Writing about garlic’s qualities is like writing about why I loved my Granny (I still love her of course, but she’s busy these days at the sky-party). Granny was the most generous person I knew. Garlic is the most generous food I know. It is the Santa Claus of plants, giving anyone who eats it so many healthful goodies I can only briefly describe some known ones below. Granny was unassumingly wise and in touch with others’ needs. Ditto for garlic, which quietly harbours massively powerful remedies to various modern ills. Garlic is white and knobbly, with thin skin. So you see, again. I’ll stop with the comparisons now.
Garlic, Allum Sativa, still grows wild in a few beautiful corners of this wonderful world not yet owned by Monsanto. The Foxfire Book, for those of you not familiar with its grin-inducingly rustic pages, is a compendium of good and natural living. A receptacle of lore of a certain way of life, of a certain era. It says of garlic: “Wild garlic is common in fields, along roadsides, and in lawns, where it emits a strong odour when being cut. Troublesome in pastures where it causes the cows to give garlic-flavoured milk”. That was 1972. Those were the days. You can give me wild meadows and the risk of garlicky milk in exchange for no Monsanto any day.
Garlic is of course far more than a marker of changing times. It is also a remedy for them, hence my profound fondness for it. As well as being my favourite food enhancer (more on that later), as a nurse with a developed appreciation of unharmful therapies, garlic is also one of my favourite medicines. The health-food writer Paul Bragg calls garlic “The Great Purifier”.
The word garlic comes from the Old English garleac, gar meaning spear and leac meaning leek. I’m no linguistics historian, but as garlic grows with rather curved leaves and occasionally bursts into pretty pink or white flowers – all quite un-spear-like – I have a sneaking suspicion that garlic’s spear may refer metaphorically to its direct strong action on those who eat it. Those ancient English Pagan-folk had an intuitive way you know. A guy with a patchwork coat at Stonehenge told me so.
Garlic is an antioxidant. Or, it contains antioxidants, depending on the philosophy of your chemistry. “How exiting”, I hear you cry. “Tell me something I don’t know”. Antioxidant is a buzzword so trendy and profitable these days that it’s shoehorned into association with anything even tenuously plausible. I’m sure shoehorns contain antioxidants. But, garlic is not just any old antioxidant. Garlic is one of the very few foods which contain sulphurous amino acids. Sulphur is needed in the human body to make glutathione (the “mother of all antioxidants”, according to Mark Hyman, health writer and medical doctor), which destroys free radicals, those famous little critters which damage cells and cause inconvenient modern trifles like infection and cancer.
Medicinenet.com writes that “The best studies have been conducted in cancer. One study involved women with ovarian cancer who were being treated with chemotherapy. Some of the women were also treated with intravenous glutathione. Those given the glutathione not only had fewer side effects from the chemotherapy but also had better overall survival rates.”
40,000 postmenopausal women participated in a study which found that those who had a steady significant amount of garlic in their diet had their risk of colon cancer reduced by just under 50%.
Studies indicate that garlic can stop bladder cancer spreading; help reduce the body-wasting and fatigue commonly associated with cancer; and reduce radiation and chemotherapy side effects. One to two garlic cloves per day is the amount commonly recommended.
Glutathione is a trendy (and not inexpensive) supplement available in health-food shops. I certainly don’t want to badmouth health-food shops, I love these cathedrals of sense and natural answers. But some natural answers they sell are available even more naturally. It’s in garlic! Just eat garlic! Yes, the body does produce its own glutathione, but it is destroyed by poor diet, pollution, chemical food additives, pharmaceutical medicines, stress, trauma and radiation, and needs replenishment from food. Basically, it’s destroyed by living in North America. Or any of most European countries. Or almost any city. (Is this a bad time by the way to tell you that I live in a beach-hut some distance from significant environmental pollutants, keep a bag of garlic bulbs by my bed, and am known as the guy who never gets sick? No jealousy intended.)
When one of us pleasant but bumbling humans eat garlic, we ingest allicin, garlic’s main biologically active agent. Allicin is an organo-sulphur compound obtained from garlic and only from garlic, first isolated by some clever fellows called Chester Cavallito and John Bailey in 1944. It’s what gives garlic its pungent smell, and its equally pungent reported broad-spectrum antibacterial, antifungal, lipid-lowering, anti-blood coagulation, antihypertension, anti-cancer, antioxidant rainbow of qualities. So allicin is a rather special chemical.
But get this – garlic contains no allicin. In an almost supernatural quirk of plant intelligence, allicin exists only when the garlic clove is broken down (chewed, or for example crushed into bread, or chopped into soup – how convenient). Before that, it exists as something else, dormant. Allicin is garlic’s defence mechanism against attacks by pests -humans seem to be the only animals garlic is good for. And for us, it is extraordinarily good.
After crushing or chopping garlic, the reverence-inducing allicin seems to lose its beneficial potency within a few hours, so should be consumed pronto.
If you want to get seriously far-out and occult about the way garlic seems to be entwined with human existence, note the words of Peter Tompkins and Christopher Bird, those cuddly wizards who in 1973 gave us the truly awe-inspiring, thought-provoking, movement-starting classic, The Secret Life of Plants: “Garlic juice, when pasteurized, coagulated like dead human blood and its vibrations dropped from around eight thousand angstroms [a unit of radiation, beneficent in this case] to zero.” Yoikes. That’s some groovy botanical esotericism.
Another remarkable mechanism of allicin is its musical bond: when preparing food, if you put many cloves of crushed garlic in a line, you can create what are known as Allicin Chains. Sorry, that’s not true. I couldn’t resist.
More reported reasons to gargle and gulp the glorious gusto-giver garlic, goliath of goodness:
- Blood pressure – garlic sulphides create hydrogen sulphide gas in the human body, which dilates blood vessels, lowering blood pressure. Neat huh. Almost as if garlic were put here on this fine Earth for our benefit, and all we have to do is embrace it. Garlic’s antihypertensive effect is well proven. Aside from all the successful academic studies on this, I like the story of my friend’s mother in England (who happens to be the current world record-holder for pole-vaulting in her age bracket – she’s 77). The family doctor told her she had high blood pressure and gave her antihypertensive drugs, she told me. She’s a headstrong and positive woman (well, how else would a world-champion pole-vaulter at 77 be) so she thanked the doctor, took the drugs home, and promptly threw them in the bin. On the back of some research she did, she instead ate several cloves of garlic every day (and still does). Now every time she visits the doctor for her check-ups, he tells her that her blood pressure is now healthy, and she smiles sweetly and tells him that the drugs must be working. She figures that drugs are cheap in England (although still far more expensive than garlic), and the money wasted by throwing them away is well worth it to avoid being lectured and berated by her brainwashed doctor.
- Cholesterol – garlic is a popular natural treatment for high cholesterol. Numerous European and American studies have shown garlic to reduce harmful cholesterol in the blood. In some, garlic reduced total cholesterol by about 10%, reduced LDL (bad) cholesterol by 15%, and increased HDL (good) cholesterol by 10%. Plus of course it grows as nature intended, so will not cause any of the side effects associated with cholesterol-reducing pharmaceutical drugs. When I worked in London hospitals, there was talk of the government (who are subservient to pharmaceutical companies’ vast economic contributions) making statins compulsory for all over 50’s, nationwide, irrespective of weight or cholesterol level. Imagine the riches for ‘big-pharma’ and for the government from drug taxes and national economic flow. Never mind the unnecessary side-effects for millions of people. If that doesn’t smack of profits over individualised healthcare, nothing does.
- Heart Health – garlic, either raw or cooked, is an all-around wonder-treatment for cardiovascular wellness, helpful in preventing atherosclerosis, heart disease and strokes. Garlic helps in the treatment and prevention of blood clots. Both onion and garlic help reduce fibrin and platelet stickiness.
- Colds – garlic is known to combat the common cold. Research confirms what many of our elders already knew – that people who eat a lot of garlic don’t tend to get colds. Or indeed many illnesses. Garlic’s antiviral as well as olfactory properties help to clear the sinuses.
- Rheumatism – Garlic is documented to have had significant effect in treating rheumatism and rheumatic pain.
- Parasites – garlic has been shown to be effective against gut worms – eat a bulb of garlic every day until the parasites are gone, says the loveable Foxfire Book I mentioned earlier.
- Impotence – garlic is known for improving blood-flow to the extremities, especially in cardiac patients. Doctor Gunter Siegel, head of a Berlin research team, says: “Garlic can help with impotence caused by heart disease. A good flow of blood to the groin means that a man should not have a problem with sex”.
- Stomach ulcers – studies suggest that garlic helps to protect against the bacterium Helicobacter pylori, the leading cause of stomach ulcers. And, individuals who eat lots of garlic have a lower incidence of stomach cancer.
- Baby Health – I worked for a time at London’s Chelsea and Westminster Hospital in the Paediatric High Dependency Unit. The UK’s Daily Telegraph newspaper reported that gynaecologists there found that expectant mothers who regularly ate garlic boosted the birth-weight of their babies. They also discovered that garlic reduced the risk of pre-eclampsia. Fancy that.
- Toothache – holding allicin-rich garlic against the offending tooth, together with cloves, has for centuries been a way to calm toothache in some cultures.
- Asthma and allergies – onions and garlic contain quercetin, a flavonoid that inhibits histamine release.
- Athlete’s foot – this is a fungus. Garlic is an antifungal. I see a light.
- Bronchitis – in Traditional Chinese medicine, garlic is taken as part of a tea or syrup to cure bronchitis.
- Detox’ – Whole or juiced with other vegetables, various sources extoll garlic’s efficacy in rectifying chemical poisoning, due to its potent detoxifying action.
- Chickenpox – the colossal and informative Natural News website lists chickenpox as one of garlic’s victims (as garlic’s antiviral properties work to clear skin infections).
- MRSA (Methicillin-Resistant Staphylococcus Aureus) – garlic’s almighty antibacterial allicin has been used to treat patients suffering from this superbug, which standard antibiotics lay down and cry next to (and apparently created in the first place).
- Mosquito repellent – yes, this bewilderingly all-singing, all-dancing little beauty is one of the few foods which contain oils excreted through the skin, shown to have mosquito-repellent activity.
- Just about any other health benefit conceivable! Garlic improves skin’s tone and texture. Garlic stimulates liver and digestive-system functions. Garlic is in lists of foods acknowledged to combat vaginitis and thrush. The comprehensive Gale Encyclopedia of Alternative Medicine (a favourite reference book of mine and a respectable source of information) tells us that garlic is useful against chlamydia and even to help clear up abscesses. This humble little bulb is a prodigious superhero of nearly unending talents.
Candida and urinary tract infections are also in the vast catalogue of things this one-vegetable army helps to fight. Garlic yields high levels of manganese, vitamin B6 and vitamin C. Garlic is also an excellent source of protein, thiamin (vitamin B1), phosphorus, selenium, calcium, potassium and copper.
Garlic is one of the main energy-producing foods in Ayurvedic medicine.
In Latin American folk medicine, garlic is used as protection from negativity and bad spirits.
Oh sweet Jesus, this is ridiculous. It sounds like the only thing garlic can’t do is improve my saxophone-playing. This garlic-besotted nut will be writing that it cures AIDS next. Well – actually, sort of. As far as I know garlic cannot cure AIDS, but garlic’s allicin helped to regulate the bowel movements, stabilise or increase the body weight, or cured Cryptosporidium parvum infections in affected AIDS patients, documented in the Gale Encyclopaedia. The Vegetable Gardening Encyclopaedia identifies garlic as one the “very hardy” vegetables which can tolerate cold and frost. It does well in warmth too. Perhaps that goes some way to metaphysically explain its robust and hearty action on the human body in such a breadth of areas.
Of course, no single food – however medicinal – will cure every ill of every person. Each body is unique. Exactly the same goes for pharmaceutical drugs (except of course garlic has no side-effects). And a balance of other nutrients are obviously needed too. Some unfortunate people even suffer garlic allergy. I’m simply saying that the weight of evidence that it does a lot of good for a lot of people, is overwhelming. With outstanding odds, I would put money (I’d prefer dinner) on any one person’s health improving somehow, were they to eat more garlic.
With the above list of impressive therapeutic qualities, imagine how much garlic would cost if instead of being a plant which cannot be patented*, garlic only existed as a pill.
* (Again, I imagine that Monsanto are working on this – they have already set legal precedent by ‘owning’ the tomato, and various other infuriating nonsenses. GMO overlords Monsanto owns ‘patents’ on 36% of all tomato, 32% of sweet pepper and 49% of cauliflower varieties registered in the European Union. These figures are not spurious sensationalist estimates, they are from an Australian government paper, viewable here: http://www.parliament.tas.gov.au/ha/hanote.pdf)
From Marvellous Medicine to Fabulous Food
My Mama is Italian. Therefore if I did not adore garlic and acknowledge its culinary versatility and amazing flavour, I would not only be certified insane, but locked in a tiny stone dungeon in Sicily they constructed for such people. And I would be alone. But even if I weren’t half-Italian, my love of Thai food would have led me down the garlic-worshipping path. Garlic is of course a staple of Thai cooking, Indian cooking, Italian, Greek, Spanish, Caribbean, French.
Eating a perfect garlic lemon butter sauce in a Johannesburg restaurant was one of the gastronomic highlights of my life.
Garlic is perhaps Earth’s most respected and useful food. Let me qualify that:
Garlic is an essential part of pesto, herb sauces, salsas, tapenades, vinaigrettes, spice rubs, marinades, vegetarian jus, stuffing, dal, curries, hummus. It’s in butters, nut sauces, chutneys, cheese sauces, consommés, gravies, – breathe – pastries, raita, dumplings, purées, garnishes, curry pastes, breads, broths, stocks, paella, polenta, pizza, falafel, tortilla, chilli sauces…
Garlic goes with pastas, noodles, salads, any meat, fish, any seafood, frittatas, rice dishes, pies, soups, eggs, potatoes, vegetables, stews, mushrooms. Garlic even goes with mayonnaise (aioli). The only other thing that goes that well with mayonnaise is more mayonnaise.
You see my point.
I defy you to think of a savoury food that garlic does not complement.
As dictated by the old Chinese adage of being morally obliged to pass on something that benefitted me, I must now share with you a certain recipe. I have travelled a good deal, sampling many cuisines, and was a foodie from birth. Bear that in mind when I tell you that the following created the greatest meal I remember having ever tasted.
It’s based on a Jamie Oliver recipe, with some improvements on bitterness, garnish, and watery consistency (yes, it is possible to improve on a Jamie Oliver recipe).
Yield: 4 servings. Unless you become obsessed with the flavour and, like me, can’t stop until you can barely move (not recommended). In which case, yield: 2.
This is no toxic and convenient 5-minute TV dinner. It’s not a quick or easy meal to cook. It is an engaging gastronomic experience with a decent list of ingredients, some a little unusual. That’s why it’s a sophisticated dish of multi-layered tastes and textures and is like little else I’ve eaten. It delivers with a bang when you want to make something special. My lady decided soon after devouring this meal to go travelling with me. I cannot prove the correlation your honour, but I have my suspicions.
- The juice of 3 limes
- A small handful of kaffir lime leaves, central bitter veins removed
- 11 oz. peeled shrimp, whole or chopped into bite-sized pieces
- 2 tablespoons fish sauce
- 2-3 fresh red chillies, deseeded
- 6 cloves of garlic, peeled (a clove is also called a bulblet, mainly by people who knit and do crossword puzzles)
- A thumb-sized piece of fresh ginger, peeled
- A handful of fresh coriander (otherwise known as cilantro), leaves picked, stalks reserved
- 2 tablespoons sesame oil
- Olive oil
- 1 teaspoon tamarind paste
- 2 x 14 oz. can of unsweetened coconut milk
- ¾ of a vegetable stock cube
- Sea salt, freshly ground black pepper
- 7 oz. noodles or rice
- 12 scallops
- 2 finely sliced spring onions
Put the shrimp in a bowl with the fish sauce and juice of 2 of the limes. Mix well, leave to marinate for 10 minutes. In a pestle and mortar or a food processor, pound or mix the chillies, 4 of the garlic cloves, ginger, coriander stalks, vegetable stock cube, sesame oil and lime leaves into a paste. Heat a large pan or wok, pour in 4 tablespoons of olive oil and add the paste, stirring quickly. Cook for about a minute before adding in the shrimp and all the flavourful juices from the bowl. Allow to cook for another minute, stirring. Then add the tamarind paste and coconut milk. Turn the heat down and simmer slowly for about 15 minutes. Taste – you may need to add salt and pepper, more fish sauce, or the rest of the lime juice – just enough lime juice to give it a twang. Mister Oliver says Asian food should be hot, salty, sweet and sour.
Get a pot of water boiling for your noodles or rice, cook them according to their packet’s instructions.
Score the scallops with a criss-cross pattern on one side so that when they cook they will open out to look like flowers. Put a thin layer of olive oil in a frying pan and fry the scallops in it, turning until both sides are golden.
Cut the remaining 2 cloves of garlic into thin slices and also shallow-fry in the olive oil.
Drain the noodles or rice and divide between four serving bowls, spooning the Laksa stew over the top. On top of that, lay two or three scallops on each bowl, ‘flower’ side up. Over that, sprinkle the freshly chopped coriander leaves, some finely sliced spring onion, and the pan-fried garlic slices to give a delicious crunch.
I am not alone in my adoration of garlic. Howstuffworks.com phrases its tribute thus:
“Garlic, which has been grown for more than 5,000 years, is one of the oldest cultivated plants in the world. Cultures throughout history have used it for physical and spiritual health; among the various beliefs about garlic were that it made you stronger and kept away evil spirits. While the prescriptions changed, the use of garlic as a healing agent continued all the way up until today… Researchers think the ancient Egyptians were the first to farm garlic; in fact, the little bulbs helped power the building of the great pyramids. Hard-working slaves received a ration of garlic each day to improve their strength and ward off illness. And a mere 15 pounds of this ancient currency would buy a healthy male slave to add to the pyramid-building team. It seems fitting that garlic, a natural wonder with many healing and culinary properties, played a role in the creation of one of the wonders of the ancient world.”
Used and revered by Ancient Egyptians and Asians for 5,000 years, South Europeans for perhaps nearly as long, greatly valued by Hippocrates, eaten by Ancient Greek soldiers before battle and Roman athletes for enhanced performance in sporting events, garlic is a long-adored king among foods. King Tutankhamon so loved garlic, he was entombed with it.
So, garlic is arguably the world’s tastiest and healthiest food, which goes with any other savoury food. Garlic instantly adds deep character to the meal’s flavour, while (plenty of evidence says) kindly helping to stave off cancer without demanding payment; fighting infection without a prescription; reducing blood pressure and cholesterol; detoxifying; combating rheumatism, atherosclerosis, parasites, Athlete’s Foot, vaginitis, thrush, abscesses, bronchitis, chemical poisoning, chlamydia, chickenpox; helping in the treatment and prevention of heart disease and strokes; fortifying AIDS patients, and warding off mosquitos. Garlic, astoundingly, is simultaneously antiviral, antioxidant, antibacterial, antiparasitic, antifungal, antihypertensive, thoroughly pro-human. Truly a powerful friend.
Awe is deserved. Beloved Granny Garlic, we salute you.