onions, you were considered well off,” says Sampath.

“Onions are a vegetable you don’t really think about, but if you don’t have it, you feel like something is missing.”

 The onion’s economic impact can also be felt in the United States.  The town of Vidalia, Georgia is practically built on the crop that shares its name: the Vidalia onion. Since 1931, farmers in Vidalia have made a living off of this sweet, juicy onion.  The onion became such a commodity that in 1986, the state passed the Vidalia Onion Act which states that the Vidalia name can only be used for onions grown in the twenty counties designated as official Vidalia onion growing areas.  In 1992, Georgia obtained a federal certification mark for Vidalia and became the official owner of the name for the vegetable.

Vidalia onions are a vital part of Georgia’s economy. In 2010, they accounted for about 40% of the nation’s spring onion production and had an average annual farmgate value of $150 million dollars according to Torrance Reid’s article “Vidalia Onions” in the New Georgia Encyclopedia. 

So why is the onion not revered?  How are there not entire cookbooks dedicated to the virtually infinite ways the onion can be used, or hashtags trends that celebrate its worldwide popularity?  Onions are in so many dishes, but we don’t think about why we add them aside from the fact that the recipe calls for it.  They’re an enhancement to the meal, but hardly ever the main meal.  “Onions are a vegetable you don’t really think about, but if you don’t have it, you feel like something is missing,” says Sampath.  

This universal ingredient has contributed greatly to human civilization.  Across cultures, histories and economies the onion has been prevalent, yet its influence is virtually invisible.  In the words of Chef Pierre Thiam, “the onion is humble but necessary.”  When you consider the onion, you realize we take it for granted.  

Written By Kae Lani Palmisano Food Writer & TV Host Kae Lani Palmisano is the Emmy nominated host of WHYY’s Check, Please! Philly, a show exploring dining throughout Philadelphia.
Kae Lani Palmisano is the Emmy nominated host of WHYY’s Check, Please! Philly, a show exploring dining throughout Philadelphia.