“Banish the onion from the kitchen and the pleasure flies with it. Its presence lends colour 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
Onions are hitting the century 0f price / Kg in the Indian subcontinent, more than quadrupled in the last few months and may go further up. It is a staple diet of most of the Indians. For almost every dish we need onions. According to Shri Nabansu Chattopadhyay, the deputy director general IMD, the main onion growing areas – Karnataka and Maharashtra, are going through severe drought and it will affect the output of the crop in September also.
Dharwad district of Karnataka, which produces over 4 lakh tonnes of onion, has witnessed complete destruction of the crop due to drought. Karnataka and Maharashtra produces around 70 per cent of the onion crop in the country. Dharwad, Chikmangloor, Chitradurga and other onion producing areas of Karnataka are experiencing severe drought, which will impact the output.In Maharashtra, the late sowing will delay the arrival of the crop and there will also be a decrease in the output. In 1998, the BJP government was voted out of power in Delhi when it was unable to control rising price of onions.
India is the world’s second biggest producer after China and onion cultivation occupies the largest area accounting for 19% of global production. However, experts say that India simply cannot keep up with a booming domestic demand that has seen a 30% increase in the past five years.The governments in India have learned the hard way that when the price of Onion goes up, the clout of governance slides down. Like many Indians, I’m obsessed with onions and I thought it fit, to do some research and present to this generation the problems we are facing regards onion production.
We characterize some mysterious people as “Onion”. “Like the layers of an onion, under the first lie is another, and under that another, and they all make you cry.” – Derrick Jensen, ‘A Language Older than Words’
There’re around of 500 species of onion gifted to mankind. It is found in religious books of Islam as a desirable compliment by Bani Israel. Onions are mentioned to have been eaten by the Israelites in the Bible.
In Numbers 11:5 the children of Israel lament the meagre 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”. Once, according to many archaeologists, botanists and food historians this ubiquitous bulb of ‘allium’ family was a wild plant of Iran and Central Asia.
The only statement we could make is this humble vegetable was a staple diet in prehistoric period also, may be 5000 years or more. Authentic presence and cultivation of this vegetable is recorded in Egypt marks 2000 years. This happened alongside the cultivation of leeks and garlic. Onion was used as medicine, preservative and it was also used in creative art work of those times.
Multiple Benefits of Onions and Its Use in the Past and Present
Don’t be surprised when the governments are made to go for onion. Egyptians used to bury onions along with their Pharaohs. Some Egyptologists believe 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. Onion is transportable, easy to grow and could be grown in a variety of soils and climates.
It prevents thirst and could be dried and preserved for later consumption. Onions grew in Chinese gardens as early as 5000 years ago and they are referenced in some of the oldest Vedic writings from India. There is evidence that the Sumerians were growing onions as early as 2500 B.C. One Sumerian text dated to about 2500 B.C.
The famous ancient medical treatise ‘Charaka – Sanhita’ celebrates the onion in India as medicine “…a diuretic, good for digestion, the heart, the eyes and the joints”.
During World War II the Russian soldiers were treated with onion-juice to prevent infection, it was applied to battle wounds as an antiseptic.
The Onion Festival
However, the greatest respect is accorded to this staple diet in Switzerland. I realized it when a fine evening at Bern, my group was showered with pleasant confetti at ‘Onion Festival’ known as ’Zibele-Marit’ near the Swiss Parliament. As the legend goes, the onion market was created as a reward to farmers who helped the Bernese clean up after a city fire in 1405.
Onion Festival in Switzerland
The Onion Festival in Bern is held on the last Monday of November. The locals and tourists pack several square blocks surrounding the large plaza with the National Bank and Parliament Building. Your entry there is like a diving into the onion sea. Onion farmers bring with them the intricate wreaths Onion plants like the floral designs and proudly display their vegetable arts.
I met many farmers there who claimed that there were attending the festival since they were children. Traditional onion designed as bouquets and straw hats with pleasing shades and shapes were developed through generations as proud art heritage. Some of the farmers were honored as Onion Specialist. There you can buy plaited strings of onion and garlic, onion sculptures, onion tarts, onion soup and onion festoons. All this talk was aimed to make believe that there is no crisis on Onion and we are having the Achche Din. Happy days are here again.
I still walk to the Onion Plaza at Bern and if you want to make a change, hot wines locally brewed are available at reasonable prices just like ‘Annanas Sherbat’ at ‘Bhindi Bazar’ alfresco.
You could find yourself celebrating Onion Festival amid the confetti battles, street jeers and local onion costumes. From Onion Festival of Bern to the realities of Azad Market there is a distance of time, integrity, mindset and values. More peeling of political onion would bring anything new? I don’t know. I can hear the distant chiming of Swiss Bells.
By Naim Naqvi