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An onion on the Pyramids

The exact origin of the onion is not known. It is likely the onion was cultivated in Asia in 3000 BCE. The onion was taken from Asia to Greece and Egypt. The onion is often featured in hieroglyphs and designs on the Pyramids. The Egyptians building the Pyramids would receive daily rations which would always include the onion. It was believed that onions could ward off illness and would promote greater strength. Onions would also be laid inside mausolea as food and medicine for those journeying to the hereafter. The onion skin was seen as a symbol of eternity and onion itself as an offering to the gods of the River Nile.

Healthy and fertile

Onions were very popular with the Ancient Greeks. Not only the onion, but also other members of the allium family such as garlic and leek. A section of the market was itself named ‘Ta Skoroda’, meaning “The Garlic”.

The Greeks believed that onions kept them healthy, virile and fertile. Soldiers would be given a diet of onions: that was supposed to stimulate their desire for battle.

The Romans had a less lofty view of the onion. For them bread and onions was the food for the poor. In those days the wealthy looked down on eating onions. They would ridicule the Egyptians for ascribing a spiritual or symbolic meaning to the onion. Yet even the Romans believed that the pungent smell of onion could keep evil spirits away...

A voluptuous vegetable?

The Romans brought the onion to Europe, and here this pungent vegetable rapidly won favour. In the Middle Ages the onion was seen as an exceptionally voluptuous vegetable! But none of this succeeded in preventing the onion from slowly gaining ground both in Europe and in the rest of the world. In America the onion grew steadily more popular, under the influence of immigrants from Spain, Greece and Italy. And at the beginning of the nineteenth century the onion was seen as “très à la mode”!

The power of onion

For centuries men believed onions had therapeutic properties. Onions were used to ward off infections. The English and the French would use onions to ward off the plague. Indians in America would roast onions, smear them with honey and use them to treat snake bites. And even today people feeling a cold coming on are advised to place a chopped onion next to their bed. Its pungent aromas tickle the air passages and thus ease congestion. People with sore throats are often told to apply a compress of chopped onions.

Onions in the Netherlands

After 1300 the Dutch began eating more fruit and vegetables. The accounts of the Bishop’s Court of Utrecht show purchases of substantial quantities of onions and garlic. The onion (or as Chaucer wrote oynon) was above all used in stews or in thick soups, known as pottage. In the 17th Century people would often eat a stew of “multifarious” meats, fish or poultry. In the summer green vegetables would be used, in the winter with beans, carrots and plums, to which a chopped onion would be added. The poor (“the vagrants”) would eat hardly any meat in those days. “Pottage greens, whych being carettes, cabbage cole and onyons and suchlyke, befit the ruder sort” (Leyden, 1603). Eighteenth and nineteenth century recipe books would reserve only a modest place for the onion. But in today’s kitchen the onion is everywhere. No surprise, for our multi-talented onion is at home both in the traditional Dutch kitchen as in those of other countries.

Laatst gewijzigd: 20-07-2012 door: Rinus Reuvekamp
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