Peeling away the mystery of an onion
Yes, the onion is an herb. While there are some people that can’t eat onions for health reasons, and in the case of the Jain religion of India won’t eat onions for religious reasons, in most kitchens of the world it is considered to be almost a staple. It is unknown where the onion originated, but a good guess would be central Asia. It is now grown worldwide. There are those who would argue that the onion is a vegetable and a good case can be made for this assertion. But, it is such an important part of so many recipes and so many cuisines worldwide, used for its pungency, texture, and flavor I can’t help but include it in any list I make of herbs and spices.
Onions and their cousin garlic were well known and well liked in Ancient Egypt and were part of the diet of the builders of the Great Pyramids. The Old Testament mentions these two cousins especially in the context of the Israelites in Egypt. There are over 30 recipes that were found on three clay tablets from Mesopotamia that date to about 1600 BC, most of these recipes call for the use of onions. These clay tablets are housed at Yale University. In ancient India onions were very unpopular, people who ate them had to live outside of the towns. They were called “food for low people” and “evil smelling”.
There are many variations in the onion family. These variations include color, red, yellow and white, as well as tastes. Here is a short list of the varieties of onions, green onions, dry onions, Bermuda onions, Spanish onions, red or Italian onions, globe onions (very strong), Maui onions, Vidalia onions, Texas onions, Walla Walla onions, Oso Sweet onions, Rio sweet onions, pearl onions, and boiling onions. Onions may be found in almost as many varieties of processed stages. There is fresh, onion powder, onion salt, onion flakes and onion flavoring cubes. The young green onion is also known as a scallion.
Onions are one of the ingredients in a mirepoix or mirepois. This mixture of diced onions, carrots and celery is used to season sauces, soups and stews. It is also used as a base or bed for braising meats or fish. In New Orleans and southern cooking they are also one of the ingredients in “the trinity”. Similarly to mirepois you use onions, celery, and sweet bell peppers instead of carrots.
Occasionally you will run across a recipe calling for “onion seeds”. Although the seeds look like onion seeds what is really being requested is Nigella seeds. Onion seeds actually have little flavor and what flavor they do have really isn’t very good.
The onion is a member of the lily family and has many cousins. They culinarily include; chives, garlic chives, Welsh onion and garlic.