Garlic is one of the most important ingredients in Turkish cuisine. The onion’s little brother is basically great at providing flavour, as has been the tradition in many cultures for thousands of years. But apart from being great when it comes to recipes, garlic has lots of other positive characteristics. Since ancient times garlic has been praised for its medicinal qualities. It can build muscles, cleanse blood, lower cholesterol levels, reduce inflammation, kill harmful bacteria and lower blood pressure. It’s almost a kind of cure-all, were it not for the fact that the healing properties of this bulb have never actually been incontrovertibly proven.
In the botanical world garlic goes by the name of ‘allium sativum’ and belongs to the lily family, together with onions, chives and leeks. The edible part of the plant comprises a bulb of cloves that are wrapped up in paper-like skin. Of course, everyone is familiar with garlic’s strong, penetrating aroma, which is released when the bulb is damaged, and which acts as a natural defence mechanism against harmful insects and bacteria.
The aroma is caused by a chemical called allicine. Scientific research conducted by Pasteur in 1858 showed allicine to be an antibiotic. However, allicine is only created (from a chemical called alliine) when the garlic bulb is damaged. Because of allicine’s inherent instability (i.e. it is rapidly transformed into something else by the action of hot and cold) it is difficult to investigate and prove the healing properties of garlic.
Bactericidal and strength-giving
Regardless of this people have been convinced since ancient times that garlic, especially when raw, possesses medicinal powers. These qualities are described in some of the earliest writings such as the Egyptian text, Codex Eberus. This papyrus-based ‘medical encyclopaedia’ lists garlic as a medicine for a variety of ailments such as poor circulation and infections caused by parasites and insects.
The story also goes that Egyptians working on the pyramids were given garlic to eat very day. It was supposed to have made them stronger and increased productivity, a belief that can also be found in Greek times. In a similar way, one can find references to athletes taking part in the Olympic Games taking garlic to improve their performance. The Greek physician Hippocrates, who is considered to be the father of medicine, recommended the use of garlic in cases of lung complaints and problems with bowel movement. The use of garlic also appears in ancient Chinese medicine as a treatment for indigestion and breathing conditions. It is also known that in Roman times, soldiers would consume lots of garlic prior to going into battle, due to its strengthening properties. It was also used to stop epidemics breaking out in the encampments.
Since living memory, the recurring theme in folk tales and literature is that garlic is supposed to protect against ‘bad people’. The best known one, of course, is the vampire, but also includes angry spirits, which are supposed to be kept at a distance by garlic. In his Odyssey, Homer wrote that the God Hermes advised Ulysses to carry garlic to protect against the magical powers of Circe, who was changing everyone into piglets.
But That Smell…..
It all sounds very rosy, the use of garlic, and besides which it is delicious to eat. However, there is a down side: the smell. Anyone who eats garlic (or the ‘stinking rose’ as it is known) will release the odour through their mouths and pores. This is all to do with the previously mentioned instability of allicine. This chemical is easily converted into other chemicals, including a kind of sulphur-fume (allyl-methyl-sulfide (AMS)). AMS is not digested in the intestine; rather it is absorbed in to the blood. Like this it reaches the lungs and skin where it gives rise to that penetrating smell. The point is that the bad breath does not originate in the mouth – this is why chewing gum or brushing your teeth doesn’t help get rid of the garlic smell. The only widely recognised way of doing this is to suck on cloves or eat parsley. But even this is only temporary: only when the body has expelled all the AMS via the lungs and skin, will the smell subside. And this can take quite a while!