Know your onions! | Sunday Observer

Know your onions!

7 June, 2020

If you go to a competent lawyer and try to teach him the law, he will say, “Get lost! I know my onions.” Similarly, if you ask a doctor to prescribe a certain medicine for your ailment, he will say, “I know my onions. Don’t try to tell me what medicine I should prescribe.” If you say that someone knows their onions, you mean that they know a great deal about their particular subject. In British English, “Know your onions” is a somewhat old-fashioned idiom, but it has some uses. The idiom may have derived from the rhyming slang “onion rings” meaning “things.” In other words, if you know your onions, you know your things.

Apart from the idiom, onions have cast their spell around the world as a pungent vegetable. We are quite familiar with dry onions which are hard with firm necks.

They are usually covered with papery outer scales. Consumers do not buy onions with wet or very soft necks. They also do not buy onions with fresh sprouts coming out of them. Onions come in different sizes and varieties. Bombay onions or ‘B’ onions are for slicing, small red onions can be boiled, roasted or used in pickles.

Housewives know that all onions become sweet when cooked, but cooking too long can cause some bitterness. The white onions have medicinal values. Onions are used in sandwiches, salads and soups.

When you peel or slice onions your eyes will tear. Housewives refrigerate onions for a couple of hours before peeling or peel them under running water to avoid tears. Onions also leave a pungent smell on your hands. Housewives rub their hands well with vinegar, salt or lemon juice and wash them in hot water with plenty of soap to get rid of the smell.

Rose among roots

The celebrated author, Robert Louis Stevenson said, “The onion is a rose among roots.” However, onion is not a root vegetable but a bulb. Unlike other vegetables, onions are used in almost all the countries despite their pungent smell. The onion is a unique vegetable which can be baked, boiled, broiled, creamed, steamed or eaten raw. Onions are necessary for healthy growth as they provide us with calcium, iron, niacin, protein and vitamins.

Although there are many varieties, the dry onion is considered the ‘cooking onion’ in many parts of the world. Apart from its pungent smell and taste, the onion has altered the course of history.

At the height of the Civil War, General Ulysses S. Grant sent an urgent message to the War Department: “I will not move my Army without onions.” General Grant believed that onions prevented dysentery and many other illnesses. The War Department responded immediately by sending three trainloads of onions to him.

More than 5,000 years ago the medicinal powers of onions were known in the Mid-Asiatic region. What is more, even Hippocrates, considered the Father of Medicine, believed that onions improved eyesight. In the 16th century men applied onion juice on their bald heads for the growth of hair. It was also used to cure fits and dog bites. Even today people believe that red onions would bring some relief from the common cold. Ayurvedic physicians say onions would improve your complexion and that they have curative properties for those suffering from arthritis and hypertension. Onions also cleanse the digestive tract giving much needed relief for those suffering from constipation.

Scientific experiments

Many scientific experiments have been done on onions. According to a group of British scientists, patients who ate onions regularly had lesser blood clotting than those who did not eat them. Moses Attrep, a Chemistry professor at East Texas State University claimed that the onion is capable of reducing hypertension.

Why do we cry when peeling onions? This is because the onion has a volatile chemical compound known as ‘propanethical S-oxide.’

When you slice an onion, the chemical dissolves in the air and brings tears to your eyes. Technically, the chemical produces sulfuric acid which is an irritant that causes eyes to tear. According to etchings on Egyptian tombs built in 3000 BC, onions were cultivated on a large scale. It is said that Egyptian slaves who built the massive pyramids used to eat a lot of onions to gain health and strength.

The ancient Egyptians believed that the onion was a symbol of eternity simply because its layers formed a sphere within a sphere. Because of the belief, they used to have an onion in their right hand when they took an oath. A particular variety of onions was even worshipped as a deity.

Priced vegetable

In ancient Rome too, the onion was a priced vegetable. The Roman ruler Nero had an insatiable liking for onions because they improved his voice.

In medieval Europe, onions were so valuable that they were used to pay rent or as wedding gifts. Henry A. Jones, Director of Research, at the Desert Seed Company of El Centro, California was one of the largest onion cultivators.

He co-authored ‘Onions and Their Allies’ which remains an authoritative book on onions. He did a lot of research to improve the quality and size of onions. Sydney Smith (1771-1845) in his poem ‘A recipe for a salad,’ reproduced below, has included onions prominently:

To make this condiment, your poet begs

The pounded yellow of two hard-boiled eggs;

Two boiled potatoes, passed through kitchen sieves,

Smoothness and softness to the salad give.

Let onion atoms lurk within the bowl,

And, half suspected, animate the whole.

Most of us cannot do without onions. Enthusiastic fans are culinary experts who place the onion as the number one on their shopping lists. None of them will be able to rise high in their profession without the peerless onion.

A 19th century epicure expressed his opinion quite emotionally when he said: “Without the onion, there would be no gastronomic art. Banish it from the kitchen and all pleasure of eating flies with it.

Its presence lends colour and enchantment to the most modest dishes; its absence reduces the rarest dainty to hopeless insipidity, and the diner to despair.”

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