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The Emotional Onion

Let’s never forget to show our respect for the onion. It’s an ingredient which is done a bit of a disservice by being referred to as humble. They can be regrown from their own scraps, they have a defense mechanism which brings even the most hardened of souls to their knees, and while there may be dozens of different onions that we know to be delicious for cooking, the allium genus itself has just shy of a thousand different species. All hail the magnificent onion! 

It’s an ingredient which crosses – cultural, political, geographical – boundaries and yet it does not show a lesser degree of respect wherever it goes. From the simple craveability of Korean scallion pancakes with a big bowl of rice wine, to onion tarts eaten across borders (Flammkuchen in Germany and tarte flambée in France) and sipped with fermented, freshly pressed grape juice (Federweisser). There are pots of stews and soups throughout the world where onions are the base for dishes packed with flavour and comfort. 

How could anyone take this ingredient for granted? In so many forms it has been a constant support and presence in our food and lives. Would any of our favorite Thai curries be the same without shallots? Have you ever tried wrapping a whole onion in foil with a little butter and spices and tossing it on a hot grill (or in an oven if you can’t grill it)? No? Do it. Yesterday. The tender sweetness will be at once familiar and life-altering.  

Onions are often the foundation of my cooking, by which I mean there are days when I have no clue what to cook. So, I chop up an onion and throw it into a pot with some oil and other aromatics. While everything cooks down, I truffle around the fridge and cabinets, looking for ingredients to help guide me to a final product. There’s a ceremonial aspect to beginning the dinner preparations: onions, knife, chopping board, compost bowl, and begin.

The dense, fleshy crackle of the knife blade sinking into an onion holds the same satisfaction as biting into a really good apple, crispy and swollen with sweet juice. From within the layers of onion flesh, the opaque, pearly liquid that seeps out looks tame enough. A second later however, it’s like smacking into an invisible barrier as the warmth in the air becomes sulphuric and your eyeballs are searing like tuna steaks. If you can push through that barrier and manage to squeeze your eyes shut, you’ll find that it does absolutely nothing. Onion tears burn. 

Whether it’s because I enjoy the little ways of making my life harder, or because I’ve stopped caring at this point, I generally force myself to power through, scrubbing away tears with a sleeve while I work. Supposedly foolproof methods for a tear-free chopping experience are in abundance, though. They range from the more sensible like chilling your onions in the fridge or freezer and using a really sharp knife, to fifty shades of ridiculous – chopping onions while holding a piece of bread in your mouth.    

That said, some countries are offering up a new remedy. An article promoting Goldies tearless onions, features three farmers clutching fistfuls of onions and smiling like they’re acting in a hemorrhoid cream commercial. Objectively speaking, it’s always amazing to think what humans can create, using nature as their canvas or larder. But I loathe the idea of them on instinct, precisely because they tame this powerful vegetable.

The onion burn is its method of self-defense, but those are the same compounds which not only give onions their pungency, but the layers of fresh, vegetal sweetness beneath. Lifestyle editor of the Guardian Australia, Yvonne C Lam, describes Happy Chop tearless onions as tasting like something that was cut on a chopping board where someone had previously been cutting onions. 

Why is there such an obsession with being so hands off, of getting as far away from food as possible? Making powerful things, plants, beings, into the quietest and most compliant versions of themselves. It can’t be too sour or too bitter. Why must vegetables be fried, boiled, mashed, blended, juiced, and reshaped? Dropped into a  smoothie or buried under a pile of cheesy corkscrew noodles? Get vegetables into your family without them knowing or tasting it. Eat, but don’t really eat. Monochromatic eating as two-dimensional as a pretty picture and which tastes of sameness and safeness. To me, joyless, tearless onions are the perfect symbol of everything we are losing. 

The state of the onion in today’s world has elicited some moments of serious eco-anxiety in me. That’s not to say I haven’t noticed anything that’s been happening in regards to climate related or fuelled disasters. But somehow, the thought that onions weren’t able to grow because of various climate conditions around the globe feels like one of those critical moments that climate scientists keep begging those in power to listen to. 

Switching to canvas shopping bags and dry pasta straws isn’t going to mitigate this. I’m all for using said items. But this isn’t something that can be sold to the public as their responsibility to change. Those who are in the highest echelons of society because of power, money, or a sickening combination of the two are the ones we need to turn to and hope they will make the changes needed.  No surprise that there are always other things on the agenda. 

In India, TOP (tomatoes, onions, and potatoes) is one of the platforms on which prime minister Modi is running his reelection campaign. This year, the Central Government of India slapped a 40% export duty on onions in an effort to ease the strain on domestic prices. But, farmers in Nashik in the state of Maharashtra (one of India’s major onion growing areas) point out that this isn’t enough to mitigate the costs when factoring in the loss of onion stocks and the extremes of weather. Maybe it’s unfair to say that global food shortages aren’t at all concerning to world leaders and billionaires – you don’t endear yourself to the people by letting them starve. 

At the beginning of 2023, the price of onions per kilo surpassed the price of meat in the Philippines and many blame the Agricultural Department for failing to predict (despite warnings) and prepare for the current shortage. After a shipment of over 300,000 euros worth of smuggled onions was seized by Filipino customs last year, president Ferdinand Marcos Jr. suggested that the government could look for legal ways to sell the smuggled goods in order to compensate for meager domestic supplies. A terrible idea as it turns out, since many smuggled batches of onions were found to contain traces of E. coli and other bacteria as well as pesticides. 

But India and the Philippines aren’t the only ones being hit by onion catastrophes this year. Flooding in Pakistan has destroyed swathes of valuable onion crops. Deadly frosts in Central Asia and droughts in North Africa have severely damaged onion crops and stocks, which means that Western markets are now also feeling the strain. Maybe you’ve also noticed a surprising number of moldy onions in your supermarket hauls lately? 

Earlier this year, two of the biggest supermarket chains in the UK, Morrisons and Asda, began rationing their fresh produce. Poor harvests in southern Spain and Morocco coupled with high energy costs preventing British farmers from producing domestically, has meant that customers are limited to two or three of certain fresh items like broccoli, onions and raspberries. 

At my local airport, there’s a glass display case full of ‘exotic’ banned items, which can only be described as ridiculously illegal and horrifying. Apart from flattened out animal skins, there are fashion accessories made from more skins, and one really disturbing umbrella holder made from an elephant’s foot.  Symbols of human greed which were once sentient beings, now trapped behind glass. How long before the inside of that case looks like the produce stand of a market stall? 

Maybe the real source of my onion-fueled anxiety is that it might truly take a long, drawn out disaster where the Earth can no longer provide us the necessary conditions to grow food, in order to change the balances of power. 

Where are we now? It’s perfectly encapsulated in a recent picture of a sailor taken on a Seaman Lines container ship. Said employee is seen filling a large suitcase full of fresh onions, having shifted their supply of Toblerone chocolate to a smaller suitcase.

Onions roll over class and economic lines as easily as they do geographical ones (in a metaphorical sense, if we forget about the smuggling for a second) so I hope even those who want to believe that the planet is just doing its thing at a normal pace will nevertheless appreciate the catastrophe that looms if its capitalistic value were ever to shoot up to the ranks of white truffles, foie gras, and saffron. 

Foodwise, onions are maybe the closest we can get to, or maybe they are a utopian ingredient with its quiet strength in our culinary lives. 

When I moved to Korea, it was kimchi-making season, which meant the autumn air prickled with smoked, dried chilies and, beneath that, it was perfumed by the savoury funk of a loooot of onions. Supermarkets are a study in greens and whites. Pyramids of Napa cabbage, each the size of a large baby, are flanked by an endless variety of mountain vegetables and herbs, neat towers of cucumbers, onions, and long, white radishes.

This time of year, kimchi fridges and huge plastic food containers are on sale. Balconies, rooftops, and gardens of every living space – from the buildings containing pocket-sized studios to standalone houses – are guarded by stone kimchi pots. They stay glossy somehow in all weather and inside, there is a magical fermentation happening.

One morning, I walked into the best kind of chaos at a friend’s house, (the same one who got me to like mugwort – if you’ve been following this series) the kind that’s created when there’s an army’s worth of food being made. Boxes of vegetables were stacked on a fold-out dolly and secured with bungee cords. More produce was piled in wash tubs and spread across newspapers. In the middle of this, my friend’s mother and her aunt were preparing at least four different types of kimchi.  

We tucked ourselves cozily amongst the ingredients with tea and a bowl of warm rice scooped from an enormous cooker. The mother proceeded to form pinchfuls of it into soft cubes. Around the cubes, she wrapped freshly made green onion kimchi, carrying on until the bowl was full of neat little packets, a rich emerald green. 

She nudged the dish towards her daughter who took the cue and fed me one of the warm kimchi parcels with a gentle hand. It was the first time someone had fed me in a while, but it is very common in Korean culture. It’s also one of those sweetly nurturing gestures, my enjoyment of which was tucked up into a vulnerable corner of my memories until that moment. 

Indian food is meant to be eaten with the hands. Though annoyingly, my sibling and I being raised with the apparent civility of utensils meant that it inadvertently bled into how we ate Indian food as well. It is a way that marks you out for better – to show you fit into western culture – and for worse – you’re not Indian enough if you can’t eat with three or four fingers from your right hand. 

In any case, food was never better than when it was hand fed to us from our mom. Of course, regular hand-feeding stopped well before I was five, but years after, there were occasions when we begged our mom to share a plate with us and feed us. It was comforting. 

That day, being fed kimchi in a cozy family atmosphere, I remembered being thirteen. My mother was in her early stages of chemotherapy. Back then she still wore a black turban to conceal her hair loss, before she got sick of wigs and wore her soft, peach fuzz with pride.

One evening, we curled up on the couch where she was spending an increasing number of hours and watched Jeopardy! or possibly a travel show, and shared a plate of food. She fed me scraps of roti wrapped around jackfruit and onions, potatoes and french beans. Her hands looked waxy and yellowish, but as usual every nail was painted to perfection in her favorite fire truck red.

Losing onions would mean the loss of so many important food memories we didn’t know were tucked up in our minds. It’s like looking at old pictures, where pretty soon whatever is in that frame is the memory, softening the reality and changing the narrative.

‘Those were the days, weren’t they?’ we’ll reminisce as we scroll through old, digital food archives from a dead time while squeezing out the last blobs of gel from our nutritional packs that contain everything we need to exist without thriving.

Afterwards, we might put on our protective suits and respirators to go for a stroll in the densely green landscape full of mutant plants whose pollen will cause our sensitive bodies to explode into an anaphylactic reaction.

Ok, I’m exaggerating. But the loss of onions could easily be another of those tipping points that we seem to be collecting like stamps on a loyalty card. If, up till now we’ve had the luxury of looking at climate and food crises from the safe distance of a screen or monitor, maybe the risk of losing something so fundamental to our everyday lives is what pulls it through the monitor and drops an ugly truth right into our laps.

As much as I want to, it feels disingenuous to focus on a completely romanticised picture of our relationship to food and cooking. That said, I don’t want to leave you feeling like the only way we will explore food from now on is by watching a Netflix series because the production budget could pay for all the expensive produce.     

So here’s what I suggest. Collect your onion scraps and try to regrow them if you can. Invite someone over to cook a dish you’ve never tried before. Chop onions until you’re both sobbing and when the dish is complete, take turns feeding each other by hand. 

There’s no better way to eat.

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