Peel away the centuries and discover the rich layers of history that have made the humble onion a favorite around the world.

About Onions

History of Onions

Because onions are small and their tissues leave little or no trace, there is no conclusive opinion about the exact location and time of their birth. Many archaeologists, botanists and food historians believe onions originated in central Asia. Other research suggests that onions were first grown in Iran and West Pakistan.

It is presumed that our predecessors discovered and started eating wild onions very early - long before farming or even writing was invented. Very likely, this humble vegetable was a staple in the prehistoric diet.

Most researchers agree that the onion has been cultivated for 5000 years or more. Since onions grew wild in various regions, they were probably consumed for thousands of years and domesticated simultaneously all over the world. Onions may be one of the earliest cultivated crops because they were less perishable than other foods of the time, were transportable, were easy to grow and could be grown in a variety of soils and climates. In addition, the onion was useful for sustaining human life. Onions prevented thirst and could be dried and preserved for later consumption when food might be scarce.

While the place and time of the onion's origin are still a mystery, there are many documents, from very early times, which describe its importance as a food and its use in art, medicine and mummification.

Onions grew in Chinese gardens as early as 5000 years ago and they are referenced in some of the oldest Vedic writings from India. In Egypt, onions can be traced back to 3500 B.C. There is evidence that the Sumerians were growing onions as early as 2500 B.C. One Sumerian text dated to about 2500 B.C. tells of someone plowing over the city governor's onion patch.

In Egypt, onions were actually an object of worship. The onion symbolized eternity to the Egyptians who buried onions along with their Pharaohs. The Egyptians saw eternal life in the anatomy of the onion because of its circle-within-a-circle structure. Paintings of onions appear on the inner walls of the pyramids and in the tombs of both the Old Kingdom and the New Kingdom. The onion is mentioned as a funeral offering and onions are depicted on the banquet tables of the great feasts - both large, peeled onions and slender, immature ones. They were shown upon the altars of the gods.

Frequently, a priest is pictured holding onions in his hand or covering an altar with a bundle of their leaves or roots. In mummies, onions have frequently been found in the pelvic regions of the body, in the thorax, flattened against the ears and in front of the collapsed eyes. Flowering onions have been found on the chest, and onions have been found attached to the soles of the feet and along the legs. King Ramses IV, who died in 1160 B.C., was entombed with onions in his eye sockets. Some Egyptologists theorize that onions may have been used because it was believed that their strong scent and/or magical powers would prompt the dead to breathe again. Other Egyptologists believe it was because onions were known for their strong antiseptic qualities, which construed as magical, would be handy in the afterlife.

Onions are mentioned to have been eaten by the Israelites in the Bible. In Numbers 11:5, the children of Israel lament the meager desert diet enforced by the Exodus: "We remember the fish, which we did eat in Egypt freely, the cucumbers and the melons and the leeks and the onions and the garlic."

In India as early as the sixth century B.C., the famous medical treatise Charaka - Sanhita celebrates the onion as medicine - a diuretic, good for digestion, the heart, the eyes and the joints.

Likewise, Dioscorides, a Greek physician in first century A.D., noted several medicinal uses of onions. The Greeks used onions to fortify athletes for the Olympic Games. Before competition, athletes would consume pounds of onions, drink onion juice and rub onions on their bodies.

The Romans ate onions regularly and carried them on journeys to their provinces in England and Germany. Pliny the Elder, Roman's keen-eyed observer, wrote of Pompeii's onions and cabbages. Before he was overcome and killed by the volcano's heat and fumes, Pliny the Elder catalogued the Roman beliefs about the efficacy of the onion to cure vision, induce sleep, heal mouth sores, dog bites, toothaches, dysentery and lumbago. Excavators of the doomed city would later find gardens where, just as Pliny had said, onions had grown. The bulbs had left behind telltale cavities in the ground.

The Roman gourmet Apicius, credited with writing one of the first cookbooks (which dates to the eighth and ninth centuries A.D.), included many references to onions.

By the Middle Ages, the three main vegetables of European cuisine were beans, cabbage and onions. In addition to serving as a food for both the poor and the wealthy, onions were prescribed to alleviate headaches, snakebites and hair loss. They were also used as rent payments and wedding gifts.

Later, the first Pilgrims brought onions with them on the Mayflower. However, they found that strains of wild onions already grew throughout North America. Native American Indians used wild onions in a variety of ways, eating them raw or cooked, as a seasoning or as a vegetable. Such onions were also used in syrups, as poultices, as an ingredient in dyes and even as toys. According to diaries of colonists, bulb onions were planted as soon as the Pilgrim fathers could clear the land in 1648.

Onion Trivia

What compound in onions brings tears to your eyes?

Sulfuric compounds. To cut down on the crying, chill the onion and cut into the root end of the onion last.

How many pounds of fresh and storage type onions does the average American eat per year?

19 pounds.

How many truck loads of onions are consumed each day?

Nearly 380 semi-truck loads.

What country boasts the highest per capita consumption of onions?

Libya, with 66.8 pounds of onions consumed per person each year.

How many calories are in a serving of onions?

30 calories.

What are the three colors of onions sold in most grocery stores?

Yellow, red, and white.

How many acres of onions are planted in the United States each year?

145,000 acres.

How many onion farmers are there in the United States?

About 1,000.

What cocktail is traditionally garnished with a pearl onion?

The Gibson. According to the Webtender (online bartender), the Gent of the Jury, Patton Martini, Pan Galactic Gargle Blaster #2 and the Yellow Rattler also call for a cocktail onion.

According to an old English Rhyme, the thickness of an onion skin can help predict what?

The severity of the winter. Thin skins mean a mild winter is coming while thick skins indicate a rough winter ahead.

Where are specialty sweet onions grown?

Gentle, sweet onions are grown in several parts of the United States including Arizona (The Grand Canyon Sweet), California (Sweet Imperials), Georgia (Vidalia Sweets), Hawaii (Maui Sweets and Hawaiian Hula Sweets), New Mexico (Nu-Mex Sweets), Texas (Texas Spring Sweets, 1015s and Super Sweets) and Washington (Walla Walla Sweets).

What should you eat to get rid of onion breath?


According to the Guinness Book of World Records, how much did the largest onion ever grown weigh?

10 pounds 14 ounces. It was grown by
V. Throup of Silsden, England.

What Beatles song has "onion" in its title?

Glass Onion. (The White Album)

In what famous story was the Seven-of-Spades threatened to be beheaded for bringing the cook tulip-roots instead of onions?

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll.

Notable, Quotable Onions

"We remember the fish we ate in Egypt for nothing, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions and the garlic; but now our strength is dried up, and there is nothing at all but this manna to look at."

-Numbers (11:5-6)

"I crawled into the vegetable bin, settled on a giant onion and ate it, skin and all. It must have marked me for life for I have never ceased to love the hearty flavor of onions."

-James Beard, American cooking expert and author

"I will not move my army without onions!"

-Ulysses S. Grant

"It's hard to imagine civilization without onions."

-Julia Child

"The onion and its satin wrappings is among the most beautiful of vegetables and is the only one that represents the essence of things. It can be said to have a soul."

-My Summer in a Garden by Charles Dudley Warner

"Onion skins very thin,
Mild winter coming in.
Onion skins very tough,
Coming winter very rough."

-old English rhyme

"If you hear an onion ring, answer it."


"It's probably illegal to make soups, stews and casseroles without plenty of onions."

-Maggie Waldron, American author and editor

"Life is like an onion.
You peel it off one layer at a time;
And sometimes you weep."

-Carl Sandburg, American poet

"Onions can make even heirs and widows weep."

-Benjamin Franklin

"Life is like an onion; you peel off layer after layer and then you find there is nothing in it."

-James Gibbons Huneker, American musician, critic

"For this is every cook's opinion,
No savoury dish without an onion;
But lest your kissing should be spoiled,
Your onions should be thoroughly boiled."

-Jonathon Swift, Irish satirist

"Take care to chop the onion fine."

-Opening line of Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel

"Why is it that the poet tells
So little of the sense of smell?
These are the odors I love well:

The smell of coffee freshly ground;
Or rich plum pudding, holly crowned;
Or onions fried and deeply browned…"

-Christopher Morley, poet

"It was for bringing the cook tulip-roots instead of onions."

-The reason the Queen of Hearts wants to behead the Seven-of-Spades in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll

"Mine eyes smell onions: I shall weep anon."

-All's Well that Ends Well by William Shakespeare

"The onion tribe is prophylactic and highly invigorating, and even more necessary to cookery than parsley itself."

-George Ellwanger, British food writer

"Banish (the onion) from the kitchen and the pleasure flies with it. Its presence lends color and enchantment to the most modest dish; its absence reduces the rarest delicacy to hopeless insipidity, and dinner to despair."

-Elizabeth Robbins Pennell, American columnist

Handling Information

If you understand the two distinctive types of dry onions, buying and storing them will pose no problem. Onions are sold either in pre-packed sacks or in bulk. When buying onions, choose those with short necks and dry, papery outer skins. They should be firm and hard and reasonably free of blemishes.

The storage onion is an original convenience food. It can be stored in a cool dry, well ventilated place for weeks-even months without loss of vitamins or minerals. Don't store in piles, since a single layer ensures a longer life.

Spring/summer onions have a thinner skin and should also be firm but not as hard as a storage onion. Choose those onions that are free of cuts and bruises. You must remember that fresh onions are more delicate and need more care than the storage onion and will not keep as long. They should be stored in a well ventilated, cool dry place or refrigerated to sustain their quality.

The onion's flavor, odor and tear-inducing characteristics come primarily from sulfuric compounds in the vegetable. When onions are peeled and sliced, we free this chemical which dissolves in small quantities of water in the eyes. This produces a mild form of sulfuric acid, an irritant that causes tearing.

This solution has proven effective in solving this problem. Cutting the top and peeling down without trimming off the root or bottom end until the last possible moment is a very effective method. The cells that release the sulfuric compounds are concentrated at the base of the onion, so cutting off the root end last helps to prevent those tears.

In modern society, some people worry that they may have "onion breath." Although this problem normally comes from eating raw onions, a mild raw onion may cause no odor. Cooked onions help alleviate this problem and leave virtually no odor on the breath. Here are a few helpful ways to freshen your breath.

  • Rinse your mouth with equal parts of lemon juice and water.
  • Chew a citrus peel to sweeten the breath.
  • at a sprig or two of parsley, nature's natural breath sweetener.

Onion History
Onion Trivia
Quotable Onions
Handling Information