Onions: The basics


Onions are a staple in many Asian recipes – most of mine start with a good helping and a half of chopped, sliced or ground onions. Here’s all your need to know about this vegetable, and how to use it.

Onions, when cooked and used at the right time, can add an unforgettable savoury pizazz to your meal. Want to know how to buy, store, cook and eat this vegetable that can make you cry? Keep reading, my friend. 

How to buy

There are a few things you should look for when choosing onions. The first is colour: white onions tend to be sweeter than yellow ones, so if you’re looking for something on the mild side, keep an eye out for a white variety. I love using the red (well technically, purple lah) variety- they are rich and pungent in flavour and so beautifully sweet when fried long enough. 

I generally recommend purchasing onions from the wet market, or anywhere other than the supermarket. Supermarket ones are kept in an air conditioned environment – this means they won’t survive outside for long and will eventually start rotting. 


Types of Onions

  • Yellow: have a sweet, mild flavour. They’re good for all purposes, from salads to sauces and everything in between.
  • Red: also called purple or brown onions, have a slightly stronger taste than yellow ones and are very widely available in Asia. You can have these raw or cooked – though they don’t taste great raw. 
  • White: often used in French cooking due to their milder flavour than yellow or red onion varieties. They can be eaten raw but are generally better when cooked (and even better when caramelised).
  • Sweet: generally larger than the other types listed above, sweet onions come covered with a thin skin that should not be peeled unless you plan on eating them raw; cut the top off each onion and pull out the stem before slicing or chopping it up into smaller pieces if needed!
  • Spring: these are very young onions, harvested before the bulb has had a chance to swell. All of the onion is edible from the slim green tops to the small white bulb at the base. These have a similar flavour to yellow or red onions but can be much milder. 
  • Pearl: otherwise known as baby onions or creamers, this variety is small and usually white in colour. You can sometimes find them in Sheng Siong or NTUC – they range from about a quarter of an inch to about a half of an inch in diameter. Pearl onions are sweeter and milder than regular onions. 

Another thing to consider is size—larger onions are generally milder than small ones, but they can make you tear more. Finally, check for firmness and dryness; avoid any that feel soft or wet or have mouldy spots (and make sure none of their green shoots are still attached).

Storing onions

To store onions, place them in a cool, dry place (not the fridge, though!). Avoid heat and sunlight. Store them in a paper bag or container in the pantry (away from other fruits and vegetables).

Here’s how to peel!

  • First, you’ll need a sharp knife. A dull blade can bruise and tear the onion, which will make it bitter.
  • Cut off the top and bottom of the onion so that it’s stable when you cut it in half.
  • Then remove the papery skin from each half with your hands – it’ll come off pretty easily.
  • Slice each onion half into thin rings,  chop them finely or cut them into large wedges – it’ll all depend on what the recipe calls for.

Are they healthy?

Onions are packed with flavour and nutrition—here’s how they benefit your health:

Onions are a good source of vitamin C, potassium and fibre. The sulfur compounds in this vegetable inhibit cancer cell growth in the colon, breast and prostate. Sulfur is also responsible for having a positive effect on your blood pressure levels by reducing homocysteine levels in the bloodstream. They also contain antioxidants such as quercetin, kaempferol and rutin which have been linked to disease prevention properties such as lowering your risk of heart disease, stroke or developing cataracts because they protect against oxidative damage from free radicals that can cause damage to tissue cells like muscle cells which can lead to arthritis pain when there’s not enough cartilage left between them (try adding onion powder if you’re feeling some discomfort).


I’ve put together a few simple recipes you can use to start your love-affair with with this vegetable! 

Simple Onion Soup Recipe

Here’s a recipe for simple onion soup that you can enjoy on any day. It’s quick, easy, and delicious!


  • 1/2 cup of butter or olive oil
  • 2-3 medium onions sliced in half vertically, cut side down (or more if using shallots)
  • 6 cups chicken broth 
  • 2 tablespoons minced garlic

In a large soup pot over medium heat, melt butter or oil. Add sliced onions (or shallots) and cook until browned but not too dark; this should take about 20 minutes. Then add your chicken broth. Let the mixture come to a boil, then add minced garlic during the last few minutes of cooking time so that it doesn’t burn off too much before the soup is done.

How to make caramelised onions

I’ve made caramelised onions before, but not just for the sake of it. Don’t get me wrong, I loovvee the flavour of caramelised onions. But they are a lot of work so I make them only when needed, like for my Nalli Nihari

  • Heat 30g of butter in a large skillet over medium heat, with 1 tbsp of butter. Add the peeled and thinly sliced onions and cook for about 20 minutes, occasionally stirring, until softened and browned around the edges.
  • Add 2 teaspoons of sugar, and salt and pepper to taste. Reduce heat to low; cook until caramelised – this will take anywhere between 15 to 30 minutes. Remember to taste as you go – stop cooking when you’re happy with what you taste. 
  • Add this to sandwiches, pasta – you name it! 

Onions are a very big part of Asian cooking, especially in Indian recipes. You can have it raw, soused in lemon juice, cooked to a lovely caramel or blended into a soup. As a staple in many cuisines around the world, onions can help add some oomph to your dinner. How do you like to have this vegetable? 

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