Do you know your onions?

Li Anlan
Onions may make you cry but they are also among the healthiest of vegetables and can add an abundance of flavors to a wide variety of dishes.
Li Anlan

Onions are so spicy that they can cause your eyes to water, but they have the intriguing ability of adding natural sweetness to dishes.

Onions originated in western and central Asia with historical records dating their cultivation in the Western Regions (today’s Xinjiang and parts of Central Asia) back to the Western Han Dynasty (206 BC-AD 25) during the great explorer Zhang Qian’s journeys to the west.

It’s presumed that onions may be among the earliest cultivated vegetables since they were less perishable than other foods, easy to grow in different soil and climates, transportable and beneficial.

Onions not only add abundant flavors to a wide variety of dishes, they are also a nutritional vegetable boasting dietary fiber, vitamin C and B6, manganese and folate, while being naturally fat and cholesterol-free.

Onions have versatile uses, not just in food, but also in daily life. They can remove stains and light rust, and neutralize unpleasant odors such as the smell of paint and shoes. Onions can keep mosquitos and bugs away, and rubbing a piece of onion on a mosquito bite can also help to ease the unbearable itching.

When students first start biology class in middle school and learn how to use a microscope, onion skin is often used to make basic glass slides.

Do you know your onions?

Choosing the right onion, and the right way to cook them, is key in any Chinese kitchen.

Choose the right onion

Onions are known for their ability to add sweetness to dishes in addition to their unique pungent flavor. Onions contain almost the same amount of sugar as a sweet melon — 1 medium-size onion has around 10 grams of sugar, and that’s what brings the sweetness to dishes.

The sugar is what makes caramelized onions so delicious, and proper caramelized onions are prepared by cooking onion slices with summer butter in a skillet over medium heat until they become soft, tender and transparent.

There are three main types of onions commonly found in markets, the red onion, yellow onion and white onion, named after the color of their skins.

Yellow onions are a sweet and mild-tasted cultivar that’s suitable for eating raw or lightly cooked. It’s crispy, juicy, slightly pungent and sweet without leaving a strong after-taste.

Red onions, on the other hand, have brighter tones and less moisture, so there’s a pungent ending after the initial crisp and sweet taste. White onions boast moderate pungency and a clean finish of onion flavor.

In Chinese-style home cooking, onions are often stir-fried to make a quick, flavorful dish. It can be stir-fried alone with soy sauce, or with scrambled egg, pork, beef, cured meat or potato. The secret is to cook the onions in a very hot wok.

Onion and potato slices seasoned with cumin and chili sauce is a very barbecue- flavored dish to pair with cold beer.

Do you know your onions?

Onion and egg stir-fry

Baked onion flower is a spectacular-looking snack dish that will wow the crowd at parties. Choose a large, sturdy onion and slice off a little bit of the root so it can stand straight up, trim the top of the onion but avoid cutting too much off. Slice the onion eight times diagonally and leave the same interval between each cut. Do not cut all the way through the root, leave 2-3 centimeters so that the onion remains in an upright position.

Then, brush a generous amount of olive oil all over the onion and sprinkle with salt and pepper, trying to reach into the gaps. Preheat the oven to 180 degrees Celsius and bake the onion for 25 minutes. It will slowly blossom like a flower and it’s a picture-perfect process.

Take out the onion, brush more oil and add salt and pepper to spots that were missed before, bake for another 15 to 20 minutes depending on the size of the onion and the temperature of the oven. The final product will resemble the look of a lotus flower. Pull the petals off one by one to enjoy the dish. This can be a healthier alternative to deep-fried onion rings.

Do you know your onions?

Baked onion resembles the appearance of a lotus flower.

Baked onion is a great side dish to serve with steaks. Simply halve the smaller red onions and coat them with olive oil, salt and pepper, then bake with thyme for a more intense flavor.

Shallots are another member in the onion family that look like tiny onions. They are milder than onions and have a hint of a garlic taste, a more delicate and less abrasive flavor than that of an onion. Shallots are also creamier than onions when cooked.

In the famous dish Taiwan rice with braised pork, shallots are used to make the pork belly topping in more authentic recipes, adding a unique, meltingly delicious flavor to the rich meat.

The chopped shallots are stir-fried in lard or cooking oil until crispy and golden, which is the secret to the unique fragrance of the braised pork. The pork is stir-fried with the fried shallots and then stewed with rock sugar and soy sauce over a low heat until the sauce is reduced. The gravy-like braised pork is then poured over hot steamed rice and the dish is served with green vegetables and braised egg on the side.

Do you know your onions?

Taiwanese braised pork and rice

A refreshing summer salad marinade

This simple recipe can be prepared in minutes and served as a salad or appetizer. It uses a red onion for its flavor as well as its vibrant color. You can use any vegetable, meat and staple with this marinade


1 red onion

2 lemons

3-4 xiaomijiao, the small red chili

Cilantro, 30-50 grams

Sugar, 2 teaspoons

Light soy sauce, 5 tablespoons

Vinegar, 3-4 tablespoons

Yield: 2-3 servings, depending on the amount of vegetables/meat/staple.


• Thinly slice the red onion and separate the shreds, slice the lemons and xiaomijiao, and rub the fresh cilantro before roughly chopping it.

• Take a thick resealable bag for food use and put the onion, lemons, cilantro and chili inside, it’s important to squeeze the lemons so that more juice comes out. Shake to mix the fresh ingredients and then add the light soy sauce, vinegar and sugar and mix everything well. You can adjust the amount of each ingredient per personal preference. Using a bag instead of bowl is more convenient for mixing everything and all vegetables and meats can come in contact with the marinade.

• The small red chili is optional if you cannot handle the spiciness.

• For protein, choose lighter meats that don’t break apart easily, such as squid, shrimp, chicken and abalone. Simply cook them in boiling water with cooking wine and a few slices of ginger to remove the fishy and meaty taste, then cool in an ice bath to preserve texture.

• For vegetables, it’s important to choose crunchy vegetables with little starch content — such as lotus root, bitter gourd, celtuce root, black fungus — which can be cooked in boiling water and then chilled in an ice bath. It’s important to avoid overcooking the vegetables so that the crunchy textures remain.

• The marinade can work with some staples, like soba noodle, braided white konjac, liangfen (bean jelly), liangpi (cold rice noodle). These options are not starchy or sticky and quite refreshing in summertime.

• Put all the cooked ingredients into the bag, seal it and let it chill in the fridge for at least two hours.

Do you know your onions?
Li Anlan / SHINE

Refreshing summer salad with squid, bitter gourd, onions and lemons.

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