Onions are the staple of every major cuisine

Smoked Salmon Salad. Image by Free Photos from PixabaySmoked Salmon Salad. Image by Free Photos from PixabayToday onions are grown and eaten in more countries than any other vegetable, and unlike wheat, are a staple of every major cuisine and truly a global ingredient. This devotion to the onion is shared by most cooks, and it is rare to find a cookery book that that is onion-free.

Because onions grow wild in temperate climates around the world, it is difficult to pinpoint their origins. Very likely, this humble vegetable was a staple in the prehistoric diet of our earliest ancestors, and it is presumed that they started eating wild onions very early - long before farming and writing was even invented. Many botanists, food historians, and archaeologists believe onions originated in central Asia, while others suggest they were first grown in Iran and West Pakistan.

Onions were probably one of the very first vegetables to be cultivated, because they were easy to grow in a variety of soils and climates, were transportable, and stored well, making them important for sustaining human life when food was scarce. While the origins of onions may be lost in the mists of time, many of the earliest documents describe their importance as a food, as well as their use in art and medicine.

In the archives of Yale University's Babylonian Collection three small clay tablets are displayed which have a special claim to fame - they are the oldest known cookery books. Jean Bottero, the French Historian and renowned expert on the Ancient Near East and a major Assyriologist, as well as a gourmet cook, was the man who deciphered the tablets to discover a cuisine with a richness of flavours, many of which we still use today, coupled with great refinement, sophistication and artistry. However, one flavour seemed to dominate, and the Mesopotamians seemed to be particularly fond of the humble onion, together with every other member of the onion family, including leeks, garlic and shallots. Undoubtedly, onions would have been traded along the Silk Road as far back as 2,000 BC, around the same time the Mesopotamians were writing down their onion-rich recipes.

There's also very early evidence of their use in Europe back to the Bronze Age, and records exist of onions being grown in the Mediterranean region some 5,500 years ago. The Egyptians worshipped the onion, believing that it’s spherical shape and concentric rings symbolised eternity, and possibly the reason why onions were used in the mummification process, and were buried alongside the Pharaohs. In fact, King Ramses IV, who died in 1160 BC, was entombed with onions in his eye sockets. Paintings of onions also adorn the inner walls of the pyramids of both the Old and New Kingdoms, and are depicted upon the altars of the gods, and on the banquet tables of great feasts.

Image by photosforyou from PixabayImage by photosforyou from PixabayIn the early Roman Empire the Roman gourmet Apicius, credited with writing one of the first cookbooks of the region, dating to the 8th and 9th centuries AD, included many references to onions. The author and naturalist Pliny the Elder wrote of Pompeii's onions and cabbages, and catalogued the Roman beliefs about the efficacy of the onion to cure vision, induce sleep, and heal maladies such as mouth sores, dog bites, toothaches, dysentery, and lumbago. Mount Vesuvius, a volcano near the Bay of Naples in Italy has erupted more than 50 times, but it’s most famous eruption took place in the year 79 AD, when the volcano buried the ancient Roman city of Pompeii under a thick carpet of volcanic ash. Pliny the Elder was overcome and died at this time, consumed by the heat of the volcano, but somehow his writings survived.

In 1st century Greece the physician Pedanius Dioscorides noted several medicinal uses of onions, and the ancient Greeks used it to fortify their athletes before the Olympic Games, with the athletes consuming pounds of onions, drinking the juice, and even rubbing onions over their bodies.

As early as the 6th century, the famous medical treatise Charaka-Samhita celebrated using the onion as medicine, and a diuretic which is good for digestion, the heart, the eyes, and the joints. Charaka Samhita is the oldest and the most authentic treatise on Ayurveda and is the ancient medical science of India. And, growing onions in gardens in China is also referenced in some of the oldest Vedic writings from India from as early as 5,000 years ago.

Strains of wild onions grew throughout North America, and the Native Americans gathered them in the wild and used them as seasoning for their food. They also used onions in syrups, as poultices, as an ingredient in dyes, and even fashioned them into toys.

Because onions were a popular commercial crop in England, the pilgrims brought onions with them to North America on the Mayflower, and before long onions were grow for the markets in New England. One bushel of onions was included on a cargo list of a coaster on Long Island Sound in 1667, and onions were also documented on vessels in 1718, which were headed as far away as Surinam and Barbados.

Today, common onions may have brown, white, purple, yellow or red skins. Thick, papery skin can identify a good storage onion, and the strongly flavoured brown onions are the best choice if you want to store them. Red onions are the sweetest but don't store well, and spring onions cannot be stored for long, but grow and mature quickly. Early varieties of normal onions can be used as spring onions – they are just harvested early.

In South Africa, onions are grown commercially in all the provinces, but the major producing areas are the Western Cape, Northern Cape, Free State, North West, Limpopo and Mpumalanga.


The onion is a very versatile and sustainable vegetable, and farmers feed onions which don't make it to the market to their sheep, instead of throwing them away. Leftover onion parts are also being used in California to power the entire plant from which onions are processed, saving thousands in electrical costs.

Onion skins are used to make natural dyes, and in the home onions are still used to clean kitchen grills, and are a good alternative for an ice-scraper during the cold winter months.

Health Benefits:

Onions are prized for their health benefits, and one of these is there sulphur content, which gives them their characteristic flavour and aroma, and the reason why they burn your eyes and make you cry. Sulphur is an essential dietary mineral considered fundamentally important to human health, and conditions such as nitrogen imbalance and protein-energy malnutrition may result from deficiency

Quercetin, a powerful anti-oxidant and anti-cancer agent is present in onions and research has shown that eating a half a cup of raw onion daily protects the body from cancer. And, because onions are high in folic acid, they are recommended for women wanting to fall pregnant.

Studies have shown that including onion in the diet is associated with a reduction in symptoms associated with osteoporosis, and a reduced risk of stomach and brain cancer in humans.  They also showed inhibited platelet-mediated thrombosis (a process leading to heart attacks and strokes), and reduced levels of cholesterol, triglycerides, and thromboxanes (substances involved in the development of cardio-vascular disease) in the blood.

Image by webvilla from PixabayImage by webvilla from PixabayIn the Kitchen:

Onions are a timeless ingredient for cooking, and for decades they have served as the core for delicious cuisines around the world. In nearly every country, recipes that range from simple, everyday dinners to those prepared for special occasions all start with onions. Onion varieties vary greatly in looks and taste, so you need to try them all to find your favourites, and yes, it does matter what kind of onion you use in your dishes.

Yellow onions are probably the most common variety because they have a nice balance of flavour, with a sweetness and bitterness that is not too aggressive on the palette. Yellow onions, and sweet onions, which are slightly larger and flatter than yellow onions, are both perfect for long-cooking recipes and a favourite to add to soups, pastas, braises and dips. White onions have a white flesh with crisp layers throughout and a bright white papery skin, and although they are similar in size to the yellow onion, they are extremely strong in flavour. Because of this, they are generally used more in cooking to start a recipe, rather than being served raw. However, their crisp texture and strong flavour is still often used for salad and pizza toppings, guacamole, and fresh salsa. Red onions have a deep magenta exterior skin and a bright maroon flesh with a firm texture. They have a sweet and mild flavour when cooked and a pungent and spicy taste when raw. They are visually very appealing, adding a pop of colour to any dish, and making them perfect for salads, burritos, sandwiches, and burgers.

Most dishes begin with an onion base, combined with a few other ingredients, fried together in the early stages of a recipe to create a foundation that is full of flavour. As cooking continues and flavours begin to layer and build, some of the most well-known foods from around the world begin to emerge.

In French cuisine a classic starter base for soups called “Mirepoix” consists of two parts onions, one part carrots, and one part celery. The Cajun and Louisiana Creole variant of mirepoix is called “The Holy Trinity” consisting of equal quantities of onions carrots and bell peppers, and the starting point for traditional dishes such as “Gumbo” and “Jambalaya”. Italy has “Battuto” that adds garlic and parsley to the mix, while Spanish “Sofrito” also adds tomatoes, and “Recaito” in Puerto Rico includes cilantro.

Storing Onions:

Whole, peeled onions can be stored in the refrigerator for 10 to 14 days. Sliced or cut onions can be refrigerated for 7 to 10 days in a sealed container or plastic bag.

Sweet onions, produced in early summer have high moisture content, and all that moisture makes them prone to mould, so they do not store well.  To extend their storage life, wrap each onion in a paper towel and keep them in your refrigerator - use them within a few weeks.

You can also freeze chopped onions to use in cooked dishes. Simply chop or slice them into whatever size you prefer, then spread them out on a sheet pan and flash freeze them. Once frozen, transfer your onions to a freezer bag, and squeeze out as much air as you can. If you have a large quantity of onions to freeze, it's best to work in batches, so the onion smell doesn't overpower everything in your fridge and freezer. Their smell won't be noticeable once they're frozen, but it will be strong until then, and many frozen foods will readily absorb this scent and taste.

If your spring onions always seem to turn limp and slimy before you get around to using them, you’re probably storing them incorrectly. If you switch to one of these methods you'll find that they last much longer. Place your spring onions in a jar with a centimetre or two of water, just enough to cover the roots, and keep them on your kitchen windowsill or countertop. Your spring onions will not only stay fresh but will continue to grow. Change or add water every couple of days, as needed. You could also simply cover the jar loosely with a plastic bag and store it in the refrigerator. If you do not have space to use a jar, wrap the ends of your green onions in a slightly damp paper towel, and place them inside a plastic bag or storage container. Re-moisten the paper towel if it dries out, or replace it if it becomes too wet.

Companion Planting:

Because onions and garlic leaves and flowers have a pungent smell that naturally repels insects, they are particularly beneficial as a pest repellent in the vegetable garden, and especially for cabbage, broccoli, collards, kale, kohlrabi, Brussels sprouts and other members of the cabbage family, helping repel cabbage caterpillars, cabbage maggots, cabbage worms, Japanese beetles and aphids.

Onions and garlic also repel insect pests of strawberries and peaches, and grow well close to tomatoes, repelling the red spider mites that normally favour tomato plants. Plants from the onion family also do well with celery and carrots because they repel insect pests that favour these vegetables. To deter the onion fly, plant onions with carrots and tansy. Herbs like dill and rocket will improve the health and flavour of onions, and chamomile, savoury and parsley also like growing nearby. Other companions to plant near onions and garlic include beets, sweet peppers, spinach, lettuce and parsnips.

Image by Couleur from PixabayImage by Couleur from PixabayCultivation:

Growing onions successfully depends on two things: planting the right onion for the right area, at the right time. Onions need a certain number of daylight hours and particular temperatures before they will begin to form bulbs. There are ‘short day’ cultivars, others that are classified as ‘intermediate’, and still others as ‘long day’. It is possible to ensure supplies over a longer period by sowing these early, mid-season and late onion varieties, so select yours carefully, and if in doubt, consult with a reputable garden centre for advice.

Onions grow best in temperatures ranging from 18°C to 22°C. Higher temperatures between 25 to 27°C will promote premature bulb formation, while lower temperatures between 8 to 13°C will induce flowering.

Spring onion seeds can be sown directly into the soil at any time of the year, except in cold regions where sowing in April and May should be avoided. Thin the seedlings out to space them 7cm apart. Spring onions should be grown quickly, so feed them lightly every two weeks with a balanced organic fertiliser that is high in nitrogen. Unlike onions, in order to blanch the stems, a hill of soil must be built up around spring onion plants as they mature. The plants can be harvested when the stems are pencil thick, about 90 to 120 days after sowing.

To prevent misshapen or stunted crops, root vegetables require soil that has been thoroughly dug over, with all hard clumps of soil broken down and stones removed. Add compost and a sprinkling of 2:3:2 to the bed and ensure that the drainage is good. The ideal soil pH for growing onions is between 5.5 and 6.5.

Onion seedlings are sold in garden centres and small sets of bulbs are also available for planting, but if you wish to sow seeds, these can be sown directly in garden beds or into seed trays. Cover the seed with about 1cm of soil and press it down firmly to compact all the large air spaces around the seeds and water well with a fine spray. Transplant the seedlings when they are 10 to 15cm tall, spacing them 8 to 15cm apart, in rows 20 to 30cm apart, depending on the variety. Onion seed tends to deteriorate as soon as a seed packet is opened, so it is necessary to buy fresh onion seed each year.

Never transplant onion seedlings too deep, just cover the roots with soil, and do not make a hill of soil around the bulbs, as onion bulbs form at the surface of the soil and not below it. It is also essential to keep onion beds well weeded.

In the initial growth stage onions need copious amounts of water, but then watering needs to be reduced in order to encourage the bulbs to firm up. If the beds were prepared correctly onions won’t need any further fertilisation, and they may even fail to form bulbs if they are fed with fertilisers too high in nitrogen.

A three to 4 year crop rotation method is most important when growing onions, so don’t plant onions in a bed where any member of the onion family has been grown in the past 4 years. This reduces the build-up of soil-borne pests and diseases which affect onions.

Image by Caro Sodar from PixabayImage by Caro Sodar from PixabayHarvesting & Storing:

With the proper storage technique, onions will keep for months and months, and the best ones to store for a long time are dry onion bulbs which are harvested later in the season, so select your cultivars well for storage purposes.

Onions take approximately 28 to 30 weeks to mature, and are ready to harvest when the leaves turn yellow and start to droop. Plants that have already flowered will not produce good bulbs for dry storage. After lifting the onions, leave them in a partially shaded, well ventilated place for a few days to dry out their surfaces completely, this is called “curing” them. 

Inspect all onions for soft spots, mould, or other signs of damage, selecting only perfect onions for long-term storage. If they are already sprouting, don't even think of storing them, rather use them immediately. To maximize their storage life, store in a cool, dry, well-ventilated spot. Do not store them in plastic bags as they need to be able to breathe.

Here's some simple and effective ways to store your dry onions:

Cut off the legs from a clean pair of pantyhose, drop an onion into the foot of the first leg, and tie a knot. Continue adding onions and tying knots until both legs are full. Hang the pantyhose up, and when you need an onion, simply cut a slit in the side of one of the sections to remove. This will allow you to reuse the pantyhose again and again. Next time, just slip an onion into the section via the slit.

Onions can also be stored in mesh bags or braided into long strings.

Expect your onions to last up to eight months in storage. Inspect them often, and remove any that appear to be going bad, so they don't cause the rest of the onions to deteriorate. Avoid storing onions near other produce, as many fruits and vegetables will absorb the onion's flavour.

Problems, Pests & Diseases:

Good cultural practices such as proper crop rotation, together with good sanitation will go a long way to keeping onion crops healthy. Keep the beds weed-free, and remove and destroy any diseased plant material.

Thrips are a common pest that attacks onions and are especially active during dry, hot weather. They feed by rasping the leaves and sucking the sap, and mature leaves will take on a silvery appearance. Organic sprays containing garlic, canola oil and pyrethrins can be sprayed to control them.

Fungal diseases like downy mildew, soft rot and leaf mould can become a problem in wet seasons, and in humid regions.


The information contained within this website is for educational purposes only, documenting the traditional uses of specific plants as recorded through history. Always seek advice from a medical practitioner before starting a home treatment programme.