Over dinner in Cadiz last month, talk turned to food and our host remarked that there are a lot of interesting recipes on foreign food shows but the ingredients are problematic, like scallions. What the heck are scallions, he said, pronouncing the word exaggeratedly as scaaaaaylions. Between mouthfuls of food, I said they were sibuyas na mura, also called spring onions or green onions.
Sibuyas na mura (tender or premature onion) may be a misleading term as it suggests that the onions are plucked before the bulbs are sufficiently mature in order to harvest the leaves. Strictly speaking, scallions don’t form bulbs so they really are harvested for the leaves. (However, in the Philippines, it isn’t totally uncommon for a cook to snip off the leaves of a still-growing onion and use them as he would regular scallions.)
Scallions, along with onion and garlic, belong to the genus Allium. All parts of the plant are edible from the roots to the dark green tops. Some stalks are pretty thin (as in less than a quarter of an inch in diameter) while other specimens are larger. But scallions are scallions and the larger size doesn’t qualify them as leeks. In some supermarkets, large scallions are sold as “onion leeks” but whether that is a mistake in terminology or a hybrid plant, I have no idea. Leeks, although they also belong genus Allium, are not the same as scallions.
Leeks look like very large scallions but they are constructed differently. The lower portion of the leek consists of bundled sheaths. Unlike scallions, only the white and light green potion of the leeks are edible as the dark green portions are too fibrous. They may, however, be added when making broth from scratch.
What about shallots? In the Philippines, we call them sibuyas Tagalog.
Shallots are small onions but just because an onion is small doesn’t automatically make it a shallot. The most telling characteristic of the shallot is that, like garlic, a single bulb contains two or more cloves or segments. The skin can be reddish, brownish or grayish.
The strict distinctions aren’t really followed in practice. There are parts of the world where shallots and small red onions are used interchangeably and there are culinary cultures that refer to scallions as shallots.
So, why is it important to know the difference of one from the others? Because they have different uses. You have to taste each one to know which goes best with what. When perusing a recipe and the ingredients call for shallots but you feel that the author is referring to scallions, you can decide whether to follow the recipe to the letter or not.