Wednesday, March 21, 2007

onions, green and spring

Allie (the Kiwi) wrote to say:

I have a friend from LA staying with me at present. This evening she cooked supper, and one recipe included spring onions (or whatever those are called in the US). Anyway, after supper, I was doing the dishes when I noticed the spring onions sitting beside the pig bucket waiting to go out. The green ends had been neatly snipped off, and the white bulb parts left. Now, I use the white bulb parts, and throw out the green tips. Hilarity ensued when we realised we made a good pair and would get far more use out of spring onions as she'd use one half and I'd use the other. Apparently she was told by her mother to never use the white part as it is poisonous. I've no idea why I do not use the green tips, but I know my mother never did - and nor does anyone else I've seen chop onions - so I just followed suit.
Is it a usual thing in the US to not use the white part of these onions, or had my friend (and her mother) got the wrong end of the stick (onion) somewhere?
I grew up not seeing the white bits used either, and whether to use the white bits is a matter of dispute in American cooking, it seems. Better Half grew up using the whole onion, but for the rooty bit at the very bottom. But Allie's observation did lead me to wonder whether we might see the hand of linguistic relativity here.

Linguistic relativity (aka the Whorf Hypothesis, or the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis) is the idea that the language you speak influences how you think. (Hit the link for more details.) Whorf , an American insurance investigator, was inspired to argue for this position based on his experience of how particular phrasings influenced people's behavio(u)r. In particular, he noted that if (AmE) gasoline/(BrE) petrol drums were described as empty, people would treat them as non-dangerous, even though such drums would be filled with very dangerous fumes.

Now, I don't know if all BrE speakers are like Better Half and use the whole onion (do you?), but the BrE term for this variety is spring onion. In AmE, the most common term is probably green onion, but they are also called scallions. Does the fact that the name of the food includes green inspire users of that name to perceive the edible part as the green part? Hmm...

Incidentally, the 1960s tune 'Green Onions' has been given lyrics by Raymond and the Circle (a performer from 1980s western Massachusetts who no one but me seems to know/remember; until recently I was the only person to have mentioned him on the web). It goes like this:
We're eatin' those green onions
We're eatin' those green onions
They go great with grunions
And they're good for puttin' on your bunions.

Some people call 'em scallions
Some people call 'em scallions
They're the size of medallions
And we've got enough to feed three battalions.
If you know the tune, it's pretty easy to sing along...


flashgordonnz said...

I am a guy. From NZ. So I know nowt about food. I don't know what we do with spring/green onions, but what about chives? How similar to gr/spr onions are they, and is it correct to use the green bit of the chives. See, I'm only assuming there's a onion bulb-type thingat the bottom.

AllieTheKiwi said...

I've never actually seen chives when it (they?) has/have been pulled out of the ground. My mother always had some growing in a pot on the windowledge in the kitchen, and she'd just snip off a bit as she needed it. Then, in the supermarket, you just buy it sans roots or...whatever grows beneath. I'm guessing they must have a bulby thing as they are semi-quasi-onion type thingies, but plants wither when I look at them, so I avoid gardening at all costs. (One wonders if this perhaps could be somewhat of a chicken and egg situation.)

It's interesting that supposedly green onions, spring onions, shallots and scallions are all the same thing. Yet shallots and spring onions are not at all alike to me, apart from being of the onion family and thus related somehow.

Anyway, this evening I'm using the white part of the discarded spring onions in a salad. Hopefully my friend will not perish from the poison contained therein.

Bingley said...

Lynne, I'm with BH. Use the whole thing apart from the root attachment at the very bottom.
Alliethekiwi, to me shallots are different from spring onions. Shallots look much like garlic but have a reddish purple skin.

Anonymous said...

around here (south wales), they are jibbons. the word in welsh is very similar.

we eat the white bulbs and the green shoots, btw, but not the bit where the roots attach

johnb said...

Yep. I use the white bulb and as far up the green stem as looks 'good' when I am cooking. the same as I do when I cook leeks. in both cases the roots are thrown away.

As for Shallots, I agree with bingley's description :P

I knew scallions was another name for spring onions - but not green onions.

As for the music - I always had visions of ordinary onions, sliced, but with raw green bits around the edges.

lynneguist said...

I agree that shallot is a different plant than scallion (with a very different taste, as well as appearance), but I've found the following on Wikipedia:

"[In] Australia, the Scallion plant is also commonly referred to as a shallot. Allium oschaninii is commonly referred to as a French Shallot."

Wikipedia also has a picture of a chive plant, clearly showing a bulb. It reports that chives are the smallest members of the onion family.

Rebecca said...

I'd use the entire bulbous (sp?) part except for the rooty bit. I'd also refer to any number as a mass noun - 'could you chop the spring onion' not 'onions' but I've no idea why that is.

I've a blogger friend in PA and she referred this week to an 'onion snow' - snow that occurs after the onions have been planted, which I thought was cute

ally (the non-kiwi) said...

I'd use from just above the rooty bit to as far up the green looks edible. And I'm in (and from) the UK.

But I'd never use the bulby bit from chives - as alliethekiwi said, you just snip the green bits off (then more grow back - don't think that'd happen if you pulled the whole thing up!).

(Where's PA, by the way?)

lynneguist said...

PA = Pennsylvania, USA

Suelily said...

Wow, this is almost as bad as the turnip/rutabaga/swede confusion! I know the plant we're talking about here as a scallion, not as a green onion (I'm in New England, btw). I thought spring onions were bigger; like "chives on steroids" as a friend put it. There were some growing in the garden when I moved into an apartment a few years ago, it took us a while to figure out what they were. Oh and in both cases I use all of it from just above the root to just below where it starts looking wilty at the top.

Bingley said...

BTW, for garlic, are 'cloves' and 'corms' generally recognised as the correct terms (cloves being the individual pieces of garlic and corms being the whole bulb)?

lynneguist said...

I try to keep this a descriptive rather than prescriptive discussion, so I won't comment on "correctness", but I'd never heard the term corm before--and neither have many other people it seems, according to Google:

corm of garlic = 6 hits
head of garlic = 69,600
bulb of garlic = 22,400

garlic corm = 30 hits
garlic head = 26,800
garlic bulb = 87,700

I'd use bulb in gardening contexts, but head in cooking contexts, but the Google examples include cooking bulbs, at least (I haven't gone through the results in any depth.)

Corm is treated as a botanical term in my dictionaries, and not particular to garlic.

There is a technical difference between corms and bulbs (here's a link to a .pdf article on the subject). But in everyday English, bulb is used as a generic term for corms, rhizomes and bulbs.

jhm said...

While I use 'scallions,' I recognize 'green onions' as a synonym, and assumed that the green was used to signify that they were the onions whose greens one ate. There are also things called 'bunching' onions, which I believe are like scallions, but one takes cuttings like from chives, and leaves any subterranean portion to fend for itself.

Bingley said...

Sorry, I should have said 'technical' rather than 'correct'. I meant the more precise technical term rather than the vague 'piece' of garlic or 'whole garlic' which I might use casually, but wouldn't expect to see in a recipe or other culinary work.

barnoid said...

Garlic bulb sounds right to this BrE-man, never heard it called a corm.

How's about red onions? Spanish onions? The Wikipedia article for Spanish onion redirects to Red onion, and then goes on to say red onions have "red skin and white flesh tinged with red, unlike Spanish Onions, which have yellow skins". Who calls what which?

Ginger Yellow said...

Why on earth wouldn't you use the white bit? What a waste.

dearieme said...

'course you cook the white bit. Persons of taste and discrimination call the plant a "sybie", by the way.

Anonymous said...

I have worked in various restaurants here in Ohio, USA, and I'll have you know that restaurants use the entire scallion except the root hairs at the bulb end. The bulb itself is actually part of the root.

People here in Ohio use scallions and green onions pretty interchangeably to refer to the vegetable in question. Chive is an herb, and has a flavor I don't consider to be very similar to that of a a scallion.

lynneguist said...

Hm, I call a red onion a Spanish onion, but the American Heritage Dictionary says they're yellow, and the Oxford Dictionary of English just says that they're large and mild, without mentioning colo(u)r.

There are plenty of people on the web using Spanish onion to mean red onion. Since I do it, I'd be tempted to say it's an American trait, but then there's that American Heritage definition. I've just checked three more dictionaries (1 BrE and 2 AmE). Two didn't have the term, and one (AmE) didn't mention colo(u)r.

But searching Google Images for "Spanish onion", I find that use of this term for red onions seems to be particularly common in Australia. (So goodness knows how I've acquired it!)

marek said...

Red onions have only been common in UK supermarkets in the last few years, and in my experience are always referred to as that.
"Spanish onions" is a term I recognise, though probably wouldn't use - but with defining characteristics being that they are mild flavoured, large and pale skinned.

David Malone said...

Scallions is definitely the prefered term in Ireland, though spring onion would be understood. I don't think I've ever heard the term green onions. I happly use any bit of the scallion (execpt the rooty bit). My mother would tend to say spring onion, but she's from the UK.

To me, spanish onions are large yellow slightly-mild onions. I think I got that from my mother too.

jangari said...

Spanish onions aren't even red, I'd prefer to think of them as purple. They're sweeter than brown onions and don't make your eyes sting as much.

Whatever happened to a clove of garlic? A google images search tells me that a clove is ambiguous between individual segments and the whole damn bulb.

I use as much of the shallot as I can, which means I throw out the top... maybe ten percent? That's when the tips become a little too woody. The white bit is completely and absolutely the best tasting, most tender part.
As for shallot (I sometimes call them eschallot, by the way), a google image search shows how many different things have this name. We grow shallots very successfully, and I have the feeling that if you let them sit in the ground long enough, the bulb will grow into an onion, but they're the same plant. Just an intuition.

Patricia said...

I was curious about the anonymous comment that the word in Welsh sounds similar to the word jibbons. I can only imagine that jibbons is a borrowing from the Welsh sibwnsyn. An on-line Welsh dictionary translates that as "young onion," a term for the vegetable that I've never heard before. (Growing up in Western Massachusetts, I called them "scallions.")

By the way, I use the green part like chives, to add mild onion flavor to things like salads or baked potatoes, and I use the white part (minus roots) to add slightly stronger flavor to stir fries and pan sauces (though I usually throw some green in too because it looks nice.)

lynneguist said...

Jangari, are you using shallot in the (apparently) Australian way to mean scallion? Scallions are young onions, but shallots are different from standard onions, in that they grow more like garlic--their bulbs grow in clusters.

A clove of garlic I would say is the bit within a bulb. And although I try not to talk of 'right/wrong' here :), I think that most people who call a head of garlic a clove of garlic don't cook very much! When a recipe calls for three cloves of garlic, they certainly don't mean three heads. (Though in my book, the more garlic, the better.) Both AHD and OED give only the 'section' meaning of clove.

Alexis said...

When I was growing up (US) my parents interchangeably called them scallions or green onions. I learned spring onions in the UK when I lived there. Some recipes call for only one part, but other than that I've always used both parts.

My parents got really annoyed once when they were served scallions on a dish at a fancy restaurant instead of chives, which was what the menu said would be served.

Sili said...

Chiming in with the Danish view as per usual (though a little late).

The most common - and proper term - is "forårsløg" which is a direct translation, but somewhere along the way the name was reanalysed and it's not uncommon to see them sold as "spring løg" where "spring" is pronounced (I believe) as the Danish word meaning "jump" (as in "spring, sprang, sprung" in English).

Shallots to me are small and relatively mild onions that off the top of my head have mainly been used as flavouring when preserving ... gherkins(?) and that sort of thing.

Their spelling and pronunciation vary though, and I'm never quite sure whether "skallotteløg" or "schalotteløg" is more 'proper' (the last one is occasionally reinterpreted, too, as "Charlotteløg" from the given name).

Nancy said...

I grew up in Southern California, where we always called them "green onions." (For a long time I thought "scallions" were a different vegetable altogether.) We used every bit of it except the roots, but I've noticed that many recipes specify to use *only* the white part. (If you do, save the greens for making soup stock.) What most amused me about Lynne's post, however, were the lyrics to "Green Onions," with which I was unfamiliar. I'm surprised no one here questioned "grunions" (great rhyme for onions!), which is a *very* Southern Cal. reference. Grunion are tiny silvery fish that come ashore to spawn between March and September. Going down to the beach to watch the grunion run, as it's called, has been a popular SoCal pastime for decades--it's eerie and beautiful to see the waves shimmering with thousands of fish. I've never eaten a grunion, though, with or without green onions. (More grunion lore:

Anonymous said...

In Scotland these salad onions are known as syboes (pronounced sa-ee-bees) apparently one of a number of French loan words in Scots (cf. ashet, gigot) surviving from the Auld Alliance of the fifteenth century between Scotland and France.

Anonymous said...

Better late than never, I suppose. To me, and I think to AmE culinary types as well, a "spring onion" is any kind of onion uprooted while still immature. "Scallion"/"green onion" is a specific variety of onion. Oh, and in my dialect (not sure where I got this from), red onions are "Bermuda onions".

terrycollmann said...

I'm surprised nobody has pointed out that Scallion is the Irish English and North of England word used for what in the southern half of England is called a spring onion.

Anonymous said...

Gotta comment on the green vs. white part of the onion thing. I'm from the US and I have never heard of or seen anyone not using the white part of what we call green, or bunching onions and instead only using the green! In fact most people here eat the white part raw and use it in cooking, throwing more of the green away. I think those who thought otherwise are the minority.

Nancy said...

I'm from the U. S. and my mother chopped up the white bulbs, and threw away the green parts. I've always done the same. I've never seen it the other way around.

dawn said...

Here in N Ireland many people eat only the green part of scallions and throw away the bulb. I tend to do this myself, as I prefer the taste of the green part and use it in the same way as I do chives.

I don't think it matters what part(s) you eat or what you call this plant, it's still an extremely healthy food and has recently been proved to be useful in the fight against various cancers, especially prostate cancer. From

'Garlic, onions, shallots, leeks and scallions (allium group vegetables) may cut the risk of prostate cancer. A study surveyed 200 men with prostate cancer and 500 healthy men in Shanghai, China and questioned them on their eating habits. Results were straightforward: men who ate small amounts of onions, garlic, scallions, shallots and leeks each day decreased their risk of prostate cancer by more than 33 percent. Additionally, those who ate 2 grams of garlic per day deceased their risk of prostate cancer by more than 50 percent, but even eating only one clove cut the risk. Scallions, which lowered the risk of prostate cancer by 70 percent, were found to be most beneficial.'

And I know from other sites that scallions may help prevent a range of cancers or help those who already have cancer, not just prostate cancer. So call them scallions or green onions or spring onions or whatever you like, but try to eat them regularly for the sake of your health!

Mindy said...

I scanned the posts, but did not see it. I have heard people with English accents say onion with a g sound in it. Do you know why and what this is about?

Again, I scanned the posts but did not see it. Sorry if I repeated something already said.

EJH said...

In Ireland we call spring onions BrE - scallions. But can you tell me if chives are called anything else in America? Just asking because Words with Friends (like Scrabble online) won't accept it as a legitimate word!

lynneguist said...

American for 'chives' is 'chives'. The WWF dictionaries have many mysteries.