Onions – The Lifeline of a Kitchen

“Life is like an onion. You peel it off, one layer at a time, and sometimes you weep.” Carl Sandburg


Can you imagine life without water, or a kitchen without onions? Onions are the lifeline of the kitchen and most recipes use onions as the basic and most important ingredient. Capable of bringing a tear to the eye and a pungent smell to your breath, the onion provides layers of colour, texture and flavour to a variety of dishes and is capable of making or breaking a dish. “Its presence adds colour and enhancement to the most modest dish; its absence reduces the rarest delicacy to hopeless insipidity, and dinner to despair.” ( Elizabeth Robbins Pennel, American coloumnist)



Health Benefits of Onions (Images via: sxc.hu)

Scientifically known as Allium Cepa, the word ‘onion’ is derived from the Latin word ‘Unio’, which means ‘single’ or ‘one’. The onion produces a single bulb, and when cut down the middle, has distinctive concentrically arranged layers.


The Onion Story:

Along with leeks and garlic, ancient Egyptians began cultivation of onions around 3,000 BC, although there have been traces of onion remains found in Bronze Age settlements which date to about 5,000 BC. Onions were also a part of the diet of Ancient Greece, China, India, and Rome, while it was Columbus who first introduced this pungent vegetable to North America during his expedition to Hispaniala in the year 1942. They were highly regarded by the Egyptians, who, not only used them as  currency to pay the slaves who built the pyramids, but also placed them in the tombs of kings, such as Tutankhamen, since the onions were believed to have a spiritual significance, which helped to pave the way to the afterlife.


Different Types of Onions:

Ever wondered at the many varieties of onions you might find at the market and which onion is best to be used for which recipe? Don’t worry, because though onions come in different shapes, sizes, colours and flavours, they do not make such a great difference to the recipe if interchanged. However it would be a good idea to know how to identify the different types of onions found in the market; its best usage and general cooking pattern, to obtain maximum flavour and taste.


1. Yellow Onions:

Yellow OnionFull of flavour, these onions can be used for cooking almost anything. They are sweet to taste and turn dark brown when cooked, bringing out a nutty, mellow and often sweet flavour when caramelised. They are best used raw, lightly cooked, sautéed or grilled, caramelized, baked or roasted.


2. Red Onions:

Red OnionHaving a beautiful, reddish pink colour, this onion is a good choice for grilling, char boiling and roasting. Salads and sandwiches are usually garnished with red onions because of its rich colour, slightly less water content and a unique taste ranging from slightly pungent to moderately sharp and spicy.


3. White Onions:

White OnionsThis type of onion is often used in salads, white sauces and in most Mexican and South Western cuisine. Full of flavour, moderately to highly pungent, they are best used raw, grilled, sautéed or lightly cooked. Since the cell structure of the white onion is rather compact, they tend to rot faster, so it is a good idea to not store them for a long time.


4. Shallots:

ShallotsAlso known as kanda or pyaaz in Hindi, praan in Kashmiri and sambhar vengayam in Tamil, shallots are formed in clusters of offsets with a head composed of multiple cloves. Although shallots taste more like the yellow onion, they lend a unique flavour to the dish, especially the South Indian Sambhar. Delicate and mild to taste, they can also be pickled. Finely sliced, deep fried shallots are commonly used as a condiment in Asian cuisine.


5. Scallion Onions:

green onionsAlso known as spring onions, salad onions or green onions, scallions are milder than other onions and are often used in Asian or Chinese recipes including salads seafood dishes, noodles and in soups and sauce recipes. The leaves of these onions are also used as garnish.


Onion Nutritional Profile:

Low in saturated fats, cholesterol and sodium, onions are a good source of Vitamin C, Dietary Fiber,Vitamin B6, Folate, Potassium and Manganese, and also provides a number of other key ingredients. Given below is a concise profile of the nutrition facts found per serving size of 1 cup of onions:

  Nutrient Value Percentage Daily Value
Energy 40 Kcal 2%
Carbohydrates 9.34 g 7%
Dietary Fiber 1.7 g 4.5%
Total Fat 0.10 g 0.5%
Proteins 1.10 g 2%
Vitamin A 2 IU
Vitamin C 7.4 mg 12%
Vitamin B6 0.2 mg 10%
Folates 19 µg 5%
Calcium 23 mg 2%
Iron 0.2 mg 3%
Magnesium 10 mg 2.5%
Phosphorus 29 mg 4%
Potassium 146 mg 3%
Iron 0.21 mg 3%
Zinc 0.17 mg 1.5%
Manganese 0.129 mg 2.5%

Source: USDA National Nutrient Database


Health Benefits of Onions:

Although the health benefits of onions have been known to man for thousands of years, it is only relatively recently that studies have confirmed the health enhancing properties of this unassuming, taken for granted, nondescript vegetable. According to these studies, onions possess many active compounds that have proven beneficial for all sorts of health conditions.


Benefits of Quercitin:

Apart from the white variety, onions contain a potent Antioxidant Flavonoid, Quercitin, found mainly near or on the skin, which is linked to a number of health benefits. The many properties of Quercitin include:

  • Thinning of blood
  • Lowering cholesterol levels in blood
  • Raising good type HDL cholesterol
  • Keeping blood clots at bay
  • Fighting asthma, chronic bronchitis, hay fever, diabetes, arthero sclerosis and various other infections
  • Inhibiting cancer in the stomach
  • Anti inflammatory, antibiotic and anti viral
  • Sedative property


Anti Cancer effect of Onions:

New research reveals that onions have potent anti cancer effects; since they contain protective substances called organo sulphur compounds, which are released when the onions are chopped, crushed or chewed. “ These compounds prevent the development of cancers by detoxifying carcinogens, halting cancer cell growth and preventing tumours from obtaining a blood supply.” The Flavonoid, Quercitin, also helps in slowing down the growth of tumours and helps in fighting the growth of cancers in the breast, colon, lungs and ovaries.


Prevents Cardiovascular Diseases:

Eaten both raw and cooked, onions keep your blood free of clots, thereby avoiding blocks which could lead to heart disorders or cardiovascular diseases.


Benefits of Onions for Diabetes:

Studies reveal that onions work to help keep the blood sugar levels in control. They contain a substance, Allyl  Propyl  Disulfide (APDS) which helps in ensuring that insulin remains longer in the blood stream, thereby helping to lower the sugar levels. Read more about Diabetes


Consuming raw onion juice, up to 50 ml (less than ¼ cup) every morning helps to control sugar levels. However, if, because of the resultant bad breath, onion juice does not appeal to you, include extra onions in your diet every day.


A Perfect Home Remedy for Common Ailments:

Onion consumption can help in preventing, alleviating or curing a number of common ailments for which we would generally not think of getting professional medical help. Some of the home remedies for everyday ailments using onions are as follows:


Oral Health: Eating raw onions sure does leave a pungent and nasty effect on your breath, but did you know that this is an effective way to get rid of all the germs present in your mouth, and helps to prevent tooth decay and oral infections? Also read: Home remedies for toothache


Insect Repellent: To help reduce the pain of insect bites or stings of bees and scorpions, apply onion juice on the affected area.


Relief from Earache: Dip a piece of cotton wool in onion juice and place it over the ear to get immediate relief from acute earache or ringing in the ear.


Pain Relief: Cut two onions and fry them along with a pinch of turmeric in some castor oil or sesame oil, till they become soft. Place these onions in a clean muslin cloth and place on the aching part of the body to get some relief.


Treatment for Anaemia: Onions eaten along with jaggery and water helps in curing anaemia.


Treating Urinary Disorders: Drinking water that has been boiled with an onion provides relief for those suffering from Urinary Tract Infection.


Treatment for Cough: One teaspoon onion juice mixed with one teaspoon honey provides relief from sore throat and cough.


An Aphrodisiac:  One tablespoon onion juice along with a tablespoon of ginger juice helps boost libido.


Glowing Skin: To get rid of acne, mix a tablespoon of onion juice with a teaspoon of honey or olive oil, apply on face and wash off after half an hour.


Onion juice mixed with a pinch of turmeric and applied on the face helps to remove dark pigments and patches from your face.


Why do Chopping Onions make you cry?

Recent studies from Japan reveal that when an onion is cut, an enzyme, known as the lachrymatory factor synthase is released which converts the sulfoxides (amino acids) present in the onion into sulfenic acid, which irritates the lachrymal glands in our eyes to produce tears.


So, is there any way to avoid these snuffles?

You could try the following methods,

  • Use a very sharp knife. The enzyme that causes tears is released when cells are broken or crushed. A sharp knife slices through the onion without disturbing the cell structure, so fewer enzymes are released.
  • Chill the onions in the freezer for 10-15 minutes before cutting.
  • Wear protective glasses
  • Soak onions in salt water to help reduce the effect of the enzyme.
  • Apply vinegar on the chopping board, which helps to denature the enzyme.
  • Some people suggest that chewing gum while cutting onions keeps the tears at bay.

(And finally, if none of the above work, try delegating this job to someone else, which, out of personal experience, works the best!)


The onion, consumed in any which way – raw, fried, baked, boiled or pickled in vinegar– is a real boon to mankind; having the ability to make us cry while at the same time curing most of our illnesses. So, stock up on these tearjerkers (Onions) and enjoy the manifold benefits of this humble vegetable!

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