Allium sp.



Allium sp.

L. 1753

pronounced: AL-lee-um species

(Amaryllidaceae — the amaryllis family)


common names: shallot, spring onion, scallion


Allium is Latin for garlic. This particular shallot has me stumped as to its species. I have never seen a fruit body (if indeed it is a fruit body!) like this on any species of onion, or indeed, on anything else!

Shallots differ from most other onions in that, instead of having a single bulb, they divide into a cluster of smaller bulbs. In the varieties grown commercially, there are usually a dozen or so smaller bulbs in the clump. In the variety pictured, I am told that there are only usually about 4 smaller bulbs. Shallots are usually grown from the bulbs rather than from seed; these little onions will continue to multiply for generation after generation. We find shallots first described before 300 BC by the Greek writer Theophrastus, who called them ασκολονιον (askolonion). Pliny the Elder, writing in the 1st century AD, wrongly assumed that it was because they came from Askalon (now Ashkelon in southern Israel). As far as we know, they originated much further east, in Asia, and probably reached the Mediterranean via India.

Generally speaking, most varieties of shallot are milder in flavour than ordinary onions. All of the usual common names are interchangeable, and it depends on where you live as to what you call them; but, whatever you call them, they are a great mainstay for salads. After removing the small portion of bulb at the bottom from which the roots emerge, both the white bottoms and the green tops are normally used.

Onions and garlic were highly popular in ancient Egypt. They were part of the diet of the workers who constructed the Great Pyramids. The Old Testament mentions both onion and garlic specifically in connection with the sojourn of the Children of Israel in Egypt .

In ancient India, the onion and garlic were very unpopular. They were considered impure, and rarely eaten – the Chinese traveller Xuan Zang reported in the 7th century AD that people eating onions had to live outside the cities. The importance of shallots, onion and garlic in today’s Indian cuisine developed only due to contact with Muslims in the last millennium. Even today, some Brahmin communities (especially in Bengal) refuse to eat them. They use instead asafoetida in recipes where other Indians would use onion.

Shallots are rarely cooked in most cuisines, but they are very popular in northern France, where they are an essential ingredient in most sauces based on red wine. Contrasting with the usage of normal onions, the French do not fry the shallots (they say it turns them bitter), but generally braise them. The classic recipe for sauce béarnaise calls for shallots. Shallots are also used extensively in Iranian, Thai and Vietnamese dishes.

In our shops here, we are usually only offered ‘shallots’. In European shops (especially French) there is often a great array of named varieties available, with exotic-sounding names such as Golden Gourmet, Grise de Bagnolet, Hative de Niort, Pikant, Red Potato Onion, and Santé. In the USA, many named varieties are usually on offer: Beltsville Bunching, Ishikura, Kyotot Market, Red Beard, Redmate and Santa Claus, to name but a few.


Numbers 11 v. 5. We remember the fish, which we did eat in Egypt freely; the cucumbers, and the melons, and the leeks, and the onions, and the garlick.(KJV)

Photographs taken Picnic Bay 2009
Page last updated 3rd October 2018