I can’t quite pinpoint the exact moment when the gag reflex kicked in but I can trace my dislike of scallions as far back as fourth grade and the last time we had a dark brown carpet. And it was also the last time my parents forced me to eat scallions. Until the day they discovered lumps of desiccated scallions wedded to the twisted strands of carpet underneath the dining room table, I was always instructed to eat everything on my plate no matter how much it made me want to regurgitate the contents of my meal.
Back then, the number one enemy was the soft, cloying, disgusting taste and texture of green onions that presented themselves in every dish at every meal. The unpleasantly squishy texture of the white bulb along with the off-putting taste induced an involuntary gag reflex that any bulimic would kill to have. When faced with a dish teeming with those things, I would either swallow the offenders whole to avoid acknowledging tasting or biting them, or I would surreptitiously dispose of them on the carpet below me.
Resigned to the fact I would continue to dislike scallions and quite aghast at the condition of the carpet, my parents decided that it would be better for everyone involved if I was allowed to pick out the scallions from my plate and dispose of them properly. It was a great victory for me and made meal times less trying for all involved. Although I have sensed disappointment in my parents’ eyes as they often say to me, and continue to do so to this day, “Aiyah, I don’t know why you don’t like scallions. All Chinese people are supposed to like them.” In their eyes, I’ve turned my back on my people, whomever they are. But seriously, are scallions really an Asian thing and what is so great about them anyways? Those are questions that have hung around in my subconscious for a while and I think those questions need answers. With modern technology, and some free time, I created a short survey and polled some indulging friends on this perplexing topic and the responses were rather interesting.
Before we get into the weeds, I have to admit that my hatred of scallions is a nuanced one. I tolerate and sometimes even understand the presence of raw scallions only if they are finely minced or sliced. Even better if I can pick them out of the dish easily. But cooked scallions in any form are evil. David Chang, why did your people have to serve that delectable piece of deep fried- short rib over a puree of scallions? I was riding on such a mealtime high until that moment.
Anyways, back to pondering the raison d’etre of scallions. First off, haters like myself are clearly in the distant minority. It’s not even close. I have only two friends who dislike scallions. Everyone else is an enthusiastic scallion hugger and is simply nonplussed that I would hate those bulbous things. Like my parents, they all feel that scallions are an integral part of Asian cuisine whether or not they themselves are Asian. Not surprisingly, cultural identification is closely intertwined with food. Imagine Japan without bonito, Taiwan without boba, Italy without tomatoes, or Ireland without Guinness. In the eyes of my scallion-loving friends, by shunning the plant, I’ve just lost some Asian street cred and will be banned from future karaoke gatherings.
To them, scallions are essential to many Asian foods, without which, dishes like pajeon (brings up memories of crutches, the Ma siblings, and a big plate of haemul pajeon), scallion pancakes, and miso soup would be robbed of their essence. Other scallion essential dishes included ramen (meh), peking duck (why even?), steamed fish (grudgingly agree), and dumplings (never!). Scallion lovers touted the taste and smell of the herb as what makes it so good. The two traits that make scallions so delectable to them are precisely what cause my esophagus to heave. Apparently, scallions are “perkier” versions of onions and that’s why people like them. That and they are green and pretty and look nice as a garnish.
Of course, Asians aren’t the only ones who regard scallions as part of their foodie heritage. According to my highly scientific poll, the cuisines most commonly associated with scallions are Asian and Mexican. Some say a proper nacho contains scallions. I say no puede ser. One of my friends claims that scallions are crucial to any Mexican BBQ as he says that it is a quintessential part of growing up (as is squirt mixed with tequila right Flavio?). Puhlease, I grew up with Taco Bell and my steak soft taco never had scallions. Oops, did I just associate Taco Bell with real Mexican food? A clear fallacy on my part. Oddly enough, one of my friends listed Italian cuisine and mentioned bruschetta in which basil is replaced with scallion as a favorite dish, something is too wretched for me to think about (sorry D). I just threw up in my mouth a little at the thought. That’s worse than Michael V. making banana polenta. The Godfathers are turning over in their graves as we speak.
With much of Asia and Mexico firmly under the thumb of scallion lovers, I have wonder if there are safe-havens for scallion hating refugees like me. Where are the scallion-free zones of the world? Since my non-existent paychecks don’t give me much leeway to travel and eat my way around the world, the next best option in uncovering scallion free sanctuary was to look through oodles of cookbooks to determine which cuisines shun the scallion or at least relegate it to an afterthought. After leafing through pages, it seems like there are parts of Asia still open to me–the subcontinent of India to be exact. I am fairly confident a good dosa or samosa chaat does not include scallions.
Over in Europe, France seems to have no problem making food amour with onions, leeks, and shallots but largely ignore the scallion. In Italy’s tri-colored flag, the green is for basil, not for scallions. As for Spain, with the exception of that tradition of eating calçots in the spring, its cuisine remains scallion free and close to my heart. Les, if we go to the hillsides of Cataluña next spring, I’m just going to drink myself to oblivion while you guys eat the calçots and banish the sights and smells from my mind. Thank God wine is cheap over there. I’ll venture out on a limb and say that all of continental Europe is probably safe consumption 99% of the time.
I’m also lumping the entire continent of Africa into my scallion free zone since I never detected any scallions in my pepper soup when I was there. Questionable animal parts and species perhaps, but scallions no. Antarctica the continent also seems to be a solid refuge, at least until it melts away. Me and penguins hanging out over a meal of herring sounds delightful, especially if they are smoked. Hand me a fresh bagel, cream cheese, and some capers. Mmmm.
Ditto for Middle Eastern cuisine. Last time I checked, no one snuck scallions into my chicken koobideh or in my baghali polo. My gyros and kibbeh feature onions but not scallions. If only we could unite the region in peace based on a shared dislike of scallions. A lowly plant as the common enemy rather than fellow human beings. And of course the good old U.S. of A affords me plenty of opportunities to avoid scallions. Fried chicken doesn’t have scallions, neither does mac and cheese, lobster rolls, pizza, etc. I am forever grateful that my parents rescued me from the scallion ravaged rice bowls of Taiwan and deposited me in the land of the free, and where life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness clearly implies that scallions are optional for those who choose to exercise their rights to excise scallions from a dish. God bless America indeed!