Know Your Onions

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This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on 26th January 2018, & the Gazette & Herald on 24th January 2018.

There is something about slow-cooking onions that is always mouth-wateringly tempting. Whatever dish they ultimately end up in, a pan of chopped onions gently sweating in butter just smells so divine.

As well as possessing substantial nutritional value, onions are reputed to possess remarkable healing qualities, some of which have been backed up by proper science.

In my dad’s column from January 28th 1978, he recounts the story of a friend who had visited the doctor with heart problems, and the doctor recommended that he eat lots of onions served any which way, be they boiled, raw or pickled (perhaps they didn’t ‘sweat’ onions in the 1970s!). It seemed to Dad that what many people saw as an ancient Old Wives’ Tale was being proved to be true through modern science.

Onions, which like leeks and garlic are members of the allium family, have been renowned for their health-giving properties for centuries. In 1653, the notable English herbalist and physician Nicholas Culpeper wrote in his book, The Complete Herbal (1653), that although onions increase flatulence, they also eased the bowel, increased sperm, helped soothe bites from dogs and venomous creatures, and killed worms in children. Inhaling the scent would also help clear a fuzzy, cold-ridden head. He added: ‘The juice of onions is good for either scalding or burning by fire, water, or gunpowder, and used with vinegar, takes away all blemishes, spots and marks on the skin: and dropped in the ears, eases the pain and noises of them.’

The ancient Egyptians raised the status of the humble onion to that of a god because if it’s health-giving benefits. Onions feature in paintings on the walls of the pyramids, and symbolised eternal life due to their circle-within-a-circle structure. Mummies have been found with onions hidden within their pelvic regions, suggesting they were associated with fertility, and King Ramses IV, who died in 1160BC, was entombed with onions in his eye sockets.

That onions help you live a long life is a common belief in folklore, as is the theory that it promotes hair growth. It is also supposed to be an excellent slimming aid, as this quote (unsourced) that my dad mentions: ‘You who are fat and lymphatic, eat raw onion; it was for you that God made it.’ (I am hot-footing it down to the grocer’s to buy a kilo right away!).

Last year, in a Canadian study quoted in the journal ‘Food Research International’, extracts from a certain type of red onion were shown to be able kill bowel cancer cells by producing an environment in which they self-destructed. But according to Dr Justine Alford, Cancer Research UK’s senior science information officer, results in a lab setting do not always make it into an effective treatment.

“If scientists can tease out which molecules in onions have these apparently beneficial effects, then perhaps they can be investigated as a potential drug in the future,” she said. (Source: prima.co.uk)

With all these reported health benefits, it is no surprise that Dad’s archives contain many ancient recipes, including white onion soup, brown onion soup, French onion soup, pickled onions, onions for keeping, roasted onions, stewed onions and even onion wine. They can also be used to clean leather, brasses, windows and knife blades.

The raw version is meant to be the most beneficial, but if you can’t tolerate it, then it is suggested that you roast it whole, within the skin like a baked potato, to keep the goodness in. Of course, the problem with eating too many raw onions, apart from the inevitable indigestion, is the anti-social smell they leave on your breath and hands. It is well-known that chewing fresh parsley is meant to lessen stinky breath, but you can also try chewing mint leaves or drinking warm water with lemon or diluted apple cider vinegar. To remove the smell from your hands, rub your skin all over and under the nails with either lemon juice or vinegar. Let it dry, then rinse off with clean water.

If you find that any of these methods works, I’d be delighted to know! And if anyone has ever made or tasted onion wine, please tell me if my current taste for prosecco is under any threat of being usurped?

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