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Rarely do you find an ingredient as popular and beloved across the world as the small and humble onion. Just one small bulb is enough to unpack a whole world of flavors.
Onions are impossible to ignore in any dish you put them in. The first thing you’ll notice when slicing open a raw onion is its small strong, powerful, and pungent, there’s really no escaping it. These multilayered bulbs have an aroma that will bring tears to your eyes quite literally. And their taste is no different. As part of a recipe, onions can definitely help enhance already delicious flavors but try eating them raw, and you’re in for a reckoning. Like the popular Shakespearean quote in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, though onions be but little, they are fierce!
Where do onions come from?
Many historians speculate that this humble vegetable came from Central Asia, in nations like Pakistan or Iran. In fact, onions were so important to our society that they were also a staple in prehistoric diets! Indeed, throughout history, onions were valuable not only as a food source, but in fields like art and medicine.
However, did you know that Filipinos have actually made up their own ingenious and somewhat ridiculous origin story for the beloved bulb? It’s true! The alamat ng sibuyas (legend of the onion) is one of the most popular folktales Filipino parents tell their kids.
According to this legend, there was a girl, Buyas, who had grown up sensitive and in the shadow of her more beautiful younger sibling. Their father, a doctor, often had people over to their house, where they would be in awe of Buyas’ sister’s beauty. Because of how hurt she would feel, Buyas would go to the back of the house and weep there.
When she grew older, Buyas fell in love with a young man. However, that love was not mutual, and he ended up falling in love with her sister instead. The girl only grew more hurt when she heard that the young man she fell in love with had asked for her parents’ blessing to marry her younger sister! The next day she disappeared never to be heard from again …
… until one morning, when her mother noticed a plant growing at the back of their house. Seeing the fruits that surrounded the plant, she figured they could be eaten. But when she sliced one open, she found that it reduced her to tears! The mother was reminded of her lost child, and so she named the fruit buyas. Since then, the vegetable has evolved, becoming the sibuyas we know and love (and cry over) today.
Isn’t that an interesting story? It’s always amazing to think about how creative Filipino minds can be. While we know onions probably didn’t originate from Buyas’ lovesickness, there’s no denying that they can definitely be tearjerkers.
Why do onions make me cry?
While we love cooking onions, one of the most harrowing parts of using them is having to slice them open. It’s no exaggeration when we say cutting it brings us to tears. But what makes us so weepy over these little ingredients?
The answer lies in the chemistry of it all. The simplest explanation we can offer is that when you cut into an onion, it releases an irritating gas that’s really meant to incite tears from our eyes. This is actually a defense mechanism that it has adapted across the years, in order to prevent them from predators in the wild.
But when you’re not in the wild and in a kitchen instead, the experience can prove wholly more irritating. Some people even develop more severe reactions to it; hives and itching, among others. In order to prevent yourself from tearing up when chopping down, try to wear glasses or contact lenses in order to establish some sort of boundary between you and the bulb. You can also rinse your eyes with cold water after, or even add eye drops in order to stop the stinging.
What are the different ways I can cook onions?
Just as it has many layers, there are many options for how you can enjoy this one of a kind ingredient! It is popular across the world for many reasons, and one of them is definitely for their versatility.
Here are some ways you can enjoy it from the comfort of your own home, as well as which one works best per method.
- Sauté them.
This is definitely one of the most popular ways to utilize this wonderful ingredient. To sauté is basically to toss small, usually cut or sliced pieces of it in a pan with oil over high heat. This causes it to brown and cook, making it much juicier and sweeter than it would have been raw. A lot of recipes in the Philippines and in other parts of the world call for sautéing both onions and garlic together as one of the first steps in many dishes. Like in Bistek Tagalog, sautéing it first makes the taste that much sweeter. As the taste sweetens, sauteéd onions are a delightful addition to any meal you put it in.
Which one works best?: You can sauté almost any type of onion, so it’s really based on your preference or what the recipe calls for.
- Caramelize them.
Ever had caramelized onions before? They’re a treat! Caramelizing onions is one of the best ways to bring out the vegetable’s own natural sweetness. You’ll often see caramelized onions in burgers, pizza, or other meat dishes. The New York Times’ cooking section has actually featured one of their most popular grilled cheese recipes: one that makes use of caramelized onions! These onions have a very silky texture, and their taste is quite rich and almost buttery, more so if it’s actual butter you cooked them in. It might sound daunting to make at first, but caramelized onions can definitely be made and enjoyed at home! You can check out a step by step guide on how to make them here.
Which one works best?: Although some would argue that red onions are the most appropriate onions for caramelizing, any type of onion will do. After all, all onions contain natural sugars and caramelizing can bring out that sweetness in any of them. If you feel like you still haven’t attained that sweetness with the onions you use, you can always add a pinch of sugar or more, depending on your taste.
- Fry them.
When you go to burger restaurants or fast food places, the common sides to these hearty, meaty meals are either golden french fries or crisp onion rings. True enough, deep fried onion rings are a fast food favorite. Other than ensuring that you have delicious onions, the secret to great onion rings lies in the batter you make! You don’t want breading that comes across as too thick, nor do you want it to fall apart in your hand. Luckily enough, these onion rings look as good as they taste, and they’re also incredibly simple to make. In just the right amount of time, you’ll have your own fried onions to enjoy!
Which one works best?: Brown or yellow onions are the key to making perfect onion rings. These guys strike the right balance between the typical onion pungence and sweetness, and the longer you fry them the sweeter they become. With the batter as a partner, it’s absolutely delicious.
- Roast them.
Got an oven at home? Whether you put it in whole or chopped up into smaller pieces, roasted onions bring a subtle flavor to your dish and make them a divine partner to so many meals. For dishes like steak and sausages, roasted onions, combined with some herbs and butter and garlic, make a heavenly combo. The caramel brown color they also end up with as a result make it just as visually stunning.
Which one works best?: The mild flavors of white and yellow onions really become more complex with this roasting method. These are more delicate in flavor than your other common grocery find, the red onion.
- Boil them.
If you like your onions on the soft and tender side, boiling them may be the key. Boiled onions are actually a popular side dish during Thanksgiving in New England regions. With a creamy broth to accompany it, the subtle sweetness is truly unlike any other. There’s a certain delicateness to an onion’s flavor palate that you can only bring out once you boil them.
Which one works best?: Yellow, white, or vidalia onions should do the trick. Smaller onions, like those the size of pearls, are also recommended.
- Pickle them.
Pickling vegetables are one way of ensuring you get to preserve and enjoy them for a long, long time. It may sound like an arduous process at first, but it’s actually quite simple to make your own pickled onions at home. Pickles onions’ bright, refreshing taste works super well with dishes that might be nakakaumay in nature. What makes them great is that after pickling them, their vibrance in flavor only grows with time!
Which one works best?: If you have leftover red onions at home, those are enough to make this simple yet delicious dish you won’t be able to get enough of. You’d be surprised at how quickly you enjoy this meal!
These are just a few of the ways sibuyas can be enjoyed at your dining table. With an array of recipes it goes great in, there’s no denying how well loved they are across the world.
What’s your favorite way to enjoy onions? Let us know in the comments below.