Like Shakespeare, I’m onion-eyed

And I’m hungering for the sautéed onion in my breakfast omelette or the rings of medium red onion in my pork chop steak a la bistek

“…Eat no onions nor garlic, for we are to utter sweet breath; and I do not doubt but to hear them say it is a sweet comedy,” says the weaver Bottom to the carpenter Quince, the bellows mender Flute, the tinker Snout, and the tailor Starveling as they prepare to deliver a play before the Duke and his party in William Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream.

I’m assuming that the Bard was referring to the yellow and white onions and not the red onions that, though still pungent, depending on their size and type, are generally sweeter and milder.

Although research suggests that the first red onions were first grown in central Asia, particularly in West Pakistan and Iran, many believe that onions in general grew wild in many regions of the world. Easy to grow, slow to rot, convenient to transport, it is said to be a staple in the prehistoric diet.

No one knows exactly where the onion originated, but it has been written about as far back as 5,000 years ago in the old Vedic writings of India, or 2,500 B.C., when it was referenced in Sumerian text, or even farther back in 3,500 B.C. in Egypt where, considered a symbol of eternity, it was buried along with the pharaohs. Today, according to the National Library of Medicine, onions are grown in at least 175 countries around the world.

One thing is sure: We can rely on onions when food is hard to come by, even in times of famine. Less perishable than most other food items, they’re so resilient, able to grow in a wide range of soil conditions and in many of Earth’s climates. They could also be dried and preserved to save for a rainy day.

Nutrient-dense but low in calories, onions are life-sustaining. They are packed with antioxidants, prebiotic fibers, calcium, phosphorus, potassium, selenium, and B vitamins, including folate and vitamin B6. No wonder Pliny the Elder extolled the onion for its many health benefits, which included curing vision and inducing sleep, and other curative properties that the Roman natural philosopher believed helped with dehydration, dysentery, animal bites, toothaches, mouth sores, and lower back pain. 

The onion is the truffle of the poor. —Rober Coutine

In the tragedy Antony and Cleopatra, also by Shakespeare, the onion plays its part in the line “The tears live in an onion that should water this sorrow,” with which Antony’s lieutenant, the eunuch Enobarbus, tries to console the Roman general following the death of his third wife Fulvia. In essence, the line means let your grief lead you to a replacement and, in the case of Antony, to other women.

But the onion is irreplaceable. In his piece “Let Us Now Praise… the Onion” on Literary Hub, East London writer, chef, and fermenter Thom Eagle wrote, “Everything starts with an onion, sliced, diced, grated, brunoised, burnt, crushed, roasted, or raw, but most often cooked quite gently in a little oil, pig or beef or sheep fat, whole or clarified butter, perhaps in the company of a few other select vegetables.”

AS YOU LIKE IT Bistek with a generous helping of onions

The French food writer Robert Coutine once wrote that “the onion is the truffle of the poor,” but since late last year we’ve been struck with an onion shortage, which now makes me hunger for the sautéed onion in my breakfast omelette or the rings of medium red onion in my pork chop steak a la bistek or the onion strips caramelized in butter with white wine in my French onion fettuccine Alfredo.

Alas, if I must throw a fortune to elevate a simple corn salad to a Barefoot Contessa recipe with a generous sprinkling of raw red onions, which, as of mid-January, cost as much as ₱550 a kilo, I might as well indulge in arugula salad with white truffle oil or foie gras with roasted apples! That’s how much the onion has turned into a literal truffle and all because of its price in the Philippines, which has since late last year been far above the world average.

“Mine eyes smell onions; I shall weep anon,” wrote Shakespeare in his comedy All’s Well that Ends Well, and he must have seen over 400 years ago the state we are in right now, but I don’t smell onions nor do I see them as much as I want as yet—and whether an error in forecasting or scheduling is to blame or climate change, which has wreaked havoc on agriculture, or some corruption or ineptitude on the part of our government—I’m in a state of incredulity and, to borrow again from Shakespeare, also from Antony and Cleopatra, “I’m onion-eyed.”

And surely, to paraphrase George R.R. Martin in A Clash of Kings, I can’t close my eyes to the onion, when imported they arrive rather belatedly, just in time for the local harvest season, which begins right about now, and we’ll have too many onions that we’ll have to throw them away.