(Allium sativum) While garlic is a key
ingredient in the food of most Asian countries, it is conspicuously
almost absent from two that come to mind - Japanese food and the Brahman
food of India, the former for aesthetic reasons and the latter because
they believe garlic and onions inflame the baser passions, and both are
taboo. Peruse the indexes of books dealing with these cuisines and
nowhere is there a mention of garlic, although spring onions (scallions)
are used in Japanese food. One exception in Japanese cuisine is beef
sushi, as the paper-thin slice of beef is rubbed with crushed raw garlic
(instead of wasabi) and then placed on the rice.
Apart from these notable exceptions, garlic
is used in almost every cuisine. As a flavoring and health food, its use
has been recorded since biblical times. It was a regular item of diet in
Egypt, and perhaps its antibiotic properties were the reason for its
being part of the ration of the Hebrew slaves.
Garlic is a biennial herb and the bulb is a
compound one, formed from a number of small bulbs or bulbils called
cloves. The tough papery skin of each clove is actually a protective
leaf, in the axils of which the clove forms. They fit together neatly in
the familiar dome shape and are surrounded by thin sheaths of white,
mauve or pink. Some kinds of garlic peel easily, while the papery
sheaths of others cling tenaciously. Size of the cloves is not
indicative of flavor, though in general very large cloves are milder
than small ones.
Since garlic cloves come in all sizes,
ranging from very tiny to very large, it is preferably to give
indications of the amount of garlic in a recipe by measured spoonfuls
rather than the number of cloves. Where it is not critical or if a
generous amount of garlic appeals to you, feel free to adjust the
recommended quantity. But do be guided by the way it is treated. The
strength of garlic diminishes as it is cooked. Raw or lightly cooked,
garlic lingers on the breath. But if cooked long and gently, becoming
sweet and milk in the process, even whole heads of garlic may safely be
In some Indian curries where garlic has been
long cooked, a little extra crushed raw garlic is added right at the end
of cooking, to step up the flavor. It is used generously in some
cuisines than others, with Burmese, Thai and Korean food relying on it
most heavily. Fried garlic, crisp and golden, is one of the delights of
Burmese food, offered as an accompaniment to sprinkle over food or mixed
into a deep-fried relish like balachaung.
Thai food uses garlic generously in its
curry pastes and when a curry paste is not part of the dish, slices of
whole pickled garlic heads are used as a garnish and flavor accent.
Korean style pickled garlic, also served as a relish or accompaniment,
is sold sliced and frozen in vacuum-packed plastic sachets. it is used
raw and lightly cooked too. Korean food is usually redolent of garlic.
While Chinese food uses garlic in almost
every dish, it is not always obvious. In southern India and Sri Lanka,
garlic is used as a vegetable, with whole peeled cloves cooked in a
curry until they are soft and gently flavored.
When purchasing garlic, press the heads with
your fingers to ensure they are firm. When the skin feels somewhat
empty, you may be sure the garlic is old and shriveled beneath its
papery skin. Avoid garlic which is sprouting because the green shoots
are slightly bitter. Store in an open basket to avoid mildew.
To peel garlic without too much effort,
place the clove on a wooden board, cover with the flat of a knife blade
and give it a sharp blow with the heel of the hand. The skin splits and
can be easily lifted off. To crush garlic, continue to use the flat of
the knife blade, first sprinkling the board with some salt or sugar to
keep the garlic from slipping and to absorb the juice. Push the blade of
the knife down and away from you, putting weight on it with the heel of
the hand. The garlic should soon be a smooth puree. Garlic crushers are
wasteful and garlic comes through too chunky.
For medicinal uses, garlic is considered
very beneficial to health, reducing cholesterol and blood pressure and
clotting, relieving catarrh, bronchitis and colds. It is also used in
the treatment of tuberculosis and whooping cough. It is mildly
antibiotic, and test confirm activity against a range of
disease-producing bacteria. It is used as an antiseptic, diaphoretic,
diuretic and expectorant and has recently been tested in the treatment
of lead poisoning, diabetes and certain carcinomas. Garlic juice mixed
with honey or sugar is used to treat coughs, colds and asthma.