A branch of the onion family, garlic’s prevalence in food, culture, and medicine is undeniable. Its unique taste and rare properties make garlic a versatile and useful plant to millions around the globe. The plant’s cloves, specifically, are most valued for their strong flavor by consumers. But contrary to popular belief, its other parts (the leaves, stem, and flowers) are also very edible. To learn more about its versatility and past, read on.
Garlic’s history, despite the plant’s wide usage, is not all that well known. Though it has been grown for thousands of years, there is no clear ancestor to the garlic consumers know and love today. Wild species of garlic have been found, though. One species, called Allium longicuspus, grows wild in the Southwestern areas of Asia. Another, known by the nicknames “crow garlic” and “field garlic” can be found in the meadows of Britain. And to round out its pervasiveness across the continents, a third species of wild garlic grows in North America.
As evinced by how common garlic is in its wild form, the plant is very hardy and easy to grow. It is usually planted seed by seed, asexually, and does very well in any mild climate. The fields of China are home to the world’s largest garlic production industry. The country grows about 77% of garlic cultivated worldwide. In fact, China produces about 28 billion pounds of it annually. India, South Korea, Egypt, Russia, and the United States round out the list of the top garlic industries in the world. Together, they grow almost two million tons per year. Garlic’s strength as a plant for cultivation lies in its resistance to most pests and diseases. Additionally, it doesn’t require great soil to thrive. Just about any reasonable pH balance suits garlic fine. The only real threats to garlic plants are a non-fatal plant disease called “pink root” that stunts its growth and parasitic nematodes (roundworms). Farmers also find garlic useful to grow because it naturally tends to repel common field pests such as rabbits and moles.
When raw, garlic is a pretty pungent little food. It packs a powerful punch. But in the right amount and with proper preparation, (which is often different depending on culture) it is a flavorful and delicious compliment to many foods. In fact, garlic is an essential part of most meals prepared in the Eastern and Southern areas of Asia, Northern Africa, Europe, and even Central and South America. The reason for this is how easy the flavor is to manipulate. When cooked, garlic becomes much sweeter and more desirable. Paired with other vegetables such as onion, tomato, and ginger, the flavor of garlic can take on different undertones and palatable pleasures.
In Europe, the widest usage of garlic comes from people flavoring oils with it. They use a process called infusion, where garlic, sometimes cooked and sometimes raw, is put in a certain oil and allowed to sit for a set period of time. When it is removed, the oil takes on a unique flavor dependent upon the preparation method and type of garlic used. If you’ve ever tasted a good slice of garlic bread, you know exactly how great garlic infused oils can be. But its use doesn’t stop with bread. Many pasta oils, vegetable oils, and even meats are treated with garlic to give them an extra burst of flavor.
Many cultures over entire millennia have used garlic for food and other purposes. Traced all the way back to the time when the Egyptian Pyramids of Giza were being built, it is clear that garlic’s uses both in food and medicinally were never really a secret. In addition to the Egyptians, conquering Greek and Roman soldiers were known to consume garlic. Ancient philosophers including Pliny the Elder and Hippocrates praised garlic as a cure-all for conditions including parasites, digestion, and respiratory problems. The Bible even mentions garlic in a few passages, as does Talmud – the central book in mainstream Judaism.
Garlic has taken deep root in several religions throughout history. Hundreds and even thousands of years ago, European people used garlic in forms of white magic. They believed that garlic was a powerful protector against demons, werewolves, and vampires. Garlic was hung in windows or rubbed on other points of entry such as the chimney and keyholes to protect the household. It is now believed that this association arose because of garlic’s antibacterial properties. In essence, it helped to keep those who consumed and lived around it from getting sick. In Asia, meanwhile, the Hindu and Jain religions considered garlic a warming stimulant. On consumption, garlic was believed to raise one’s desires. In response, the use of garlic is reduced before certain days of observance in the Hindu religion. Jainism, meanwhile, recommends to avoid garlic as often as possible.
Modern science has proven many old myths about garlic’s health benefits. In studies, it has been shown to have an effect on high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and even cancer. Indications point to the fact that garlic’s medicinal properties are most effective on the cardiovascular system of humans. In essence, it works to reduce the accumulation of cholesterol on arterial walls. In addition, the BBC reported in 2007 that garlic may be one of the very few natural substances that helps fight the common cold. It should be noted, however, that overconsumption of garlic can lead to a few superficial adverse effects. Because of its pungency, the smell of garlic tends to stay with a person after eating it. It is known to cause both halitosis (bad breath) and increased odor from sweat. Depending on how much of it one eats, the effects – especially on sweat – can last all the way into the next day. A piece of advice: if you have a date coming up, it may be best to lay off the garlic for a day or two beforehand.
All things considered, garlic’s unique properties are well known and have been oft-used by cultures throughout global history. Though it may be pungent, its fantastic array of flavors, medicinal properties, and mythical significance make garlic a plant worth knowing about and using.