If you believe some commentators, garlic was the saviour of the ancient world. It is one of those plants, if you weren’t already aware, whose medicinal properties are legendary. Clearly it has established itself as a mainstay in some of the most internationally appreciated cuisine, whether it is the basis of an Indian Tandoori curry, Italian Pasta, Spanish Paella, a French gastronomic classic or a Moroccan tagine.
It has a flavour and pungency that is not subtle, so you are kind of in or you are out. The further north you travel in Europe garlic plays a less prominent culinary role, although it grows happily here.
Historians specialising in food, have traced its devoted usage back to ancient civilisations—China originally—where, in accordance with their Taoist philosophy, it is associated mostly with Yang—heat and dryness. It is supposed to induce a stimulating effect and consequently was prescribed for depression, for this reason Japanese Buddhists avoided it so as to not unsettle their mental equanimity. The Japanese, however, amongst Asians, aren’t renowned garlic users, but their traditional food is still considered to be one of the healthiest.
The cultivation of garlic (or allium) is assumed by historians to have then migrated westwards and—other than just as a flavouring for bland food—garlic was adapted for purely medicinal purposes in all these regions at this time, either as an ointment or as a tonic in tea or mixed with honey or various other extractions and combinations. There are records dating back that attest to these applications.
One of the most striking uses for garlic, other than as a foundation for innumerable dishes, was by the Ancient Egyptians who added it liberally to “slave fodder”, which, in itself, wasn’t supposed to be that far removed in terms of nutritional value from animal feed. Presumably they too believed in the stimulating effects and the ability of garlic to cheaply ward off illness and maintain the work rate. In fact you could say that the pyramids were built on garlic.
The Greeks also assimilated the allium into their food and medicinal practices. The athletes recognised its value, almost as a performance enhancer, and soldiers would eat it before battle. However garlic consumers may have been banned from the temples, indicating, perhaps, that the aroma associated with it was not always so readily tolerated.
Throughout Europe, garlic juice was noted as something to ward of snakes and mosquitos; the vampire myth was probably born of an almost mythical belief in the potency of allium as a repellent of nasties, and as a preventative medicine.
Medicinal properties of garlic
Historically, folk have treated everything from influenza and other serious epidemics to the bites of snakes and “mad dogs”. As science matured it backed up the traditional medicinal practices and knowledge with some of its own investigations. As far back as Louis Pasteur the components of allium, especially the derivative compound—allicin were acknowledged as having significant antibacterial, antifungal and antiviral properties.
Lately science has pursued the investigation more aggressively, especially with regards to the treatment of cardiovascular conditions. Experiments have been conducted on rats, some of which are not for the squeamish it has to be said, and the effect of freshly crushed garlic is found to be superior over processed garlic as a cardioprotective agent i.e. protecting the heart from toxins and maintaining a healthy function.
The importance of crushing garlic
Pursuant to continued medical studies in the field of blood-clotting, an article in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, back in 2007, suggests that in order to benefit from the anticoagulant properties of garlic it is necessary to crush the bulbs prior to cooking so as to maximise the effect. Cooking them whole for longer than a few minutes causes significant damage to the necessary active chemicals, reducing effectiveness.
The agricultural sciences faculty at Argentina’s Universidad Nacional de Cuyo have concluded that garlic in its raw state is most effective in these aims, but the study claims that when cooking, crushing the bulbs will help to preserve, rather than damage, the important anti blood-clotting properties
The research team concluded that the length of cooking time had a major impact: at 400 degrees Fahrenheit in an oven or three minutes in boiling water had little effect on the anticlotting compounds. Uncrushed garlic cooked for double that length had severely detrimental effects. The team also tested bulbs crushed in a garlic press in similar conditions for the same duration and noted that the anticlotting benefits although deteriorating over cooking time, were better preserved.
Effect of cooking on garlic (Allium sativum L.) antiplatelet activity and thiosulfinates content
Extracts from the history and medical properties of garlic
Freshly Crushed Garlic is a Superior Cardioprotective Agent than Processed Garlic