If you hear an onion ring, answer it
“Everything starts with an onion,” proclaimed my first kitchen mentor, holding a whole brown onion aloft in her hand for added effect. And there began my first lesson in a – mostly – professional kitchen. I can’t begin to tell you how many times since I’ve heard the memory of that one simple sentence in my head – and how many times it’s actually true.
Onions are a vegetable from the alliaceae family and are kin to that other excellent pungent root, garlic. Delicious when raw, sharp and sometimes acrid when cooked, onions transform with the help of nothing but fat to become soft, mellow and rich. Long, slow, gentle cooking converts this volatile beast, taming it, allowing its natural sweetness to come to the fore.
Onions are as happy being the star of a dish as they are supporting one; the truth of this is seen in their presence in innumerable dishes in practically every cuisine in the world. There are a few communities, for religious beliefs, that avoid them: Jainism and some forms of Buddhism subscribe to the idea that onions are heat-inducing, thus inciting wildness and passion, the call of the onion…
Peeling back the layers
There seems to be no conclusive evidence as to where onions originated, mostly it’s thought that it was somewhere in Asia; however it’s also believed that wild varieties appeared over every continent. We do know that cultivation happened early and probably simultaneously around the world as onions are fast and easy to grow, adaptable to many soils and climes, easy to dry, store and transport. At various times in history they’ve been derided as too pungent and food fit only for the poor or exulted – as they were in ancient Egypt where their internal concentric circles were thought to symbolise eternal life. Medicinally they have been used in many number of ways – I have friends who say an onion cut in half and left in your room as you sleep cures a cold.
Onions come into season in autumn and winter yet the large variety within the family and the diverse climates in Australia means they’re always available. They do change though; onions in spring are sweeter, early autumn onions are wetter, cool climate onions are more pungent, and ones grown in the warmth tend to be more mild. All onions, regardless of colour, get divided into two categories: green or dry. Green are plucked from the ground and eaten fresh, while the latter are left to grow until the tops die down before harvesting and then drying.
Onions to worship
Onions come from a large family so there’s bound to be some confusion with names. Let’s start with the tiny red Asian variety, a sweet onion with a healthy kick, their only downfall is peeling them. Usually called a red shallot, they’re very similar in appearance to eschalots – also called French shallots, either golden, pink or banana. A mild onion, slightly bigger than their Asian counterparts, eschalots are one of my favourite onions for pickling. Then there’s the spring onion, often referred to as a shallot in Chinese cuisine (and in New South Wales), slender and mild, with the white base used as much as the green tops. As good raw or cooked, spring onions are used with wild abandon in Chinese cooking. A true spring onion, also sometimes called a pearl onion, has its white part left on to develop and form into a bulb, also mild and lovely eaten raw. Another small onion of note is the Italian cipolini, the direct translation of which is ‘small onion’ so no confusion there. It’s a sweet little thing, round in the middle with a flattened top and bottom. There was a plate of them in Italy, pickled in balsamic vinegar, which I will never forget. And just briefly, a special mention to chives, a close delicate relative – slicing a bunch in the chaos of a hectic kitchen never fails to sooth my soul.
Who hasn’t cried over an onion?
Seasonal differences and age are factors that dictate the pungency of an onion, some can be chopped with little consequence yet others are so strong they can set a whole kitchen weeping. I’m sure you’ve heard countless theories on keeping dry–eyed; one that I subscribed to once or twice is placing the cut end of the onion on your head as you slice. Really, though, all of it is a lot of nonsense; the best tip is to make sure your knife is sharp to make clean cuts – a blunt knife will crush the onion releasing more volatile juices and thence causing more tears.
There are simply too many ways to prepare and eat onions that I love, so I will end here with a brief list: the hunger–inducing smell of almost burnt onions on a barbecue; Chinese ginger and shallot dipping sauce, good with almost anything; shallot pancakes; deeply golden caramelised onions eaten with seared chicken livers; thick onion rings in a delicate crisp batter; Japanese raw onion salad, crisp and sweet, doused in a vinegary dressing; onion tarts of any kind; my love of pickled onions – as a child I took great pleasure in eating them slowly, layer by layer. Now I think my favourite place for them is in a Gibson (a Martini by another name with the olive swapped out for, you guessed it, a pickled onion).
Cook the recipes
This sambal is sweet – yet complex with spices, chilli and tamarind – hence its name seeni, the Sinhalese word for sugar.
This is a deceptively delicate salad despite the fact that it looks like a bowl of potentially acrid raw onion. Based on a Japanese recipe, the onion is washed, removing its astringency, leaving a crisp sweet flavour.
This little number is basically a version of eggs and bacon with toast, fairly standard breakfast fare yet in a fancy new incarnation.
The sweetness of the onions and the earthiness of the mushrooms work with the mellow subtle flavour of the tongue. It is a recipe that requires time and patience but little attention.
Photography by Sharyn Cairns. Styling by Lee Blaylock. Food preparation by Tiffany Page.
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