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PRABEEN SINGH
HIGH TABLE

The many layered onion symbolised eternal life in Egypt

e remember the fish, which did we eat in Egypt freely, the cucumber, and the melons and the leeks and the onions and the garlic"

In number 11.5-Children of Israel lamenting of the meagre desert diet, enforced by the Exodus.

People are often compared to onions. Metaphors are used about peeling away layers of someone's personality to get to what really makes them tick. But really, what truth does one find by peeling away the skins of an onion? Honestly we don't really even peel onions very much! Chopped, diced, sliced, sometimes served whole (here they do sound like humans!), an onion's layers are never quite separated. Instead of a tiny bulb of pink hope, one gets only different shades. So perhaps, people, like onions, are not about absolutes but are layers upon layers, each softer, more vulnerable, but definitely stronger tasting – or so the metaphor should go! I could continue to philosophise, as I'm inspired by the onion both as a metaphor as well as an essential ingredient in my kitchen. But I do believe I am finished with my thought of the day!

It is difficult to trace the exact time of birth of the onion as the many-layered, pungent, sweet, flavourful vegetable is just too small and has a delicate tissue structure that leaves no trace, except when preserved. What can be presumed is that humans were eating the wild onion approximately a thousand years before it was formally cultivated. And that it was a staple food of the pre-historic man. Many archaeologists, botanists and food historians believe that the onion originated in Central Asia.

The Chinese are known to have cultivated onions 5,000 years ago and the ancient Vedic texts have referred to it as a source of longevity. Charaka-Sanhita (6th Century BC) eulogises the onion as an important source of medicines for the heart, digestion, eyes and joint pains as well as a diuretic. No wonder: when a 150-year-old Russian was asked for his secret of longevity, he said, "An onion and a glass of brandy daily." Egyptians have been intimate with it since 3500 BC and the Sumerians have official documents referring to onion cultivation from 2500 BC.

Since onions are easily transported — being less perishable than other crops — can be dried and preserved, are happy to root in any climate and soil, and are an important crop for sustaining human life as it prevents dehydration on long journeys, it is attributed with many health, medicinal and magical properties. It is also used as a dyeing substance and in the process of mummification.

The Egyptians perceived eternal life in the anatomy of the onion because of its circle within circle formation. They placed it prominently on the mummies of kings and dignitaries, as they believed that the onion has the magical properties to breathe life into the person in his next life. Paintings of onions were found on the inner walls of the pyramids, in tombs of both the Old and New Kingdoms. It is mentioned in the list of funeral offerings and depicted on grand banquet tables. Both the large peeled onion and the immature ones were displayed upon the altars of Gods — painted, inlaid and carved — and the priests are shown offering bundles of roots and leaves of onions.

n mummies, onions were often preserved in the pelvic, thorax regions, flattened against the ears and placed in front of the collapsed eyes. Flowering onions were placed on the chest and attached to the soles of the feet. King Ramses IV 1160 BC was entombed with onions in his eye sockets. Dioscorides, the Greek physician, has documented innumerable medicinal properties of the onion, and Greek athletes used to fortify themselves before the Olympic games by consuming pounds of onions, rubbing its juice on their bodies as well as drinking it. Onions were a staple diet of the Romans and they carried it to their provinces in England and Germany — enhancing the health and diet of the vanquished people.

Europeans in the 15th Century believed that the onion could absorb air-borne diseases and thus placed them around the house to absorb the virus — one reason not to cut the onion prior to cooking it! Pliny the Elder wrote of the onions and cabbages of Pompeii before being killed by the volcanic heat and fumes. He had also catalogued the efficacy of the onion to cure vision, induce sleep, heal mouth sores, dog bites, toothache, dysentery and lumbago. The area that Pliny describes as the farmland for onions in Pompeii has preserved the markings of onion bulbs. The gourmet Apicius, credited with writing one of the finest cook books in the 8th-9th century AD, has listed the onion as an essential ingredient in many of his recipes.

By the Middle Ages, the three main vegetables eaten by the poor and the rich in Europe were onions, cabbage and beans. The onion was also used as rent payment and wedding gifts. The first pilgrims brought the onion over in the Mayflower. They, however, found strains of wild onions growing all over North America. The Native American Indians ate them raw, consumed them as syrup or used them for seasoning their foods, as a poultice and as an ingredient in dyes and toys. Onion bulbs were planted as soon as the Pilgrim Fathers could clear the land, so generously offered to them by the Native American, whose kindness they repaid by a not too friendly use of firearms!

In architecture, the origin of the onion dome is a bit clouded, but it is generally believed that it was the Muslim influence, mainly the countries of Khanate of Kazan on the Russian architecture after Mongol invasion of Rus. Some scholars and art historians believe that St. Basil's Cathedral, built to commemorate the conquest of Ivan the Terrible, was the first church with an onion dome. We, however, do agree that onion domes were strictly utilitarian as they prevented snow from piling on roofs.

Recipe: Cook chopped onions with butter and a pinch of salt on very slow fire, till they start to caramelise and the sweetness of the onion has leached and been absorbed. Spread the onion jam on a toast, top it with goat cheese. Delicious!

 
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