The Periodical Pickle
I love pickled red onions for many reasons!
Last year, my partner and I hosted two young transgender women from Honduras while they applied for asylum and acclimated to life in America. They had just been released from ICE detention when they flew to Sacramento to live with us. The ladies had been through so much, having walked from Honduras to escape violence, and very little was familiar to them. But when I brought out a jar of my pickled red onions for one of our first meals together, their faces lit up. They excitedly spoke in Spanish too fast for me to comprehend, but I didn’t need to understand the words to know that this was a food they both knew well. They started showing us photos on their phones of various Honduran dishes with pickled red onions, talking longingly and passionately about their favorites. From then on, I had a team of in-house onion tasters!
Pickled red onions connect people from around the world because they are a very cross-cultural food. This is another reason I think pickled red onions are wonderful!
Here are some other examples of pickled red onions from around the world…
In both northern and southern Indian cuisine, pickled red onions are served alongside roti (flatbread), tandoori dishes, and many other meals. They are called sirka pyaz or sirke wale pyaaz in Hindi. Often the red onions used are a small baby onion. They are made with white vinegar, sugar, beet (for more vibrant color) and a spicy pepper. Some recipes add more interesting ingredients like ginger, cloves, and even cardamom.
In Scandanavian cuisine, pickled red onions (picklad rödlök in Swedish) are very common, as are many pickled foods. According to Swedish celebrity chef Niklas Ekstedt, “A Swedish feast cannot be without pickles.” The standard vinegar pickling solution starts with a super strong vinegar called ättika. The general Swedish rule for pickling is 1-2-3: 1 part ättika, 2 parts sugar, and 3 parts water.
In South America, there are many variations of pickled red onions, or cebollas encurtidas. They seem to be particularly ubiquitous in Ecuadorian cuisine where red onions are pickled in a variety of ways, with vinegar or lime juice. In Ecuador, they use a special type of red onion, called cebolla paitena, that is actually a red shallot. I’ve heard the flavor described as more between a garlic and an onion. This multi-bulbed allium has over the years been replaced by the more common red onion and there is now a concerted effort in Ecuador to bring back the traditional cebollas paitenas.
Pickled red onions accompany many Middle Eastern dishes, where sumac is often added to give extra tartness and lemony flavor. In Egypt, where onions were first depicted as a food in tombs 5300 years old, pickled red onions (basal mekhalel) are common. Throughout Central America, pickled red onions (cebollas en escabeche) are a condiment found on most restaurant tables. And, of course, pickled red onions accompany dishes across the spectrum of classic and “New American” foods, like BBQ, soul food, hamburgers, sandwiches, and salads.
Wow, these are just some of the cuisines where pickled red onions are found! Now that we live in a globalized world with so many fusions, the possibilities for pickled red onions are endless. Please send me a note if you have had pickled red onions with a type of food not mentioned!
She always had a giant jar of pickled red onions in the fridge and she’d put them on everything. She’d say the key to her good health was her long brisk walks and those special red onions. As a kid with a pretty stifled culinary curiosity, I had no interest in trying them despite Aunt Mary’s overtures.
After Aunt Mary passed away at the age of 90, I was sorting through her stuff and came across her old well-loved Joy of Cooking cookbook. Flipping through the pages, looking at her little notes in perfect cursive, a clipping fell to the floor. It was the recipe for her marinated red onions! I had to make them.
Wow, I couldn’t believe how good those onions were! All those years I rejected them, thinking onions were gross. They quickly became a staple on my dinner table, and I started tinkering with the recipe and sharing with friends. Eight years later, I began this venture, Boone’s Red Onions. Our Classic variety is a variation on my Aunt Mary’s old recipe. I think we’ve got it perfected and I hope you agree!