Garlic is valued around the world as a flavouring ingredient, a food and a medicine. It belongs to the Alliaceae family, whose 750 species include onions, shallots, chives, leeks and ornamental alliums. The word ‘garlic’ originates from the Old English for ‘spear’ (gar) and ‘leek’ (leac). Its botanical name, Allium sativum, comes from the Greek for ‘avoid’ (presumably because of its smell) and ‘cultivated’. In English alone its many other names include ‘prince of herbs’, ‘food of love’, ‘nectar of the gods’, ‘devil’s posy’, ‘camphor of the poor’, ‘poor man’s treacle’ (‘treacle’ from the Latin theriaca, meaning ‘antidote to poison’ or ‘heal all’), ‘onion stinker’ and ‘stinking Jenny/lily/rose’.
Today’s garlic originated as a wild form in Central Asia more than 10,000 years ago. Over the centuries, this was cultivated and traded along the spice and silk routes to China, the Middle East and the Mediterranean. Eventually it reached Africa, Europe, Australia and the Americas. Today, China produces more than 12 million tonnes (metric tons) a year, which is three-quarters of the global crop. Other top producers, in order of harvest-size, include India, South Korea, Egypt, Russia, the US (especially California), Spain, Argentina, Burma and Ukraine.
Garlic’s flavour is variously described as pungent, tangy, full, nutty, sweet and musky. It’s an important ingredient in many dishes around the world. In Korea and China, the average traditional diet contains 8–12 cloves a day, while average consumption in the US is half to one clove a day. Some people, though, dislike its flavour as well as the scent that emanates from garlic eaters.
From the time of Ancient Egypt, around 4000BC, to the end of the 19th century, garlic was the most widely used medicinal plant in the world. It remains a popular traditional remedy for many ailments today. Garlic supplements are among the topselling herbal supplements in the Western world, and thousands of scientific studies have investigated how garlic can promote good health.
Historically, garlic was also used in the art world: during the 13th–17th centuries, gilders used its sticky juice to attach gilding to picture frames and furniture. Nowadays, it is used in industry, too. Garlic oil (isolated by distilling garlic cloves with water) is in big demand because it contains compounds needed for the production of industrial chemicals called alkenes. Alkenes are used for making high-end lubricants, sealants for the glass industry, and binders used in solid propellants for rockets, as well as in the vulcanization of rubber.
Over the millennia, magical powers have been attributed to garlic, and it has been said to protect against vampires, werewolves, witches, sorcerers, demons and evil spirits! Even today some Greek midwives lay garlic in the delivery room to avert the ‘evil eye’ from the newborn baby, and in some countries people hang garlic outside their home to protect their family.