I’itoi Onions: Desert Savory

I finally decided it was time to put my vegetable garden to bed for the summer.  This involved pulling out the remaining I’itoi bunching (or multiplier) onions.  I’ve been using them all spring, but they are very prolific. One little onion that looks like this:


A few months later, will have multiplied to this:


I’itoi onions were brought to the Southwest in the 17th century by Spanish missionaries, but have become such a part of the Tohono O’odham biology that they are called by the name of their creation diety, Elder Brother, or I’itoi.  These little gems were beginning to die out when they were brought to Native Seeds SEARCH by a Tohono O’odham woman.  They are one of the plants in the Slow Food Ark of Taste. 

I’itoi onions (Allium cepa var. aggregatum) are easy to grow — just plant each bulb about an inch below the surface and at least eight inches apart.  They will send up chive-like greens first that can be used until you decide they have multiplied enough and pull them up for use.  When you harvest the last clump in the summer,  put aside a dozen or so bulbs in a paper bag and set aside on a cool shelf to await fall.  (I find it amusing that the onions “know” when to start again — if I don’t get around to putting them back in the ground until later in September, I sometimes find that they have begun to sprout in anticipation.)

To prepare onions for cooking, first separate and clean off the dirt,  then peel.

Cleaned onions on the left, peeled on the right.

Cleaned onions on the left, peeled on the right.

Like most onions, these contain potassium, vitamin C, folic acid and vitamin B6. Onions contain substantially the same amount of vitamins and minerals when cooked.  I’itoi onions can be substituted for onions or shallots.  You can find them at farmers’ markets and from Crooked Sky Farms in Prescott and the Phoenix area and from Native Seeds SEARCH.

Cooked sweet and sour I'itoi onions

Cooked sweet and sour I’itoi onions

Here’s my recipe for sweet and sour I’itoi onions.  You can use red wine and red wine vinegar or white wine and white wine vinegar. Makes a great topping for grilled fish or chicken or mix it into steamed vegetables to add flavor.

1 cup cleaned and sliced I’itoi onions

1/2 cup water

2 tablespoons wine vinegar

2 tablespoons wine

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 teaspoon sugar or agave syrup

1/2 cup water (again)

In a large heavy frying pan, cook sliced I’itoi onions and water covered over very low heat for 10 minutes until soft.  Add wine, wine vinegar, olive oil and sugar or agave syrup.  Cook over very low heat for another 10 minutes.

Jacqueline Soule wrote a column about I’itoi onions for the Explorer and finished with a recipe for I’itoi onion and goat cheese scones. You can see it here. 


If you are interested in wild and heritage foods of the Southwest, check out my cookbooks Cooking the Wild Southwest, Delicious Recipes for Desert Plants, The New Southwest Cookbook,   and the Prickly Pear Cookbook. For inspiration and directions on what wild plants are available in what season, watch a short video here.  


7 responses

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  3. I have planted these every winter for about 10 years. They are one of my favorite flavors.

  4. How do you pronounced I’itoi? Anyway I’m been growing some and they really are fragrant. I’ve been adding them to omelets

    • Glad you are enjoying your onions. I wouldn’t say I have a great Tohono O’odham accent, but the nearest I can come for a pronunciation of I’itoi is Ee Ee toy. I don’t know where the stress is so I pronounce each syllable the same. I believe it should always be spelled with a capital letter, as you have, because it is a name.

  5. Who knew onions are so healthful as well — we noncooks always knew they were wonderful with everything. Now we get gold stars for being food-smart too. And they make the kitchen smell great.

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