The Grandeur of Garlic: Benefits of Garlic and History

Guido Pedrelli
Guido Pedrelli
Italian Cuisine Expert and Food Blogger
Guido Pedrelli
Guido Pedrelli, the mastermind behind Nonna Box, has honed his culinary expertise for decades, inspired by family feasts in Emilia-Romagna. Mentored by his restaurateur nonna, he mastered Italian classics and furthered his skills with professional culinary studies in desserts and gelato making from Mec3. Today, he shares this rich legacy and authentic recipes through Nonna Box.
Expertise: Italian cuisine, Pasta, Pizza, Pastry, Dessert

Garlic (Allium sativum) has been used and abused through the ages and most of us can’t imagine life without it even though we quite often wish that it had never been discovered. It belongs to the onion family (alliaceae) and is one of the most well loved of all spices, and has been used  for both culinary and medicinal purposes.

A bulb of garlic consists of numerous cloves but in the Yunnan province of China, one finds the pearl garlic (aka solo garlic). Nobody really knows the ancestry of cultivated garlic. It’s very easy to grow and grows throughout the year in mild climates.

Garlic is a fundamental component in dishes from all over the world – more specifically, eastern Asia, south Asia, Southeast Asia, the Middle East, northern Africa, south Africa, southern Europe, and parts of South and Central America. Historically, garlic was rarely used in traditional English cuisine.

The taste obviously depends on the amount and the cooking method used; it’s often paired with onion, tomatoes or ginger. In Japan & Korea, the heads of garlic are fermented at high temperatures to make sweet and syrupy black garlic which is available in South Africa, Australia, the USA, Europe and Britain.

Young bulbs that have been pickled in a mixture of sugar, salt and spices for about 6 weeks are really good as are the pickled shoots so often served as pre-dinner hors de oeuvres in eastern Europe. The young stalks of the garlic plant can also be eaten and are really rather good with a milder taste than the actual cloves (commonly known as spears, scapes or tops).

In certain parts of Asia even the leaves of the plant are eaten – they’re cut, cleaned & then stir-fried with whatever dish is being made. The French make aioli by mixing garlic with olive olive oil and eggs, the Greeks have created the heavenly skordalia by combining garlic with olive oil and potatoes, nuts or breadcrumbs and the Spanish make ajoblanco with garlic, almond oil and soaked bread.

Contrary to many beliefs, garlic is not as popular as a lot of people think in the Italian cuisine. Some of the most famous Italian dishes that use garlic are sauces such as arrabbiata sauce, in pasta aglio e olio , in the Piedmontese bagna cauda. The traditional bruschetta – pronounced as “broo-sketta” – is made by rubbing a piece of garlic on a slice of toasted Tuscan bread, a sprinkle of olive oil and a pinch of salt.

On the contrary, garlic is abundantly used in the Italian-American cuisine. So much that when you travel outside of Italy pretty much everybody refers Italian cuisine as garlic-y. Garlic bread, marinara sauce, chicken Marsala and pollo alla cacciatora are just some of the recipes that use abundant garlic.


Garlic cloves on a table

Garlic powder, often used as a substitute for garlic, tastes quite different from fresh garlic and we must bear in mind that only the tiniest tip of a teaspoon is equal a single clove (and then it’s really not that great anyway).

Garlic must be stored warm (never in a fridge) at about 18 C and it must be kept dry in order to keep it dormant (so that it doesn’t start to sprout). It’s traditionally hung or plaited. Whilst many people like to keep it in oil, very strict measures need to be taken to prevent the garlic from spoiling.

cloves of garlic in basket Untreated garlic kept in oil can support the growth of deadly botulinus that causes botulin. If you must  store  your garlic in the fridge (and you really shouldn’t if you can help it) preferably store it in wine or vinegar. “Commercially prepared oils are widely available, but when preparing and storing garlic-infused oil at home, there is a risk of botulism if the product is not stored properly.”  Retailers always add acids and preservatives to their garlic in oil to prevent botulism but  it’s never natural & you can taste it.

Cloves of garlic The first time we hear about garlic is around the time that the Giza pyramids were built in about 2,700 BC. To this day garlic is grown and thrives in Egypt even though the Syrian garlic is considered to be of a better quality. Garlic was well known in ancient times and Hippocrates, Galen, Pliny the Elder and Dioscorides recommended its’ use for respiratory problems, poor digestion, parasites and low energy levels – it’s mentioned in both the Bible and the Talmud but the first time garlic is mentioned in China is in 510 AD. African peasants were eating garlic long before Greek and Roman soldiers and sailors began using it and it does seem as if  it’s use was, at first, limited to the lower rural classes at first.


Garlic wreath on the door

  • Korea – around the time this country became a nation, the gods gave mortal women with bear and tiger temperaments the black garlic belonging to the immortals before mating with them because the genetically unique 6 clove garlic gave the women supernatural powers and immortality – this was the only way they could explain female sixth sense and longevity. To this day the black garlic is grown in some mountainous regions there.
  • In the Daoism mythology, six-clove black garlic is used as part of the process of modifying a Daoist’s physiology – apparently it makes the user immortal and intensifies the vital energy (chi)
  • In Christian mythology, a particular myth holds that after Satan left the Garden of Eden, garlic arose in his left footprint and onion in the right.
  • In Europe, many cultures have used garlic for protection or white magic, perhaps owing to its reputation as a potent preventative medicine.
  • We all know the story of count Dracula in central European mythology where it is believed that garlic will protect a person from demons, werewolves and vampires. To ward off vampires, garlic had to be worn, hung in windows or rubbed on chimneys and keyholes.
  • Islam considers the eating of garlic and subsequently going to the mosque as inappropriate. “Whoever has eaten garlic should not approach our mosque” –  indicated Muhammed.
  • In both Hinduism and Jainism, garlic is considered to stimulate and warm the body and to increase desire – in fact, some Hindus won’t use garlic or onions at all, especially not in the preparation of foods for religious festivities and events.
  • Followers of the Jain religion avoid eating garlic and onion on a daily basis
  • Ancient Greeks placed garlic on the piles of stones at crossroads as supper for Hecate, queen of the night and goddess of the cross-roads (often depicted bearing torches and it is with those that she killed Clytius the 6th) who was a goddess of the underworld and Persephone’s companion for 6 months per year that saw her living there. Her 3 faces are turned towards as many directions and her name was shrieked at night at the cross-roads of cities.  Legend has it that Zeus calls upon her whenever any man on earth offers sacrifices, and prays for favour.


  • It has been suggested that garlic has antibacterial, antiviral and anti-fungal properties, prevents heart disease, atherosclerosis, high cholesterol, high blood pressure and cancer but none of them have ever been substantiated and we suggest you discuss any such claims with your medical doctors.
  • In 2007, the BBC reported that garlic may prevent and fight the common cold and because the suggestion has the backing of long tradition in herbal medicine, garlic has been used hoarseness and coughs and the Cherokee also used it as an expectorant for coughs and croup it may hold some truth.


Cloves of garlic

We all know that garlic causes horrible halitosis, unpleasant smelling perspiration (caused by  Allyl methyl sulfide (AMS). AMS is a gas which is absorbed into the blood during the metabolism of garlic and when the blood travels to the lungs and on to the  mouth and the skin, the smell is also transported. Washing with soap and brushing teeth is only a partial and totally imperfect solution.

Top Ten Garlic Producers in the World (in tonnes)

  1. China 12,088,000
  2. India  645,000
  3. South Korea 325,000
  4. Russia   254,000
  5. United States 221,810
  6. Egypt 168,000
  7. Spain 142,400
  8. Argentina 140,000
  9. Myanmar 128,000
  10. Ukraine 125,000


Black garlic

Black garlic is a fermented garlic that is used in Asian cuisine from time to time. The garlic is fermented at very high temperatures which cause the garlic to turn quite black. The garlic eventually tastes very sweet and syrupy and is a mixture between tamarind and sweet, aged balsamic vinegar. Finally, for those of you that really adore garlic, peel a couple of bulbs, pop all the cloves into a flat buttered oven dish and season with salt and pepper. Pour over enough cream to (just) cover and bake, uncovered, until the crust is golden and bubbling – of course the garlic needs to be very soft. Eat with plenty of crunchy bread and stay away from strangers!

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