The revered onion, a multi-layered story

The Egyptians venerated them, the Romans rubbed them in, and the Talmud tells us how to eat them.


By Ruth Joseph, April 16, 2009
Follow The JC on Twitter

Onions are so much part of our modern culinary repertoire that it is hard to believe they are one of the oldest vegetables in existence. And as we chop yet another onion and face the tears, it is interesting to consider the theory that the Israelite slaves — who built the pyramids — were fed onions in order to give them strength. More likely, the Egyptians had discovered how to cultivate these vegetables and could therefore use them as a cheap food source.

Nevertheless the onion was venerated by the Egyptians. In fact, King Ramses IV, who died in 1160 BCE, was discovered to have been entombed with onions in his eye sockets.

When the Jews of the Bible ate an onion, they were told by the Babylonian Talmud to eat the outer leaves first. The heart was thought to be the best part. “One should not eat onion from the base but from the top, and anyone who does otherwise is a glutton.”

The onion existed in its wild form as far back as Palestinian Bronze Age settlements. Athletes in ancient Greece were fed quantities of onions to lighten their blood balance, while Roman gladiators’ muscles were treated to a rub-down with onions for strength — rather a smelly treatment.

Certainly, onions have medicinal properties. They are said to be anti-carcinogenic, and in areas of high intake, incidence of stomach cancer is low. They improve blood circulation and help with problems of blood pressure. And it has been proved that the proportion of “good” HDL cholesterol of someone eating half a raw onion a day can rise by up to rise by 30 per cent.

But apart from their health-giving qualities, it is the versatility and taste that make the onion such a valuable vegetable. There are many cultures whose cuisine could not exist without the onion — Indian and Italian cooking comes to mind.

Chopped finely and used raw, red-salad-onions are delicious combined with finely grated carrot, raw beetroot, chopped celery, walnuts or pine-nuts, mint and parsley for a bright red salad that tastes as good as it looks.

Or mix with slices of cucumber, finely sliced fresh fennel and chopped dill for crunch and taste. My mother boiled new potatoes in their jackets, then she would add finely chopped onion to her home-made mayonnaise, diced dill pickle and capers, mixing them into the still-hot potatoes. They tasted sensational.

I adore large onions simply simmered in vegetable stock for a good hour with a bay leaf and black pepper until their silky, pearly centres slip out. These are meltingly good for supper covered with mozzarella and baked in the oven until bubbling and golden accompanied by a good piece of rye bread and a pickled cucumber.

Or make a simple comfort-style soup by adding the same weight of potatoes as onions and plenty of stock. When tender, process the onions and potatoes with masses of parsley or watercress, salt and pepper.

For a sauce with a difference, simmer chopped onions in a pan with tinned tomatoes and black olives. Season well. Drop in two eggs per person, cover pan and cook slowly until eggs are just set.

Onion focaccia

Makes 10 portions

Ingredients
● 2 large, sweet, white onions finely sliced or chopped
● 1 tablespoon olive oil plus 1 tablespoon for glazing
● 280g (10oz) strong white flour
● 2 teasp dried yeast
● 350ml (½ pint plus 2 fl oz) warm water
● 2 teasp salt
● 50ml (2fl oz ) extra virgin olive oil
● 1 small red onion cut in chunks for topping
● Rosemary sprigs
● Sea-salt

Method
● Smear a 32cm x 25cm x 7cm tin with olive oil (or two thinner flatter tins)
● Set the oven on 200˚C, 400˚F, gas mark 6. Place dried yeast in a bowl with the water, and whisk in a couple of tablespoons of the flour. Sit the bowl in a warm place.
● Fry the chopped or sliced white onions in the one tablespoon of oil gently, until soft and just turning colour. Leave aside to cool.
● Put remainder of white flour in a large bowl, sieve in salt and when yeast mixture is bubbling add this and the 50ml (2 fl oz) olive oil.
● Beat well in mixer or turn out and work for a while. The mixture will seem very soft but it’s that extra liquid that makes the bread so moist.
● Grease a large bowl and add dough. Leave in a warm place, covered with a cloth, until mixture has roughly doubled in size.
● Remove dough. Divide into two portions and roll out to fit tin.
● Place one layer of the dough into the tin.
● Add the cooled onion mixture and the other layer of dough. Dip your fingers in the top to make hollows.
● Smear with other tablespoon of olive oil. Sprinkle with sea-salt. Spear with rosemary sprigs and raw onion chunks.
● Do not cover this time. Leave to rise again for a short while. Place in oven and bake. Serve hot or use next day warmed in microwave or oven. Freezes beautifully.
● Alternatively, omit cooked onion layer and make two thinner breads topped with chunks of red onion alternating, perhaps, with stoned olives.

    Last updated: 9:12am, April 16 2009