true gripes : onions

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The Triffids fortunately did not succeed in their bid to dominate the world, but a much humbler family of plants managed to invade British kitchens and score a great victory. They have become indispensable to chef and housewife alike.

It is the Allium family: onions, chives, shallots, spring onions, leeks and garlic. There is hardly a recipe for a main course or starter which does not include one of them. Their conquest of British cuisine was swift and ruthless, and all the more surprising for the disdain with which garlic- laden breath was regarded not long ago.

Can the intrusive presence of these pungent plants be explained solely by travels in foreign parts? Or is there some subtle reason for putting them into recipes for fish, fowl, meat or vegeburger? Admittedly, their strong taste will enliven dull dishes, but is there any excuse for loading salmon terrine with onions and garlic?

We all know people who come out in spots after eating shellfish - but they need not order prawns. Onions and garlic lurk as ingredients in many dishes and are therefore hard to avoid.

In the UK, if you must steer clear of the Allium family, restaurant meals become a dull and often expensive succession of plain omelettes or roast chicken without the stuffing - if you refuse fried plaice and chips.

Moreover, if you confess to the waiter that you have a problem, he will give you a pitying glance and assure you that you don't know what you are missing. It is no good telling him that all you are trying to miss is the stomach upset which follows the meal.

Supermarket shelves are also out of bounds to those averse to onions or garlic. Look down the list of ingredients on the packets and you will spot them before you are half-way through. Back goes your supper onto the shelf. Reject onions and garlic and you have to stand over a hot stove and dream up the recipe as well.

After all, there are products for slimmers and vegetarians and for others who like ethnic foods, but the anti-Allium brigade remains out in the cold. Why should we give in to the onion with hardly a struggle? There is a case for variety and choice. Perhaps people would like the chance to appreciate the delicate flavours of many foods without the overpowering pungency of these invaders of our kitchens.

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