Onion, Shallot, Leek, Scallion, Garlic, and Chive: The Allium Family

The most widely-used family of culinary herbs, the allium family--onion, shallot, scallion, garlic, leek and chive--offers a variety of complex flavors that have been favorites of cooks since long before recorded history.

Onion is found in thousands of recipes world-wide, and used by virtually all modern cultures.  Available fresh, frozen, canned, caramelized, pickled, powdered, chopped, and in dehydrated forms, the whole plant is edible and is used as food in one form or another. 

Onions can be found chopped or sliced in almost every type of food, including cooked foods and fresh salads, and commonly added as a spicy garnish. 

 In European cultures, onion is rarely eaten alone, but usually acts as an accompaniment to a main course.  Depending on the variety (Spanish, red, Vidalia, pearl, or Maui), an onion can be sharp, spicy, tangy, pungent, mild, sweet, or a combination.

The shallot, colloquially known as the “multiplier onion,” is a variety of onion that has from time to time been classified as an onion, at other times a classification of its own due to cultural distinctions.  In Australia, for example, the term “shallot” can also refer to scallions (see scallion), while the term “eschalot” is used to refer to the onion/shallot.  In France, the term “shallot” is used to indicate the French gray challot or griselle, a species that grows wild from Central to Southwest Asia, which is considered by many chefs to be the true shallot.

To discerning tastes, the shallot does indeed taste like onion, but has a sweeter, milder, richer and more complex flavor.  Shallots are extensively cultivated throughout the world, used fresh in cooking and in some parts of the world, for pickling.  You will find finely sliced, deep-fried shallots used as a condiment in Asian cuisine.  (Like onions, raw shallots release chemicals that irritate the eye when sliced that induce tears.)

The leek is a vegetable closely related to the scallion, which produces a long cylinder of bundled leaf sheaths, rather than a tight bulb like the onion.  The edible portions of the leek are the white onion base and light green stalk; the dark green portion, though edible, is usually discarded since it has less flavor and is much more bitter.  However, leek leaves along with a selection of other herbs are sometimes tied together with twine to form a “bouquet garni,” a collection of spices dropped into soups and then retrieved just before serving.  Leek has a mild onion-like taste, less bitter than scallion, and is sometimes described as a mixture of mild onion and cucumber, with a fresh smell similar to scallion.  One of the most popular uses for the leek is for adding flavor to soup stock and broth--with many dishes build specifically on this taste.  In European cuisine, leek soup is a mainstay and cultural tradition of several countries.  When eaten raw, leek is crunchy and firm not unlike celery.

The scallion (also known as spring onion, salad onion, onion stick, green shallot, or green onion in many countries) lacks a complete root bulb, producing a small bulb attached to an edible hollow shaft similar to the leek.  The species most commonly associated with the name “scallion” is the Welsh onion. In some cultural settings, the term “scallion” is used to indicate the shallot--both terms apparently related to a common root word of Greek origin. Diced scallions are typically used in soups, seafood dishes, with noodles or pasta, as well as laid strategically on sandwiches.

Garlic, perhaps the most broadly-used of the allium family, has been utilized throughout history for both culinary and medicinal purposes.  The garlic plant’s bulb is the most commonly used part of the plant, and with the exception of the single clove variety, this bulb is divided into numerous fleshy sections called “cloves.”  Garlic is used raw and cooked, having a distinctive, pungent and spicy flavor that mellows and sweetens considerably with cooking (especially when caramelized).  The leaves and flowers on the head are also edible, and are usually picked while immature and still tender. Additionally, the immature flower stalks of the “hardneck” and “elephant” varieties are marketed in some parts of the world to be used like asparagus in stir-fries.  The papery, outside “skin” of the bulbs are generally discarded during preparation, though in Korea, immature whole heads are sometimes prepared with the tender skins intact.

Chive is the smallest members of the allium family, and is the only species of allium native to both the New and the Old World. The English, “chive,” derives from the French word cive, which was derived from cepa, the Latin word for onion.  Culinary uses for chive includes shredding its leaves (called “straws”) for use as a seasoning for fish, potatoes and soups, and is used in many traditional dishes of Sweden and France, where it is termed “fines herbes,” along with complimentary herbs tarragon, chervil, and parsley.  In Poland, chive is traditionally served with quark cheese.

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For Related Topics See:

Sesame

Apples

Cayenne

Black Rice

Wheat Gluten

Primary sources:

 Health Benefits of Onions: https://knoji.com/health-benefits-of-onions/

Foods That Harm, Foods That Heal, Reader's Digest

The Big Book of Vegetables

Images via Wikipedia.org

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