The pungent history of onions

Onions of different varieties and colors for background.

The pungent tear-jerker called onion, is farmed extensively the world over for its exotic use in various cuisines. It has become an integral part of almost all dishes with its predominant presence in soups, stews, and curries. It is believed that onions were first cultivated in central Asia.

One of the world's oldest cookery books in the Cuneform script in Babylonia recorded in 1750 BC, has references to the onion as an ingredient in several dishes. Ancient Egypt made extensive use of onions. The Egyptians used onion not only in their food but also as a vital ingredient in mummification, other rituals, and also in medicine.

Onion in Egypt and Greece

There are papyrus records of 1500 BC that say how onion was used as a medicine to treat hives (urticaria) or red skin rashes. Egyptologists and excavators have also vouched for the fact that onions were used in various rituals.

Over and above all these was the fact that slaves who worked on the pyramids were fed onions to enhance their stamina.

It was Alexander the Great who carried oions from Egypt to Greece in the 4th century BC. The rest is history. The humble-flavoured onion then crossed the Grecian borders to spread all over Europe. Archaeologists have found umpteen records of how onions were widely used in Greece. There are records to show how athletes in the Athens Olympics of yore drank onion juice to jack up vitality. They also smeared their body with onion paste.

Romans and onion

The Anglo-French 'union' and the original French 'oignon' originated from the Latin 'unionem.' Unionem means one, thus denoting union. The structure of the onion reveals its layers neatly arranged. It shows the harmony and synchronization of the layering. Pliny the Elder, the first century Roman author, naturalist and philosopher has recorded that ancient Romans used to pledge their word with an onion as witness.

Pliny made further records of the various varieties of onion that were used in Pompeii and how they were used as food as well as medicine.

The 4th century Roman cookery book 'Apsidias' has a record of recipes with onion as a vital ingredient. The tome contains recipes with onion as one of the ingredients as well as recipes solely with onion. The book has an onion soup recipe quite similar to what's served today. The Romans took onion outside the confines of the city and farmed it outside extensively.

Chicago city

The Middle Ages saw onion being used as a vital part of all dishes in Europe. Those who left the cold shores of Europe for the balmy and warmer climes of the Americas, took the humble vegetable with them. However, there existed a wild variety of onion. The city of Chicago apparently got its name from this onion story. The Indian-American name 'chicagwa' meant onion that smelt rancid. French settlers chose to call the place chicagwa where this wild onion was found thriving. Thus, Chicago derived its name from the old chicagwa.

The king's soup

The onion was a favourite for its culinary value. It could easily be carried along, would keep for long and could be dried and preserved for future use. The 1700s saw Britain going crazy over pickled onion.

French writer Alexander Dumas, apart form his famous historical romances and D'Artagnan tales wrote on a totally different subject … onion. The 'Dictionary of Cuisine' he penned in 1873 narrates how onion soup was a predominantly elitist dish patronized by the rich.

There goes a story of the Duke of Lorraine and King of Poland Stainslaw Leszczynski who halted at an eatery on his way to Versailles. One of the dishes served happened to be onion soup. Charmed by the taste of the soup, the monarch left only after getting the soup recipe. Thus, the diminutive onion acquired the status of affluence and started appearing on royal and rich tables. And the soup took the name of Stainslaw in honour of the king.

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