Filipino dishes seem to have onions in just about everythingâ€¦ they are a regular component for base flavorings in vegetable sautes, used in soups, on meats, as stuffing, etc. Onions are all members of the Allium family of which there are over 300 varieties around the world. They are believed to have originated in the Middle East and have been consumed by humans for at least 5,000 years. Onions are very easy to cultivate and propagate and they are now grown all over the world and have had a tremendous impact on several cuisines. On a recent foray through Divisoria, the onion selection was superb, with at least four types spotted at one vendor: red shallots, red onions (Bermudas), Spanish onions and the White onions. While the peak of the onion harvest is not for another month or two, I think we are seeing an early bounty aided by favorable weather patterns. Stock up and use generously!
Despite having approximately 1.30% of the worldâ€™s population, the Philippines only grows about 0.16% of all the onions on the planet. Most onions in the Philippines are grown up North in Nueva Ecija, Ilocos Norte, Ilocos Sur, Bulacan and Pangasinan. After the rice harvests late in the year (well after the rainy season), farmers like to grow onions in rice fields when there isnâ€™t enough water for another rice crop. Onions typically reach their peak from March to May after which the rains return and rice is again planted in those fields. When onions are harvested, they are plucked out of the soil, dirt brushed off then laid out on the fields for a day or two to get partially dried. Alternatively they are hung in sheds and air dried. They are then bundled and sent off to market or placed in storage. The lack of proper cleaning, drying and storage facilities is the reason for the erratic supply of onions during the year as well as the large fluctuation in prices. In recent years we have relied more heavily on imported onions from China and other countries to augment the locally grown supplies.
In the first photo up top, there is a nice selection of red onions (typically relatively small bulbs, sometimes softer than the Spanish onions and they seem to keep for fewer days/weeks than the the drier Spanish onions), red shallots (also in second photo), Spanish onions and the delicious but ever more difficult to find white onions that are the preferred choice for some Filipino dishes. Onions have a grading system as well, â€œExtra Largeâ€ if they have 35 or less pieces per kilo, Large if there are 36-45 pieces per kilo and Small if there are 75 or more pieces per kilo. You might be interested to know that prices treble from the time they leave the farms to the time you buy them in the market or grocery. Recent retail prices in Divisoria of say P45 a kilo translates into about P13 that went to the guy who actually grew them.
In this third photo, the difference between the standard Spanish or Yellow onion and the “Whitish” onion is clearer. The white onion is said to be the preferred choice for Beefsteak Tagalog as it is more opaque, sweet and matches well with the soy and calamansi sauce. It is hard to find the white onions in groceries and I do think that they tend to be softer and more susceptible to spoiling faster. With onion prices at their annual lows, now is the time to make great French onion soups, sofritos for future paellas, onion pizzaâ€™s, grilled onions for antipasto plates, etc.
Finally, some onion triviaâ€¦ the drier the onions, the longer they will last. Onions in developed countries such as the U.S. go through special dryers that extend the life of the produce. If you want to cry less when chopping onions, stick the onions in a refrigerator for an hour before you use them as this seems to reduce the amount of discomfort caused by the sulphur compounds in the onion when they are chopped. Always peel an onion very well and ensure there is no residual dirt on it before you chop it up and throw it into your dish.