• "My slow cooked French onion soup also represents a refreshing tradition of self-discovery on so many levels." (E+/Getty Images)Source: E+/Getty Images
A misunderstood onion dish with a sweet taste and a long history helped me discover just how much I enjoy food.
By
Yasmin Noone

5 Aug 2021 - 1:25 PM  UPDATED 5 Aug 2021 - 1:40 PM

The 1980s may have seemed like a fun decade, but it’s got a lot of strange concepts to answer for: mullets, leg warmers and packets of processed ‘French onion soup’ mix.

As a first generation-Australian child who grew up in the ‘80s, I spent a lot of time at kid’s parties and momentous celebrations eyeing off trendy platters of crackers and onion dip, made from a chalky packet mix labelled ‘French onion soup’ blended with sour cream. 

The taste was edible enough to a child who loved the flavour of salt, except when you'd discover an air bubble in the dip and end up swallowing a mouthful of oniony grit.

When the mix was actually used to create ‘French onion soup’ – made as per the instructions (by adding boiling water) – the result was a muddy broth speckled with onion flakes, salt and other seasonings. Needless to say, the soup mix contributed to a childhood disregard for onions. 

This dish was incredible – a far cry from what I had ignorantly believed to be French onion soup. 

Being a naïve child, I was too innocent to know that the real French onion soup was a time-honoured dish, made with caramelised onions, butter, flour and beef broth that tasted like sweet heaven. I’m embarrassed by the fact that I remained unaware of what unprocessed, 'real' French onion soup was until I embarked on a right of passage in my 20s and moved to London.

An English encounter with French onion soup

It was a late Sunday afternoon in the English capital. I was staying in a somewhat 'seedy' hostel and couldn’t muster the energy to explore the area to source a late lunch, as I was jet-lagged. So I took to the hostel’s café, staffed by European immigrants, for an easy meal.

Unable to afford much, I selected the low-cost French onion soup from the limited menu and expected little, remembering the processed packet mix and dip of my youth.

What I got instead was soupe à l'oignon: a deep brown coloured broth, thickened with ladles of melted onion rounds, seasoned with bay leaf and thyme. It was covered with a slice of floating bread, topped with cheese that was slowly melting into liquid onion goodness.

I guess that explains why eating the soup feels like a sweet, warm hug: it’s a dish that bridges social status and offers nourishment to both royalty and commoners alike.

This dish was incredible – a far cry from what I had ignorantly believed to be French onion soup. In fact, it was an underrated bowl of cheap, gastronomic luxury.

The modern version of the soup I tasted dates back to Paris in the 18th century and has been associated with the French monarch, Louis XV. Apparently, his court ate the soup to mask the smell of booze on their breath. These days it’s often eaten in France as a hangover dish.

I guess that explains why eating the soup feels like a sweet, warm hug: it’s a dish that bridges social status and offers nourishment to both royalty and commoners alike.

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Opening my mind to culture and food 

To me, the real power of the dish went beyond its taste: French onion soup pushed me to expand my cultural food horizons.

Although I grew up in a European household, I avoided vegetables like the plague and ate quite plainly. Looking back on my days prior to living overseas, I see that I was a closed-minded eater. But this soup, tasted when I was dining alone on foreign soil, encouraged me to take a deeper look into the flavours I liked, independent of earlier influences.

Soon I started to experiment with my eating. Over the next three years that I lived in London, I travelled as much of Europe as I could and ate. I tasted new dishes and began to understand how food shapes our cultural identity. Like many a young Australian travelling throughout Europe, my taste buds were blown often and my mind was always expanding.

Forging new food traditions based on my own experiences

The soup has also shaped many personal moments. I was lucky enough to travel around France with my late mother, scanning the ‘plat de jour’ in local towns, hoping to score soupe à l'oignon as the starter of a budget three-course meal.

In the months after my mother died in 2019, I made my slow-cooked French onion soup for my father, who has now passed. It was heart-warming to watch my grieving dad raise his eyebrows with delight at each slurp, nourished by its contents, converted to its charm. 

These days the soup is helping me to forge new family food traditions. Recently, I made the same slow-cooked version I fed my parents for my one-year-old son. Watching him obsessively devour the broth, cheesy bread and caramelised onions – wearing half of it on his face and bib – warmed my soul.

That’s why my slow-cooked French onion soup also represents a refreshing tradition of self-discovery on so many levels.

The dish serves as a reminder that – in life, in the kitchen and at the dinner table – we are able to forge our own unique paths. We are influenced by our genetics, parents’ culture and the environmental factors determining our childhood.

But then we become adults. If we seek out new opportunities to explore, we can try new dishes, embrace new cultures and change our minds about the foods we once loathed or loved. Most importantly, we get to make choices about who we are and what we eat as we move forward into our future. And, if we’re lucky, we’ll get to eat a whole lot of soupe à l'oignon along the way.

 

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Slow-cooked French onion soup (soupe à l'oignon)

Ingredients

Soup

  • 4 large brown or white onions, thinly sliced and separated into rings
  • 6 tbsp unsalted butter
  • 1 tbsp white sugar
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • ½ cup cooking sherry
  • 1.5 litres salt-reduced beef broth
  • 3 sprigs fresh thyme
  • 2 dried bay leaves
  • Salt and black pepper, to taste

Cheese toast

  • slices of French bread
  • ¾ cup grated Gruyere cheese
  • Fresh parsley or thyme leaves 

Method

  1. Melt butter in a large saucepan over medium heat. Cook the onions in the butter for around 15 minutes, stirring occasionally until the onions are translucent.
  2. Add sugar to the pan. Cook, stirring constantly for a minimum of 30 minutes until onions are caramelised and browned.
  3. Add garlic to the onions and cook for one minute.
  4. Pour in the sherry and deglaze the pan.
  5. Place the onion mixture in a slow cooker, turned on low. Pour in beef broth, before adding seasoning, bay leaf and thyme. Season with salt and pepper. 
  6. Put the lid on the slow cooker and cook for eight to 10 hours.
  7. Once the soup has finished cooking and you’re ready to serve, preheat the grill (choose grill oven if that setting is available. Otherwise opt for the grill setting). 
  8. Ladle a few generous spoons of broth and onion into a heat-proof serving bowl. Float the bread in the soup, so that its base is embedded in the broth and its top is above the liquid. Generously top the bread with cheese to the corners.
  9. Place the soup bowl – with cheese-topped bread – under the grill. 
  10. Grill the bread until the cheese has melted (about 2-5 minutes depending on your grill). It should have some brown spots and be bubbling. Serve warm, garnished with fresh thyme.

Notes

  • Cheese: If you can't source Gruyere cheese, opt for Swiss cheese instead. 
  • Alcohol: Sherry can be substituted with Marsala wine. Other recipes also use dry white wine.  
  • Herbs: If you don't have fresh thyme for the soup, use ¼ teaspoon dried thyme. Fresh sage is another option if you have it on hand.  
  • Flour: There is no flour in this slow-cooker recipe, but if you're doing it on a stovetop pot then you can create a roux first equal parts butter and flour. 
  • Bread type: once your dish is complete, your spoon should easily cut through the bread in the soup. So the softer the bread the better.  
  • Bread size: Use common sense to match the bread slice size with the bowl you’re using. If you’re using a baguette and a large bowl for soup, scatter a few slices of bread into the broth. But if you’re using a standard size bowl and store-bought loaf of fresh bread from a bread-maker, use one thick slice.

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