Skip to content

Onions…more than a basic ingredient

Onions harvest in the West Bekaa

History of onion cultivation

Onions are one of the oldest cultivated vegetables in human history. Although scientists agree that onion cultivation started around 5000 BC in Asia, some believe that onion was first grown in Central Asia, while other believe that it originated from Iran and West Pakistan. Nevertheless, archeological evidence shows that onions were planted by ancient Egyptians about two thousands year later.

The reasons why onions were among the first vegetables to be consumed and domesticated relate to the fact that onions are easy to plant. They grow in multitude of soils and climates. They are less perishable than other vegetables and can be dried and stored for long periods as well as consumed when food is scarce.

In addition to their culinary use, onions are cherished for their antiseptic and medicinal use. Ancient Egyptians used onions in art and mummification and buried their Pharaohs with onions. Onions were cultivated and used by other civilizations like the Chinese (5000 years ago), the Sumerians (2500 BC), the Babylonians, the Greek, the Romans, and Hindus.

Onion tagine is prepared with loads of sauteed onions

Onion production in the world

Today, onions are considered field crops as they are cultivated on large lands and exported everywhere in the world. Allium cepa or common onion is the most produced species in the world. It includes several varieties (yellow, black, white, shallot etc.) and is closely related to garlic, chives and leek. Although onions are a biennial crop, they are usually grown as annuals.

China ranks first in producing onions with around 22 million tons per year, followed by India with about 19 million tons. The United States and Iran produce around three million tons and two million tons respectively.

Onion seeds are produced from biannual onions

Lebanese onions

In Lebanon, different varieties of onions are produced. The South of the country is renowned for the white and round onions of Kfarfila and Aishiyeh. This white variety is planted from preserved seeds throughout the years, hence producing onions that are very adapted to the climatic conditions of the region. These sweet onions get even sweeter as they dry, unlike other varieties that gain a more pungent taste when they dry. Onion harvest used to be a social activity which gathered family members and neighbors and involved braiding the harvested onions for storage; however, the cultivation of onions which was an important economic activity in the sixties, has declined after the war.

Beautiful patches of green onions in Saghbine

In the Bekaa Valley, the West Bekaa particularly, another variety of onions is cultivated: the Salamouni onion. This elongated and white onion is usually consumed raw as its taste is less pungent than other varieties. However, it cannot be stored for long periods of time due its high water content. In the villages of Saghbine and Ain Zebdeh, where few farmers still plant Salamouni onions, seeds are produced and preserved from one year to another. Salamouni onion is used as the basis of many recipes specific for these villages such as bassaliyeh a very simple dish which consists of a lot of sautéed Salamouni onions cooked over medium fire with eggs. Bassalyieh, a peasant recipe of simple and local ingredients is also prepared with meat. Unfortunately today the production of Salamouni onions is in regression as this local variety is being replaced with other varieties of onions which require less water for irrigation.

Participate in onion harvesting and taste culinary specialties on darb el karam

Darb el Karam promoting Salamouni onions production

Learn more about Salamouni production and harvest from local farmers by joining the harvest trail on darb el karam – Food Trail in the West Bekaa by the end of August.

Caramelized onions are used on many traditional Lebanese dishes


Onions, by Eva Wilson

Article on inventory products potentially eligible for PDOs and PGIs in Lebanon by the Ministry of Economy and Trade

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *