The Wonder Bulb: Garlic

It adds a special flavour to numerous dishes, in many cuisines, across the world. In India, in many kitchens some dishes are incomplete without adding a dash of its paste, while some communities strictly abstain from it. It is often hailed as a wonder herb with numerous health benefits, while it also carries with it the lore of being a vampire repellent! This is the much used, but generally taken for granted–Garlic. However, this edible bulb which is a vegetable as well as herb, has been given its due in America which has designated 19 April as National Garlic Day!

Garlic or Allium sativum is a perennial flowering plant growing from a bulb. It belongs to the Lily family, in the onion genus Allium, and is a close relative of the onion, shallot, leek and chive. The word ‘garlic’ comes from the old English word garlēac, derived from gar (spear) and lac (plant), a reference to the long pointed shape of fresh garlic leaves.

While the name comes from the Anglo Saxon, the plant itself has a much older history. It is believed to be one of the oldest cultivated horticultural crops, with the centre of origin in Central Asia, mostly in Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. It is mentioned in many ancient texts, and references to garlic have been found in Egyptian and Indian cultures dating back 5000 years. Later, it spread to China, and then into Southern Europe.

Garlic has also been part of human diet for thousands of years. It was first incorporated into ancient Egyptian cuisine, making it the first ancient civilization to use garlic. Ancient Egyptians included garlic in the diet of the labourers who built the pyramids, to boost their strength and endurance. King Tutankhamen (1500 BCE) was buried with garlic cloves, which were found in a well-preserved state when his tomb was excavated hundreds of years later. Garlic was also consumed by Greek and Roman soldiers, sailors and peasants. Olympic athletes in Ancient Greece were given garlic – possibly the earliest example of “performance enhancing” agents used in sports. For the Romans garlic was a spice and a medicinal herb. It was used to treat tuberculosis, fever and other diseases.

The ancient Greek physician Hippocrates known today as “the father of Western medicine,” prescribed garlic for a wide range of conditions and illnesses. Later research has indeed proved that this bulbous strong-smelling herb is an excellent source of minerals and vitamins necessary to maintain the body in a healthy condition. Garlic cloves are one of the richest sources of potassium, iron, calcium, magnesium, manganese, zinc and selenium.

The use of garlic for its antibiotic properties was also promoted in traditional and folk medicine from the earliest times. In ancient India garlic was a commonly-used medication for a wide range of ailments. An Egyptian medical guide from 1550 BCE, written on papyrus, prescribed garlic as a treatment for abnormal growths.  Ancient nomadic tribes knew the anti-microbial effects of garlic when they mashed and rubbed in a combination of salt, garlic and red peppers to preserve meat during their long caravan travels. In Europe medical practitioners used garlic throughout the Middle Ages. Doctors in eighteenth century England carried garlic in their pockets to ward of the odour of disease. Garlic remained in the realm of medicine for most of the 19th century. In 1861, a book titled The New Domestic Physician by John Gunn prescribed simple home remedies using medicinal plants in which garlic was included.

Louis Pasteur first discovered that garlic juice was a powerful antimicrobial in 1858; he maintained that it killed bacteria and was effective even against some bacteria that was resistant to other treatments.  At the time when antibiotics did not exist, a bulb of garlic was itself akin to a broad-spectrum antibiotic. It was used as the main antiseptic for treating wounds; there are stories of it being used widely in the trenches during the First World War as there were very few other substances available to kill bacteria and clean wounds. During World War II, Russian soldiers wounded in battle were treated with garlic when antibiotics were running out, and it became known as Russian Penicillin.

What was it that gave garlic these properties? It was in 1944 that the oily, colourless, unstable substance called allicin was isolated from garlic. Later it was established that allicin, the sulphurous substance that gives garlic its distinctive smell has strong antibiotic and antifungal properties, even when diluted. In 1947, the chemical formula of allicin was determined. Allicin is also the compound to which most potential health benefits attributed to garlic have been credited. The allicin in garlic is released only when the cloves are cut or mashed. So the most effective way to activate the allicin is to cut the garlic and let it sit for 10-15 minutes before using it.

Garlic also contains 17 amino acids. Amino acids are essential to nearly every bodily function, and make up 75 per cent of the human body. Every chemical reaction that takes place in the body depends on amino acids and the proteins that they build. Today garlic is being promoted as a wonder bulb that can be helpful in managing blood pressure, cholesterol and immune function.

No wonder then that the “stinking rose” as it has been called, has featured in the folklore, traditional medicine, and cuisines of so many cultures around the world. 

So as we inhale their “aroma” let us give those cloves of garlic a deeper thought as we add them to our cooking. Unless of course you suffer from alliumphobia—a fear of garlic! 


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