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Knowing Your Onions – Part I

“I will not move my army without onions,” General Ulysses S. Grant wrote in a message to the War Department. Three trainloads of the necessities arrived the next day. Grant was just one of many throughout history who have placed their faith in onions. So ubiquitous that it often goes unnoticed, the common bulb has quenched the hunger and added zest and bite to otherwise ordinary diets of countless cultures.

Honored as provider of health and vitality, it was, curiously enough, also a source of disgust and dread. Relished by multitudes, it was often scorned by members of the elect.

The onion belongs to the vast allium genus, a group of 800 species, which also includes garlic, leeks, and chives. The allia, whose name comes from the Greek “to avoid,” were most probably first domesticated in the mountainous regions of Central Asia near Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. The seeds and bulbs reached the Middle East with travelers and caravans that plied the Silk Road and other trade routes.

Their birthplace, allium authority Eric Block argues, helps explain the plants’ distinctive flavor and fragrance. “These plants originated in a very tough neighborhood, in Central Asia north of Afghanistan, and they evolved some serious chemical weapons to defend themselves.” Mostly odorless, they release sulfur chemicals when their tissues are disturbed by cutting, crushing, or other injury. The molecules easily disperse to excite our senses and even to attach themselves to our hair and clothing.

The chemical reaction that produces their appealing pungency is a survival mechanism. “They’re not there for our pleasure,” Dr. Block points out. “They’re there to allow the plant to survive in a very hardscrabble world, a world where there are lots of worms in the ground and animals that would devour something that exists in a bulb and has to survive in the ground.”

It is these same irritating chemicals that account for many of the onion’s medicinal properties. The onion helps fight bacteria, stops blood clotting, and remedies inflammation, among other things.

The chemical explosion ignited by peeling or slicing, Dr. Block observes, is also responsible for our eyes tearing and noses running. The sulfuric burst is known as the lachrymatory factor. The potent chemical dissolves in the eye’s fluid, making a weak sulfuric acid.

Cooking enables the onion to redeem itself. With heating, its harshness soon vanishes. From an onion base, an endearing sweetness, an earthy fragrance suffuses stews, curries, and soups.

The earliest civilizations sustained themselves on onions and other basic foodstuffs. Five thousand-year-old clay tablets from Mesopotamia (modern day Iraq), the earliest recorded recipes, show that onions, leeks, and garlic were mainstays of cooking. Instructions for braised turnips highlight these vegetables: “Meat is not needed. Boil water. Throw fat in. [Add] onion . . ., coriander, cumin. . . . Squeeze leek and garlic and spread {juice} on dish. Add onion and mint.” Onions were sacred in these cultures. Onion patches, a Babylonian official wrote, were “God’s best fields.”

In Egypt, peasants subsisted on bread, onions, and beer. When other foods were scarce, onions that had been dried and plaited in strings came to the rescue. Their masters knew what they needed to fuel their bodies. The cost of these spicy daily rations was inscribed by bookkeepers on the Great Pyramid: The workers were provided 1,600 talents (anywhere from $200,000 to $2,000,000) worth of onions, garlic, and radishes.

Onions remain essential to today’s Egyptians. “We don’t have any dish without onions,” Abdallah Hashish, the Egyptian-born owner of the Astor Mediterranean restaurant in Adams-Morgan, once told me. “Farmers eat raw onion and bread and salt and pepper.” Abadallah himself enjoys a simple snack of a raw onion sprinkled with salt and cumin.

Tomb carvings depict onions being planted and watered. Grown in the rich soil along the banks of the Nile, onions are still a prominent feature of the Egyptian landscape. Drawn by donkeys or water buffalos, wagons piled with bulbs leave the fields for market.

So fond were the Israelites of the onions of the Nile Valley that they pined for them in their exile: “We remember the fish, which we did eat in Egypt freely; the cucumbers, the melons, and the leeks, and the onions and the garlick.” (Numbers 11:5)

The onion, wooden models of which were found in the Egyptian tombs, assumed cosmic meaning. Emblematic of the universe, the layers of the onion represented the concentric circles of heaven, earth, and hell. (In Latin, the word for onion means “one” or “unity”). Leaders, it is said, swore with their right hand on the onion when making oaths. The Roman poet Juvenal poked fun at this peculiar Egyptian devotion: “It is sacrilege to bite the leek or onion. O holy nation in whose gardens divinities spring up.”

In ancient Egypt, onions were blessed by the clergy. Priests laying a bundle of onion leaves or roots on the altar were frequent tomb motifs. Mourners carried baskets of onions to funerals. Bulbs were inserted in the bandages of mummies, probably to awaken the senses of the dead.         The mummy of Ramses IV, the 12th century B.C. pharaoh, was found with onions bulging from his eye sockets.

An honored antiseptic, the onion accompanied the dead on their journeys, probably to cleanse the body of poisons. Onions in Egypt were grated for dressings and ointments for cuts and wounds, even acne.

The revered vegetable could also arouse contradictory feelings in Egypt’s religious leaders. Some feared that the bulb might awaken lascivious impulses. Others renounced it, the Greek historian Plutarch noted, because of other spiritual considerations, “The priests keep themselves clear of the onion and detest it and are careful to avoid it, because it is the only plant that naturally thrives and flourishes in the waning of the moon. It is suitable for neither fasting nor festival, because in the one case it causes thirst and in the other tears for those who partake of it.”<ENDMARK>

Note: “Know your onions,” an expression that first cropped up in the U.S. in the 1920s, meant “to know a lot about something.”


Appealing Onions

Astor Mediterranean (1829 Col. Rd.; tel., 745-7945). See above.

Lauriol Plaza (1835 18th St.; tel., 387-0035). Savor the large rings of raw onion on the masitas de puerco, a plate of tender, citrusy chunks of pork served with tasty black beans and rice.

L’Enfant Café and Bar (2000 18th St.; tel., 319-1800. This bistro serves both onion soup and an onion tart.