Onions – a real tear-jerker

Onions – a real tear-jerker
Photo by Sincerely Media on Unsplash

In South African cuisine, plain old onions play an integral part in creating the flavours we know and love.

It’s perhaps the most universal ingredient on the planet; used in every cuisine and spanning every continent from the far east to the wild west. Pungent and strong, but also sweet and fragrant, or sticky and aromatic, or soft and mild. Ah, the humble onion. A true shapeshifter if there ever was one, able to blend into its environment like butter melting unto hot toast. 

It fuses, stretches, marries. Onions aren’t often the star of the show, but it’s hard to find a hearty dish that doesn’t owe its depth of flavour to these stinky bulbs of glory. 

Sure, there are things like pickled onions or onion rings or onion soup or hostel tomato stew that are meant to carry the specific odour and taste of this cost-effective veggie. More times, however, onions are the background music; the foundation on which a complete dish is built. It’s no surprise that onions belong to the same family as the other big-flavour, low-profile stars in cooking including garlic, leeks, shallots and chives – the all-star alliums. 

Onions from the Koue-Bokkeveld region of South Africa. (Photo: Louzel Lombard Steyn)

In South African cuisine specifically, plain old onions play an integral part in creating the flavours we know and love. 

You cannot have the perfect Cape Malay curry without setting the tone with a pan full of finely chopped onions frying in butter, for example. The same goes for chakalaka. And umfino. Or bobotie. Curried lamb sosaties need that sweetly charred goodness of onion to offset the rich lamb in between bites. On a traditional braaibroodjie, raw onion slivers steam on the braai, releasing a tangy taste into the cheese as it melts. And don’t even get me started on a boerie. No respectable boerie can go without a bed of sweet sweated-down onions to cushion that glorious sausage inside the bun. 

Raw onion on a proudly South African braaibroodjie ensures the iconic taste. (Photo: Louzel Lombard Steyn)

South African renaissance man and food expert C Louis Leipoldt writes in his canonical Kos vir die Kenner that onions form an integral part in adding flavour to South African cuisine. “Onions are an irreplaceable ingredient in no less than three-quarters South African savoury dishes. Apart from their complementary role, they hold their own as a vegetable to be fried, steamed, boiled or roasted.” Leipoldt published this book in the 1930s, stating that the beauty of cooking is that it keeps reinventing. Indeed. His simple recipe for fried onion disks with breadcrumbs could be considered the precursor for the new blooming onions that keep sprouting up on SA menus, made by deep-frying a whole, sectioned onion in batter. 

Cutting onions to achieve the desired outcome for a specific dish is a broad study. Even though it’s the same ingredient, the final dish is definitely altered by the manner in which onions are prepared. The same goes for garlic, which delivers a different taste in each different preparation. Large chunks of onion are often used in hearty dishes where the pieces can melt into the stew or soup, releasing flavour throughout the cooking process right up to the end. Thinly sliced rings are good for caramelising on slow heat to release a distinct umami sweetness. A fine dice or minced raw onion can provide just the right tang on hamburgers or in dressings, without the vulgarity of biting into a piece of raw onion. 

Speaking of vulgarity. Onions are the only vegetables to fight back when prepared… Cut an onion in half and you unleash a chain of chemical reactions, strong enough to reduce the toughest of chefs to tears. Literally. Stable molecules in the onion’s tissues transform into a volatile, sulfur-containing gas, says scientist Eric Block who studies onion chemistry. Imagine. This gas reacts with our eyes to form small amounts of sulfuric acid which, in turn, causes itching, burning and eventually, tears. 

Hundreds of remedies exist to prevent the waterworks. Few actually work, unless you own a wartime gas mask.

While tears are a given, the secret lies in acting swiftly. If you go in blind and cut up the bulb at first go, the layers will make it difficult to hold the parts together to achieve uniform cubes. You’ll end up banging your knife on the chopping board until you’re blue in the face, tears streaming down your cheeks. The trick is to keep the root of the onion intact until the very end. You can cut the onion in half and chop off the head, then hold onto the root section and make incisions all along the round of the bulb – from the one end of the chopping board to the other, turning your knife sideways to follow the onion’s curve. Some onions even have thin green veins to guide you to make these lengthways cuts. When these cuts are made, you can simply slice diagonally from the head down to the root, producing the perfect dice. No tearful chopping required. 

The most effective way to dice an onion. Start by keeping the root intact. (Photo: Louzel Lombard Steyn)

However you choose to cut your onions, make sure you do so right before cooking them. My family still believes that onions have the ability to “draw out” sicknesses. So if you cut onions too long before cooking them, they’ll start to absorb the impurities in the air and in your fridge, making them dangerous to consume. In the old days, my mom says, a halved onion would be placed at the bedside of a sick person to absorb the ailment. I used to roll my eyes at this, but recent scientific studies reveal that onions can inhibit the growth of potentially harmful bacteria that can cause illness. In this case, however, the onion would need to be ingested and not left on the bedside table to dry out…

For the more practically inclined, halved onions have another nifty purpose in that they’re handy little biodegradable braai grid cleaners. The juices soften the hardened bits as you rub it over the grill, while the sturdy structure of the veg is used as a scourer to rub off the grime. When the layers start coming apart, the onion can simply be thrown into the coals, producing an extra smoky flavour as it incinerates.

Few people list onions as their favourite food. My grandma, the legendary Ouma Delene, is one of these. She had a massive plantation of onions on their farm outside Cradock when I was young. Not a veggie garden. A couple of hectares with thousands of brown onions that she harvested in the months before Christmas. She sowed her own seeds. Harvested and nurtured the seedlings in wooden boxes which were transported to the fields to be transplanted and then tended to their growth until they would be harvested and hung to dry. Truckloads of onions were sent away to the market on a massive, smelly interlink and the money she made paid for every indulgence over the festive season, and then some. If I picture my grandmother, I see her walking in her onion fields on Spekboomberg Farm with her hands behind her back. 

The lesson? Onions, like people, often just need a little extra love.   

These simple veggies mean many things to many cooks the world over. In South Africa, too, the taste of slaphakskeentjies with a braai or uiesmoor over pap or cabbage and onion stew is what moves us. It tastes of home. More importantly, onions are a lesson in patience as these humble bulbs keep on revealing their true, sweet nature if treated with a little extra care. Much like people. And we can all do with a little more love and care.  

Try our easy onion marmalade recipe. It’s the perfect add-on for cheese boards, burgers, platters and more. 

Onion Marmalade

3 large onions, thinly sliced 

2 Tbs butter 

½  cup white sugar 

½  cup water 

1 cup white Balsamic vinegar 

In a large saucepan, melt the butter and sweat down the sliced onions on low heat. Season with salt and pepper. Take time to ensure the onions become completely translucent before turning up the heat to brown. 

Once browned, reduce the heat again and add the sugar and water. Stir until the sugar is dissolved. Add the vinegar. 

Continue to cook on medium heat until you achieve a sticky, caramelised consistency. Transfer to a glass jar and use as desired. DM/TGIFood


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