Ode To The Onion

Onions have been held in high esteem throughout recorded history and used in nearly every cuisine around the globe.  They are one of the oldest known vegetables, probably among the first cultivated crops, are easy to grow, do well in a wide range of soils and climates, are less perishable than many other vegetables, and have grown wild in many regions of the world.  Food historians estimate that man has been sowing and reaping onions for at least 5000 years and that our ancestors feasted on wild onions for thousands of years before the invention of farming and writing.

An onion legacy can be traced back to 3500 BC in Egypt.  An inscription can be found on one of the great pyramids, built in 2500 B.C., detailing the amount of silver required to purchase  onions, radishes, and garlic to sustain the laborers and their motivation. “1600 talents must have been an impressive sum, else why carve it on a pharoh’s monument?” notes Sylvia Thompson in The Kitchen Garden (Bantam, 1995).  Illustrations of onions decorate murals in Egyptian and other ancient tombs of both the Old and New Kingdom.

were not only eaten…. but also worshipped, depicted on banquet tables, offered on the alters of the great gods.  Why?  To the ancient Egyptians, onions symbolized eternal life (note the onion’s anatomy; it’s circle within a circle structure), were customarily included in funeral offerings, and buried with pharaohs, attached to various body parts…. perhaps to ward off evil spirits in the afterlife.

According to the researchers behind www.ososweetonions.com, “Egyptians numbered over 8000 onion-alleviated ailments.”  Hippocrates, the father of modern medicine, noted for saying “Let food be they medicine and medicine be thy food” counted onions as a medicine.

The Greeks esteemed onions.  First century A.D., physician, Dioscorides, used onions therapeutically.  Greek athletes reportedly put away pounds of onions, downed onion juices, and anointed their flesh with onion liquid prior to competing in the Olympic games.

Romans revered onions, grew them in market gardens, transported them on journeys, depicted them in ancient mosaics dating back to the second century A.D.  The early Romans believed onions could cure vision, induce sleep, heal mouth sores, dog bits, toothaches, dysentery, even lumbago.  Emperor Nero’s an avid onions and leek lover, claimed onions improved his singing voice and male prowess.

Charaka, the famous Indian medical treatise from sixth century B.C., celebrates onions as a potent diuretic, and aid to digestion, health of the heart, eyes, and joints.

Architects have modeled mosques (the Great Mosque of Tamerlane, built in fifteenth century Persia, and the Taj Mahal in India) and monuments (such as St. Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow) on the onion bulb.

Asians have similarly honored onions.  According Dr. Henry C. Lu, author of Chinese Foods for Longevity and Chinese System of Food Cures, onions have been used in China for at least 5,000 years—to increase urination, expel phlegm, treat coughs, colds, wounds, ulcers, constipation, trichomonas, vaginitis, non-bacterial enteritis, and hypertension.
In the Middle Ages, onions were one of three main vegetables consumed (along with beans and cabbage); prescribed to alleviate headaches, snake bites, and hair loss; used as a form of monetary exchange as rent payment and weeding gifts!  Since then, onions have been used to treat bee stings, bug bites, and–in World War II Russia–as an antiseptic in battle.

An old wives tale lists onions as an ideal mouthwash!  “Chewing raw onions for five minutes kills all germs in the mouth, making it sterile; a good thing to know next time you get a cold,” says food historian Martin Elkort, author of The Secret Life of Food.

What  shall we make of this lore?  Can an onion a day really keep the doctor at bay?

Surprisingly, it may.  Modern research supports a surprising array of ancient allium-related health claims. “According to researchers in the United States and India, onions also kill the germs that cause tooth decay,” reports food historian Martin Elkort.

What’s the secret? Onions contain at least 25 identified active disease combating compounds that, like garlic, posses antibacterial, antifungal, and immune enhancing properties— which may explain their efficacy in warding off colds, relieving upset stomach, and other gastrointestinal imbalances.  Onions appear to lower blood pressure and cholesterol, inhibit growth of cancer cells, reduce stroke risk, and aid in preventing heart disease.

According to researchers from the American Heart Association, avid onion eating can prevent coronary thrombosis and hypertension.  Researcher Victor Gurewich. M.D., of Tufts University, says, imbibing the juice of one yellow onion a day may raise HDL (“good”) cholesterol  by as much as 30 percent. (Oddly red onions don’t possess the same potency.)

“One medium sized onion contains only thirty-eight calories and as much vitamin C as two apples, one banana, one tomato, or one orange.  Onions are among one of the 10 most popular vegetables in the country,” adds Elkort.  Prevention Magazine named them one of the 25 superfoods for combating heart disease and cancer.  So, an onion a day….. is a decent way to increase your odds for a healthy, well-rounded existence.

The onions most assertive compounds appear to be sulfur and quercetin, antioxidants able to neutralize free radicals in the body, protecting cell membranes from damage.  Onions beat red wine and tea when in quercetin content. (Yellow onions top red onions in the antioxidant race.)  Unlike wine, onion addiction won’t reduce your reflexes or get you arrested, so you can safely indulge—-any time!   (I do, daily!)

Raw or cooked?  Both have benefits.  Cooking softens the bite, sweetens the pot, multiplies your options, concentrates the volume and nutrients, and allows you to eat more onions in a single sitting.  Cooking does reduce sulfur compounds slightly…. though it leaves the quercetin  intact.


*  Average onion consumption in America: Almost 18 pounds per person, per year.

*  Who allegedly introduced onions to the Americas? Christopher Columbus.

*  Origins of the name for the city of Chicago: “derivation of a Native American word meaning rotting or smelly onions”  (Onions, Onions, Onions by Rosemary Moon.)

*  Why we cry: It’s the sulfur, says Rosemary Moon in Onions, Onions, Onions. When cut, onions release an enzyme, alliinase, which acts on something called alliin to produce an organic sulfur compound, which then reacts with moisture in your eyes…to produce sulfuric acid, which makes your eyes water and sting.

*  What’s the best keeper? Pungent onions have a high sulfur content and the best keepers.  Sweet onions have a short shelf life. (Sylvia Thompson, The Kitchen Garden.

* Aphrodisiac or counter-aphrodisiac? Record has it that in India, “garlic mixed with lard and rubbed on the penis was said to increase sexuality.”         It’s not clear whether “it was the garlic or the application process that provided the stimulus….” says Food historian, Martin Elkort.  Regardless, “at certain times in India, garlic, onions, and beans were thought to be so stimulative that they were banned.” (Martin Elkort, The Secret Life of Food .)

*  Oh that onion breath: To avoid turning off your mate, find a consenting partner who also adores onions, suggests Elkort.  If you both consume the same amount of onions (and garlic), “the unpleasant odors will cancel themselves out.”  Whew!

*  Derivation of the word: Onion comes from union and was allegedly created by adding the onion-shaped letter o to the word union, yielding this spelling: ounion. The u was later dropped. “A union is something that is indivisible and which, if taken apart, is destroyed in the process, like an onion.  The original root of the word is the Latin un, meaning ‘the number one,’ the only number that is not further divisible.”  (Martin Elkort, The Secret life of Food)

* Number of states growing onions commercially? 26 states in the U.S.

*  To peel without tears Try one of the following: 1) wrap and chill onions before chopping; (2) cut away the top, peel the papery outer layer away toward the root, leaving the root intact while chopping; (3) pour boiling water over small onions, leave to soak for 5 minutes, then peel and chop; (4) freeze onions briefly before slicing….. Or, just grin and bear it.  Some folks find that frequent onion use increases the resistance to tears.  You just get used to it.

*  Great onion book: The Onion Book by Jan Roberts-Domingue (Doubleday) The Sweet Onion Source found at <http://www.ososweetonions.com/> calls this “the one book every onion-loving cook will want to have in the kitchen – a single, infallible source for onion recipes and information on alliums of every variety (including garlic)…. a delightful 320-page hardcover book.. filled with 175 recipes, grouped according to season, for foolproof and delicious dishes ranging from Early Summer Gazpacho to Garlic Pork Stew, to Oven-Roasted Balsamic Onions, Carrot and Leek Tart – and more.”

So go ahead, have an onion a day, or at least part of one!

Roasted Onions

Prep: 20 minutes

Yield: 2 cups; 4 servings

Cooking: 45 to 60 minutes

Onions are my favorite vegetable to roast.  Oil and dry heat make them caramelize, creating a rich, amazingly sweet taste—a fantastic addition to tossed green salads and main-dish salads that include fish, poultry, or meat.  Whereas other vegetables must be arranged in a single layer in a roasting pan, onions may be stacked a bit deeper.  They shrink considerably.  I often prepare a double batch to ensure enough to serve for a few days running.  Leftovers taste great chilled or warmed briefly in heat-proof dish in my Cuisinart convection toaster oven. Try different onions, herbs, and spices.

Basic Ingredients:

2 pounds white, yellow or red onions (about 2 jumbo onions):

Spanish, yellow, white, or Vidalia, Walla Walla, or Maui onion

4 shallots or 1/2 to 1 head garlic, peeled (optional)

Finely ground, sun dried, mineral-rich sea salt (optional)

1 to 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil or melted unrefined coconut butter or palm oil

1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper (optional)

1 teaspoon dried, crumbled herbs (one or combination of several):

Oregano, thyme, rosemary, or Fine Herbs, Lemon Pepper, Herbs de Provençe,

or 2 rounded tablespoon whole mustard seeds

Cooking Instructions:

1.   Preheat oven to 400˚ F.  Break garlic head into individual cloves, peel, and set aside.

2.  Cut very ends off onions; halve, from top ot bottom, then peel off and discard skin.  Arrange cut side down on cutting board; cut into quarters, leaving a section of root attached at the end of each section, so they don’t fall apart.  If roasting for use in salads, after quartering cut halves in half or thirds cross-wise, to make 1-inch cubes.  Quarter shallots if using for salad.

3.   Scatter onions in one heavy-bottomed 9 or 10-inch roasting pan, baking pan, or heavy cast iron skillet. (Use a 13x9x2 or 18x9x2 pan for a double batch.)  Add garlic or shallots and sea salt if desired, then oil or melted fat, pepper, and herbs.  Stir to coat.  Transfer to preheated oven.

4.   Roast uncovered for 40 to 50 minutes, until lightly golden, tender, and easily pierced with a knife.  Exact time will depend upon size and type of pan, size of onion chunks, and accuracy of oven.  Stir or shake pan(s) every 15 minutes to facilitate even cooking.

Storage suggestions: Refrigerate in covered glass container or jar.  Use within 4 days.

1/2 cup serving: calories, g protein, g carbohydrate + g fiber, g fat.


*    Roasted Pearl Onions: Use approximately 2 pint walnut or pearl onions.  Plunge into a pot of boiling water for 1 minute, drain in colander, then rinse under cold water to loosen peels.  Cut off ends and peel onions, leaving them whole.  Preapare as above but arrange in 1 large roasting pan that will hold them in one layer, or 2 9 or 10-inch pans.

Guest author: Rachel Albert has been a natural foods chef, cooking instructor, and freelance food and health writer for more than 20 years. She has led more than 1000 cooking and nutrition classes in 8 states and had more than 300 articles published in national and regional publications.

She is the author of The Ice Dream Cookbook: Dairy-Free Ice Cream Alternatives with Gluten-Free Cookies, Compotes & Sauces (Planetary Press, 2008) and co-author of the award-winning book, The Garden of Eating: A Produce-Dominated Diet & Cookbook (Planetary Press, 2004).

Rachel teaches cooking classes for SWIHA (Southwest Institute of Healing Arts) in Tempe and for Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix, and leads group and private classes in people’s homes, cooking parties, dinner parties, kitchen coaching sessions, and healthy shopping tours in the Phoenix metro area. She also coaches clients by phone and in their kitchens and runs a gluten-free, practically-paleo blog with tons of great recipes and tips: www.TheHealthyCookingCoach.com

p.s. If you can, please consider attending Rachel’s Breast Cancer Fundraising Benefit, as she is going through treatment at present, without health insurance.