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Food in the 'Hood

Knowing Your Onions – Part II

Part I began the story of the onion in ancient Egypt, where it was vital to the diet and important to the culture’s religious faith.

Impressed by Egypt’s bountiful and invigorating onion harvest, Alexander the Great ordered Greek farmers to grow the crop. Onions, Alexander believed, would energize and fortify his soldiers. To prime themselves for Olympic competitions, athletes drank onion juice and massaged their bodies with the bulb. Hellenic doctors applied onion salves to wounds.

Favored by commoners, who often ate raw onion and bread for breakfast, the onion was a basic plebeian food in ancient Rome. Vendors in Pompeii, who hawked the staple, were shunned by the sellers of more prestigious produce.

In Rome the upper classes felt the onion should be reserved for piquant sauces and marinades. Onions pickled in honey and vinegar were a popular condiment. Roman gourmet Apicius conceived a sauce of onion, pepper, coriander, vinegar, and oil to flavor grilled fish.

For all their contempt for the vegetable, the cultivated classes occasionally indulged. Excavators turned up a basket of onions in a Pompeii brothel.

The Romans maintained the age-old faith in the onion’s curative powers. Roman naturalist Pliny offered 27 remedies in which the bulb could work its wonders: “The cultivated onion is employed for the cure of dimness of sight, the patient being made to smell it till tears come into the eyes; it is still better even if the eyes are rubbed with the juice,” Pliny advised.

In the East the onion met strong resistance from the high religious orders. The onion offended those committed to lead a holy and pure life.

Orthodox believers associated the plant, whose bulb grew underground, with sinister and unclean spirits from the lower depths. Onions and garlic, according to an early school of Hindu philosophy, embodied “darkness.” In some Hindu myths, onions are beloved by the devil, who also lusts after meat, blood, alcohol, and other strong foods. The pungent vegetable, it was feared, might, then, arouse forbidden passions and lewd thoughts.

In Islam the alliums were also equated with evil. In Muslim legend, when Satan left the Garden of Eden, garlic shot up from where he placed his left foot and onions, his right.

Many devout Hindus renounced the onion because its strong aroma, they felt, offended the Gods. Onions therefore had no place in the temple. Their fears were in stark contrast to the feelings of ancient Egyptians who made holy offerings of the vegetable.

Hindus who followed a strict vegetarian regimen also tended to abstain from onions. Their resemblance to meat, food scholar Frederick Simoons suggests, helps explain the repugnance. Because they looked like meat when cut or looked like a head, onions could be categorized as “flesh food.”

To higher Indian castes like the Brahmins, the onion was especially taboo. Priests, who were typically Brahmin, were expected to avoid the impure food. Partaking of the vegetable threatened the Hindu aristocracy with the loss of their exalted status.

Intriguingly, the same belief that led the orthodox to renounce onions led soldiers to embrace them. Warrior castes in India were permitted to eat the “very hot” vegetable. Onions would apparently provide them with martial strength.

In China, where the spring onion has been enjoyed since ancient days, the onion has been simultaneously inviting and threatening. Kumarajua, a Buddhist scholar who came to China from India, pronounced the onion one of “five vegetables of strong odor” banned for the clergy.

As in India, the onion was linked to the demonic underworld in China. Hence its powers could be harnessed to repel hostile invaders. For many centuries, the Chinese hung onions and garlic above their gates and doors from red cords to ward off evil. They were also supposed to scare away insects.

 

The Chinese also turned to onions for protection against illness. Onion tea has long been sipped to combat fever, headaches, and digestive woes. Savored in its own right, the spring onion was appreciated as a tonic that could keep one warm when it was cold outside.

Onions traveled west. They fed the Roman soldiers on their imperial marches. As Roman rule spread to Britain, Spain, and other lands, the new plant sprouted.

In the Middle Ages, friars planted onions in their gardens. The sturdy crop, easy and inexpensive to grow, was a medieval staple. The nobility, who once might have sneered at the bulb, lost some of their wariness. Charlemagne, for example, ordered his staff to grow onions in the royal gardens. Lords accepted onions from their tenants as payment for the use of their fields.

Onions were invested with supernatural and medicinal powers. During the plague years in eastern Europe, people strung onions and garlic in their doorways to keep away vampires. The magic charm, others believed, could also repel germs. Medieval physicians prescribed onions for hearing loss, headaches, and even snakebites.

Early herbalists, who were investigating the intricacies of the vegetable kingdom, were impressed by the onion. The English commentator John Gerard worried about the plant and spread his fears to his fervent following: “The onion being eaten, yea though it be boyled, causeth head-ache, hurteth the eyes, and maketh a man dimme sighted, dulleth the senses, ingendreth windinesse, and provoketh overmuch sleep, especially being eaten raw.” Surprisingly, though, Gerard believed that the bulb had hidden benefits: “The juice of an onion anointed upon a bald head in the sun bringeth the hair again very speedily.”

The English developed a fondness for the onion and its cousin, the leek. Among the Elizabethans, they overshadowed all other vegetables in popularity. Shakespeare wrote poetically about the onion and gave voice to persistent anxieties about the plant. In Antony and Cleopatra, Enobarbus the eunuch says, “The tears live in an onion that should water this sorrow.” Bottom in Midsummer Night’s Dream tells his acting troupe “to eat no onions nor garlic, for we are to utter sweet breath.”

The more cooks learned about onions, the more enthusiastic they became about what writer Brillat-Savarin called the “truffle of the poor.” Onions enhanced cabbage and potato dishes and elevated a basic stew. French chefs, in particular, enlivened Bourguignon, Soubise, and other classic sauces with the vegetable.

A recent study bears out the popular wisdom about the onion’s utility. Onions and leeks, the investigators concluded, were the strongest element in the gravy aroma of stews they studied.

The venerable bulb from the Old World was swiftly adopted by America’s earliest settlers. “Onyon seed” was one of the items ordered in 1631 by John Winthrop, Governor of Massachusetts. “The onion is the most favored food that grows,” George Washington enthused. The President was not picky. He liked the vegetable cored, baked, or “stuffed with mincemeat like an apple.”

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Onion Outlets

Burma Restaurant, located in Chinatown (740 6th St., NW – 2nd fl.; tel., 638-1280), is the area’s first Burmese eatery and gives onions a central place in its dishes. Kauswe Thoke, a noodle specialty, is enriched with caramelized onions. Another Burmese noodle classic, See-Jay Kauswe, is garnished with scallions and crisp sweet onions. Two soups also feature the vegetable: Ohno Kauswe, an egg noodle soup made with coconut milk topped with fried onions, and Mohingar, a fish soup, in which onions are an important ingredient as a garnish.

Mandu (1805 18th St., NW; tel., 588-1540). This Adams-Morgan Korean restaurant has an affinity for onions. Its scallion pancakes come with a soy dipping sauce seasoned with chili and sesame and flecked with green onions.

 

 

Joel Denker, a Peace Corp volunteer in Africa many years ago, is the author of Capital Flavors: Exploring Washington's Ethnic Restaurants (1988, Seven Locks Press), which evolved from his series in this newspaper two decades ago, known then as "The Ethnic Bazaar." He is also the author of The World on a Plate: A Tour Through the History of America's Ethnic Cuisine (paperback, 2007 / University of Nebraska Press), in which part of one chapter was drawn from articles that originally had appeared in this space. In addition, he has written about ethnic food for the Boston Globe, the Philadelphia Enquirer, Washingtonian, as well as continuing his monthly food column with The InTowner.

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