The genus Alliums includes several varieties
of onion as well as chives, spring onions (scallions), leeks, shallots
and garlic, The smaller members of the family have a more distinctive
flavor and pungency. Often classified as belonging to either the
daffodil (Amaryllidaceae) or lily (Liliaceae) family,
onions are bulbs of multi-layered, crisp, odoriferous flesh.
The cuisine of almost every Asian country
revolves around the onion and its cousins. The main exceptions are
Japanese cuisine (whose only concession may be the odd slender leek or
spring onion or scallion); Kashmiri Brahmans (for whom garlic and onion
belong to the category of forbidden, strong-flavored foods) and India's
Vaishnava (Hindu) vegetarian cuisine, arguably the most ancient of all
the world's cuisines still in practice. In certain cuisines the pungent
bulb and related plants, especially garlic, are forbidden because of
their strong flavor and a belief that they inflame the baser emotions.
Kashmiri Brahmans eschew onions for this reason, as do some Chinese
The onion is basic to curries in which it
gives flavor and cooks down to thicken the spicy gravy. Large white,
brown and purple onions are used in Asian cooking but for the most part
small red onions (Allium cepa) or purple shallots (A.
ascalonicum) are preferred by local cooks. The former grow singly
and are round in shape, while the latter grow in clusters like garlic,
but without the several layers of thin skin which bind garlic cloves
into a compact head. They are pointed and curved like cloves of garlic,
requiring more time to peel and slice than a single large onion, but
their distinctive flavor means that not so many are needed.
On the Hawaiian island of Maui grows an
onion said to be so sweet, mild and juicy it can be eaten like an apple.
Apparently this is a hybrid which, when grown in the soil and weather
conditions prevailing on Maui, results in an unusually sweet onion. Pale
in color and rather flat in shape, it does not keep well as the moisture
content is high. Good in salad and sandwiches.