Who doesn’t love springtime? Green buds on trees, fresh flowers in bloom, and warmer weather putting a little extra spring in our step!
I recently discovered that, even though it’s not harvested until June or July, April is National Garlic Month! As one of the most ubiquitous ingredients on earth, present in every world cuisine, and a known medical phenomenon, why wouldn’t we celebrate this incredible allium for all its glory?! Let’s start with a little bit of history…
Ancient People… Ancient Allium
Mentions of garlic can be traced back to over 5,000 years ago, across different cultures in different parts of the world, originating in Asia. What’s most interesting, perhaps, is that though culinary mentions are present, the overarching context is garlic being used for medicinal purposes.
In ancient Greece, garlic was eaten regularly, used both as seasoning as well as medicine! Garlic was associated with strength, stamina, and virility, and therefore was an important part of the military diet, as well as that of the Olympians. Garlic could be considered one of the first ‘performance-enhancers’ in history!
Hippocrates, who is widely regarded as the father of Medicine, made garlic part of his therapeutic regimen, advocating its use for respiratory issues, parasites, fatigue, as a cleansing or detoxifying agent, and for abdominal/digestive issues.
Garlic can also be found in Greek mythology, as a sacrament for the goddess Hecate, known as one of the deities who protected the house and home (as well as the goddess of wilderness and childbirth). Ancient Greeks would leave the harvested plant on the piles of stones at cross-roads, as a supper for Hecate to protect them from demons. They would also hang garlic in their homes to ward away evil spirits and cause them to lose their way.
In ancient Egypt, garlic was part of the daily rations for the slaves building the pyramids, as it was thought to increase their strength and endurance, and ward off illness. It was also given to regular laborers for the same reasons.
In ancient India, garlic was used to treat maladies such as arthritis, parasites, leprosy, and heart disease, as well as every day symptoms like fatigue and indigestion. Ancient Indians believed in both the medicinal, and culinary benefits, as can be seen in ancient Sanskrit texts. The Sanskrit word for garlic is mahoushudh, which means panacea, or “cure-all.”
In ancient China, by 2000 BC, the use of garlic was widespread and considered part of their daily diet, especially when consumed with raw meat. As it was considered a ‘spicy’ food, regular consumption was recommended, but in limited amounts.
Garlic as Medicine
It’s become clear that garlic was looked upon in the ancient times as a medicinal food that had the potential to sooth and possibly cure various illness.
Pliny the Elder, the Roman historian, believed that garlic cured colds and warts, helped hair grow, prevented fainting spells, improved circulation, and reduced high blood pressure.
What’s interesting are the applications – sometimes it was prescribed raw, sometimes cooked; sometimes as a whole clove, other times as a paste or poultice; sometimes in a solution, other times as a beverage – the permutations of the medicinal applications of garlic are endless, but the results were profound.
Family Story – Papou and the Garlic Braids
My papou (grandfather in Greek) was colloquially known as the ‘Modern Day Hippocrates’ by my family, and our village. He had a remedy and explanation for just about everything, and garlic was often involved!
One of the things my siblings and I loved to do with him was preserving our garlic after the harvest. We would gather the fresh plant heads, braid them together, and then all take a trip to the sea to spend the night keeping watch to preserve them.
Papou and my older siblings would build a fire that we would all sit around taking turns telling stories, while keeping watch over the garlic that was submerged in the sea. It was important that the garlic stayed underwater, where it absorbed the salt from the sea which helped to preserve it. We took turns keeping watch (I always was paired with my papou), to make sure the stones stayed on top of the garlic to prevent the waves from washing it out to sea. And in the morning, we would remove it, and leave it out in the sun to dry.
Once it was preserved, Papou used to store the garlic in honey for two weeks before ‘prescribing’ it to our fellow villagers to lower high blood pressure. When it came to the medicinal effects, the villagers would come back and let Papou know that it worked, and I was always amazed at how such a simple – and delicious – combination of ingredients could have such positive results! Of course, Papou always knew best, but it’s important to ask your doctor before trying any medication, natural or otherwise.
As we have seen, garlic has been a panacea for thousands of years, and with good reason! Garlic is low in calories and rich in vitamin C, vitamin B6, and manganese, and contains trace amounts of various other nutrients. t contains antioxidants that can help protect against cell damage and aging, and may reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. Allicin is one of the main active [sulfur] compounds in garlic, with the ability to help prevent certain cancers and may help lower blood sugar, cholesterol, and blood pressure.
So, if you’re looking for a natural – and delicious – remedy for that which ails you, you may not need to look any further than the produce aisle! But remember, always ask your doctor.
Is it Even Food If There’s No Garlic?
It seems like no matter the food, if it’s savory, garlic belongs. In Greek cuisine, we used it often, and even have dishes that are solely focused on the flavor, like Skordalia, a dip with multiple variations, the favorite of which is garlic and potato, or Skordosoupa, a savory soup.
The simple combination of garlic, oregano, lemon, and olive oil is the basis for countless pasta dishes, and the perfect marinade for many animal proteins. It’s also the perfect flavor profile for dressings, and as the base flavor for numerous soups, stews, casseroles, and pies.
Garlic is ‘a given’ in world cuisines, in that it is a flavor that is ubiquitous all across the globe, with too many recipes and iterations to list! When in doubt, roast a head of garlic with some olive oil and a pinch of salt and pepper, and then use the paste as a base of flavor, a marinade, a sauce, or just eat it on its own with some crusty bread! Celebrate garlic in all of it’s glory this month!