Call it the little onion that could. When Megan Kiley discovered the unusual allium in her parents’ Needham garden, she wasn’t sure just what to call it. “It looked normal at first,” she recalls. Her mother, the gardener-in-chief, passed away last year, so Kiley wasn’t able to ask her about it; Kiley’s sister, she says, had only a vague memory of having planted some kind of onion there.
It soon became obvious that this was no ordinary onion. “It looked like a monstrous scallion — it was this high,” Kiley says, her hand indicating something around hip height. Then it formed what looked like a flower at the top, but when the papery “petals” dropped to reveal clusters of tiny onions, it was time to call in the experts.
Kiley is a regular at Beacon Hill Hotel & Bistro, and she brought one of the “monstrous scallions” to chef Josh Lewin. The chef too was stumped at first, but a little sleuthing turned up the answer: It was an Egyptian walking onion, also known as a tree onion, top onion, or perennial onion. Left to their own devices, the weighty cluster of onions atop the green shoots (known as topsets) will cause the stalk to bend to the ground, where the little onions, if conditions are right, will replant themselves and begin the cycle again. In this way, a plant can “walk” across the garden, though it might take a few years to really cover any distance.
Lewin was captivated by the spunky little onion. In the restaurant kitchen, contemplating a pile of greens and topsets — some with onions no bigger than a corn kernel — he recently recalled his initial response: “I fell in love with it.” Raw, it’s sharply oniony, but not overpowering. Lewin compares it to a shallot.
Determined to add it to the restaurant’s menu, he contacted Eva Sommaripa, whose Eva’s Garden, in Dartmouth, supplies many local chefs with organic fruits and vegetables. Sure enough, she had some of the peripatetic onions, and Lewin has now added them to the menu, in the form of a crisp, sweet-sour pickled onion served beside chicken breast. The teeny-tiny onions are laborious to peel, but it’s a job Lewin dares not delegate. “It takes some patience,” he says, “but I wouldn’t want anyone else to do it.”
Lewin would like to nominate the Egyptian walking onion to be included in the US Ark of Taste, a catalog, compiled by Slow Food USA, of “delicious foods in danger of extinction.”
The operative word there is “delicious.” Sure, this onion is obscure, and its unusual habits and back story are intriguing, but it’s got something even more important going for it. “We can talk about saving seeds and heritage foods all we want,” says Lewin. “But someone’s got to serve it and eat it, too.
“The best thing about this onion is it tastes great.”