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Don’t Cry for Me

The Jews’ love affair with the humble onion dates back to ancient times. But how well do you know which one to use for which recipe in your kitchen today?

Paola Gavin
May 17, 2024

The onion has played an important role in our food since the Stone Age. At that time, raw onions, legumes, and bread were the mainstay of the human diet from Central Asia to North Africa. The Egyptians were especially fond of the onion, which they thought of as a symbol of eternal life, on account of its concentric circles. Onions were given to slaves building the pyramids to increase their stamina. Celibate priests, however, were forbidden to eat onions, as they were thought to increase libido. Onions were also much loved by the Jews in Egypt, who, according to the Old Testament, yearned for them after their Exodus. The Babylonian Talmud recommended eating the outer leaves of the onion first, as the heart was thought to be the best part. It also states: “One should not eat an onion from the base but from the top, and anyone who does otherwise is a glutton.”

Onions were much appreciated by the ancient Greeks and Romans, who used them widely in cooking, and as an aphrodisiac. They also believed onions cured eye ailments, toothaches, mouth sores, dog bites, lumbago, and dysentery. In his Roman cookbook, Apicus uses onions in many of his recipes, including a puree of lettuce leaves flavored with onions, pepper, lovage, celery seed, dried mint, olive oil, wine, and liquamen (fermented fish sauce), as well as boiled peas mixed with a sieved hard-boiled egg yolk, chopped onion, and oil.

Because onions were cheap and easy to grow, they became a favorite vegetable in medieval Europe, especially with Ashkenazi Jews. Raw onions were often served on the Sabbath. Fried onions were used to give flavor to all kinds of dishes, from scrambled eggs (eier mit zwiebeln), chopped liver (gehakte leber), and savory kugels to soups, kasha, and pierogi. Sephardic Jews also enjoyed onions. In fact, during the Spanish Inquisition, preparing meat with onions and garlic was a sign of being Jewish. At that time onions appeared in many Sabbath dishes like berenjena con cebolla (eggplant with onions, flavored with cinnamon, cardamom, and cloves) and onions in almodrote—a salad of fried onions and mixed herbs and greens, served with a dressing of grated cheese, breadcrumbs, garlic, hard-boiled egg yolks, olive oil, and broth. Red or brown onion skins were also used to give color and flavor to huevos haminadoswhole eggs braised overnight for the Sabbath.

During the Spanish Inquisition, preparing meat with onions and garlic was a sign of being Jewish.

Today, onions are one of the most widely used vegetables around the world. Their pungent, aromatic flavor has made them an essential ingredient in the kitchen. Onions can be roasted, baked, fried, caramelized, pickled, dipped in batter, made into fritters, chopped or sliced and added raw to salads, sandwiches, and dips, or used to flavor all kinds of sauces, soups, and stews. They are a fundamental part of the French mirepoix, the Italian soffrito, Indian curries, and Chinese stir-fries.

Onions can vary tremendously in shape, size, color, pungency, and flavor. Yellow onions with their brown, parchment-like skin and strong flavor are what generally come to mind when a recipe calls for onions. They are perfect for making classic French onion soup and deep-fried onions in batter. Sweet onions, which are larger and flatter than yellow onions, with a paler-colored skin and sweeter flavor, are ideal for making caramelized onions. Red onions, which have reddish-purple skins, are often thinly sliced and added raw to salads, like the well-known Greek horiatiki salata (lit. village salad)—a salad of sliced tomatoes, onions, sweet peppers, cucumber, feta cheese, and black olives. Scallions or spring onions are immature onions with long green shoots and unformed bulbs. They make a perfect addition to scrambled eggs, omelettes, tacos, and savory pies.

Yellow onions with brown skins that are harvested in late summer or early fall can be stored for months in a cool, dry, dark, well-ventilated space. The drier the onion, the better it will store. If they have begun to sprout, don’t consider storing them; they should be used at once. Always store onions away from other vegetables and fruit, as they will absorb the onion’s flavor. Although it is often said that a cut onion will attract bacteria and viruses, the surface of a cut onion is acidic and contains sulphur compounds that prevent bacteria and the formation of mold, so cut onions can be safely stored in an airtight glass container in the refrigerator for up to a week.

Another cultivar of the onion is the shallot, which, like garlic, is formed in clusters. Shallots may be oval or round with brown or pink skins. They have a milder flavor than onions, with just a hint of garlic, and can be used in similar ways. Shallots may be substituted for onions, but make sure you use the same volume. For example, one small onion is equal to three or four medium shallots.

Onions are low in calories but rich in fiber, vitamins, and minerals—especially vitamins C and B6, magnesium, potassium, and chromium, which is thought to help regulate blood sugar levels of people with Type 2 diabetes. They are also loaded with flavonoids, especially quercitin, which may help lower blood pressure and reduce the risk of heart disease. Purple onions are a good source of anthocyanins—antioxidants that are said to protect against diabetes and help lower the risk of cancer. Onions also contain prebiotics that are good for the health of your gut.

The Recipe

Sweet and Sour Onions With Raisins and Pine Nuts

Sweet and Sour Onions With Raisins and Pine Nuts

Paola Gavin is a food writer and author of four vegetarian cookbooks including Hazana: Jewish Vegetarian Cooking. Follow her on Instagram @paolagavin and on Twitter @paolagavinfood.