Over the centuries, the status of the onion has risen to such an extent that it is now the backbone of Indian cuisine. No matter how high the prices go, onions will remain a staple in the Indian kitchen. Our love for this humble vegetable is so strong that even the Indian government had to keep a check on its exports and increase its import to meet the market demand. Known for its flavour, health benefits and medicinal properties, onions have a long and interesting history too. Let’s dive into it.
How did the name “Onion” come about?
The name onion is derived from the Latin word “unio”, which means “one” or “single’. This is due to the fact that, unlike garlic, the onion plant produces a single bulb. The onion belongs to the ‘Allium’ genus plant family which includes hundreds of species, including garlic, leeks, scallions, shallots, and chives. These vegetables are rich in sulphuric compounds that give them a strong odour that can cause your eyes to tear up.
It is believed that our predecessors discovered and started eating wild onions long before the advent of agriculture or even writing.
Origin of Onions
Onions are one of the oldest vegetables cultivated by humankind. The earliest traces date back to about 5000 years. Many archaeologists, botanists, and historians believed that onions originated in Central Asia. Some researchers also suggest that they were first grown in Iran and West Pakistan. These observations are based on the ancient remnants of onion cultivation that have survived.
The unknown history of Onions
The organized cultivation of onions started around 3,500 BC. This is when several ancient civilizations became dependent on this humble vegetable. Onions were easy to grow on any kind of soil and in multiple weather conditions. It proved to be useful to ancient Egyptian, Babylonian, Indian and Chinese civilizations. It helped them with its medicinal properties, acted as a great source of energy, and prevented thirst. Also, onions were easily dried and preserved for times when other perishable foods were scarce.
One of the earliest recorded histories of onions dates back to the 4th century BC. During this period, labourers working on the pyramids in Egypt were fed onions for strength.
Onions quickly entered into the religious ceremonies of several ancient civilizations due to its benefits. In Egypt, onions were considered a symbol of eternal life and soon became a part of their burial ceremonies. The Egyptians saw eternal life in the anatomy of the onion because of its circle-within-a-circle structure. That is why they painted onions on the walls of their pyramids, tombs, and other structures. They also started using it in their meals, celebratory feasts and offerings to God. Onions were also used in the famous Egyptian mummification process.
Onions were also used in ancient Greece by physicians, soldiers, and athletes who believed it could give them the strength of the gods. Romans also consumed large quantities of onion and took them to Spain, the Balkans, the majority of Central Europe, and England. After the fall of the Roman Empire, beans, cabbage, and onions were the main sources of food for the entire European population. During that time, onions were used as both food and medicinal remedy and were often more valuable than money. With the arrival of the new trade routes of the Golden Age of Sail, onions were carried to all four corners of the world. This further enabled European colonists and native people to grow this incredible vegetable in various soil types.
History of Onions in India
After gaining a little popularity, onions started appearing in the written records of human history. The ‘Charaka Samhita‘, a book on Ayurveda compiled between 2nd century BC and 3rd century BC, states that onion is one of the most important remedies for various heart, joint, and digestive illnesses. According to a saying from an earlier age, “The consumption of onion makes a man healthy, stout, and energetic. Also, his voice turns melodious and his skin becomes lustrous”.
Over 2,000 years ago, the father of Ayurveda, Charaka, glorified onion as a curative vegetable. However, four centuries later, other Ayurvedic texts banished onions, terming them a ‘tamasic’ food that inspired lethargy and lust.
Onions became a part of upper-class cuisine during the Mughal era. It was during that era when onions began to lend a strong aroma to the royal kitchens. The rice and meat dishes, kebabs, and kormas became the hallmark of the culinary culture of the upper classes as they were laced with onions. The aroma of onions soon reached the common masses beyond the royal walls. And before long, it occupied pride of place in the Indian’s taste buds.
It was only after the Mughals arrived, between 1526 and 1556, that onions won over the mainstream. Before the Mughals, India relied on a more ginger-based diet. Onions and garlic were nearly unused.
Onion also played an important role in India’s freedom struggle. The story begins with none other than the father of our nation, Mahatma Gandhi. Even though he was born into a Vaishnav family, Gandhi had a great enthusiasm for this pungent root vegetable. In a letter to Subhas Chandra Bose in 1936, he pointed out the health benefits of onions and garlic. He acknowledged the Vaishnava prejudice against these two vegetables due to their strong odour. However he pointed out that Ayurveda praised both unstintingly. He also made an observation, “I do not know what villagers would do without garlic and onion,” since the poor did not have access to many ingredients that could make their food tasty.
With such a rich history across the globe, onions continue to play an important role in the modern Indian economy. India is the second largest producer of onions in the world after China. Maximum onion production takes place in Maharashtra (7105.23 thousand tons) followed by Madhya Pradesh (3356.93 thousand tons), Karnataka (2903.42 thousand tons), Rajasthan (1107.84 thousand tons), and Gujarat (1085.96 thousand tons). There is a huge demand for Indian onions in the world and in FY 2021, India exported around 1.5 million metric tons.
As you just saw, the humble onion comes with a rich history. We hope you enjoyed this article. Please share your comments and feedback below, and stay tuned for more articles from experts at Bijak. Bijak is India’s most trusted trading app which brings farmers, commission agents and suppliers together to trade in over 100 commodities. You can also download our app from Google Playstore and Apple App Store and start trading.