From the shallot to the calcot, these underground bulbs of de ‘light’ have and always will be the foundations of our food. Name me any main dish that does not involve this ingredient – and I will give you a fiver. Yes, the onion has been bringing tears to our eyes (literally) for over five millennia. Dishes where onions play the lead role do exist, namely, the tanged French onion soup and the aromatic Bhaji. But its reputation would certainly suit the award for best supporting actor, due to its based umami flavour and subtle sweetness that without would surely be missed in our food like Shrek without Donkey.
First found in the gardens of China and the writings of India in 5000BC, before promotion to objects of worship by the ancient Egyptians in 3500BC, onions have taken a very interesting journey of time around the world before finding their way to the frying pan. The Greeks used them as archaic steroids for Olympians in the first century while the Middle Ages viewed them as rent payments and wedding gifts.
In regards to growth, they begin their – soon to be extremely useful – life as tiny seeds before sprouting into its close relative, the scallion. Then the main bulb swells like Kim K’s behind to perfectly form the ever familiar onion, which then gets snipped from its umbilical cord (the roots) and a haircut (sniping the scallion).
Once offered to the chef (after purchase from almost any grocer) the onion will finally meet its most likely of fates – the requiem of slicing and dicing of the knife. That familiar first cut through its papery skin to the grating crunch of its ripe and layered flesh, leading to the stinging haze evoked by the sulphur rich oil causing the inevitable waterworks in our eyes.
Fun fact: ways to avoid this involve wearing goggles; freezing the onion or holding your breath.
Rumour has it – none of these completely work…
Then it’s time to perform the famous line in almost every savoury recipe: sauté the onions until soft! Sizzling and softening through oil or butter emitting sweet smelling wafts of planted earth around the kitchen. Finally, however served, expect a soft (or hardened if raw) bite of lucid veg crunch in the teeth swelling the mouth with that pungent flavour that would suit any dish – after all onions are the foundations of our food.