No other group of ingredients is more versatile and basic to cooking than the famous member of the Allium family - onion. Cultivated around the world for over 5,000 years onion is thought to be of central Asian origin. Onion was certainly cultivated by the Egyptians as far back as 3200 BC. Egyptians made offerings of onions to their gods, took oats on an onion, they used onions as part of the mummification process and depicted the onions frequently in their tomb paintings. The ancient Egyptians also traded eight tones of gold for onions to feed builders of the pyramids. The builders of the famous pyramids at Giza were reputed to have been paid partly in onions.

This well known Allium family encompasses more than 500 members and most of them are edible, but not all are good to eat. Famous members of Allium family like green onions (also called scallions), sweet onions (white, yellow and red varieties), dried garlic, fresh garlic, chives, shallots, leeks, pearl onions (also white, yellow and red varieties), rocambole (sand leek) and many others are indispensable in countless dishes from soups to salads and are also a great source of B vitamins, vitamin C, calcium and potassium.

Onions are incredibly versatile and each cuisine has its own rules regarding the treatment of onions. Yellow onions are the most common cooking onions and have the strongest flavor. White onions have a sharp fresh taste and red onions are slightly milder and crisper. Leeks are related to both onion and garlic but milder in taste and excellent in soups or braised. The flavor of Welsh onions lies between leeks and onions. Spanish and Bermuda onions are chrisp, sweet and mild. Vidalia, Walla Walla and Maui are super sweet varieties and often eaten raw. Pearl onions are very small and mild and usually cooked whole in stews, pickled or braised. Shallots taste like a cross between a mild onion and garlic. Chives have a light onion aroma and spicy onion flavor. Chinese chives are more garlicky and used in spring rolls, with tofu, eggs or stir-fried dishes. Green onions are young onions with long green tops and mild flavor.

Old folk healers have advocated onions as a "heart healer" and remedy for hundreds of other medical conditions including treatment of infections, wounds, curing baldness and the common cold. There is no scientific evidence to support all the claims, but some new researchers have now confirmed that an organic compound in onions, called ADENOSINE, functions as an anticoagulating agent as effective as aspirin. The other compound ALLICIN, discovered also in all the members of the Allium family is a powerful antibacterial agent. Furthermore, scientists have discovered that sulfur compounds in onions (compounds that are responsible for the characteristic onion odor), fight the certain stomach cancers.

After onions, garlic is the most widely used member of Allium species. Used raw or cooked, garlic is essential in most cuisines around the world. The Koreans hold the record in consumption per capita, followed by the Southeast Asians, then the Europeans around the Mediterranean.


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Onion Tips
PREPARATION TIPS: Onions are best chopped by hand, food processors will change their taste and texture. Onions lose flavour very quickly, so chop them just before using. If peeling and chopping onions makes you teary-eyed, try to hold the onions under cold water as you peel them and rinse the onions in cold water then chop. You could also try to place them in the freezer for 20 minutes before peeling. When peeling a pearl onions, soak them for a minute or two in boiling water, then rinse under cold water. The skins will then slip off easily.

REMOVE ODOR: If the smell of onions on your hands bothers you, try rubbing your hands with a few drops of lemon juice or vinegar or roll fresh lavender flowers between the fingers. If you want to clear your breath, eat some mint, celery leaves or a sprig of parsley.

BUYING & STORING: Choose onions that are firm, have a crisp, dry skin and no sprouts. Onions that feel light for their size may already have started to rot inside. Store onions in a cool, dry well ventilated and dark place.

Did You Know?
It is thought that bulbs from the onion family have been used as a food source for millennia. In Bronze Age settlements, traces of onion remains were found alongside fig and date stones dating back to 5000 BC.

The Ancient Egyptians worshipped onion, believing that its spherical shape and concentric rings symbolized eternal life. Onions were even used in Egyptian burials as evidenced by onion traces being found in the eye sockets of Ramesses IV.

In ancient Greece, athletes ate large quantities of onion because it was believed that it would lighten the balance of blood.

Roman gladiators were rubbed down with onion to firm up their muscles. In the Middle Ages onions were such an important food that people would pay their rent with onions and even give them as gifts.

Doctors were known to prescribe onions to facilitate bowel movements and erection, and also to relieve headaches, coughs, snakebite and hair loss.

The onion was introduced to North America by Christopher Columbus on his 1492 expedition to Hispaniola.

Onions were also prescribed by doctors in the early 1500s to help with infertility in women, and even dogs and cattle and many other household pets. However, recent evidence has shown that dogs, cats, and other animals should not be given onions in any form, due to toxicity during digestion.