The spices and condiments that are typically used in Indian cuisine, have their origins in the world’s oldest medical system, Ayurveda. You use them every day in your food without a thought about the real reason why they’re there. They’re there because your body needs them and because, in many cases, Ayurveda says so.
Stinker in your kitchen
Meet this pungent little bulb, lovingly known in the West as the Stinking Rose. The distinctive odor of Allium sativum will assail your nostrils anywhere you go in India. Love it or hate it, you just can’t ignore it.
It’s a spice, herb, medicine, patentable cash-cow, and it stinks, depending on your point of view and which side of the table you’re on. Garlic is one odoriferous package of surprises.
Garlic has been in our kitchens since five thousand years. From its origins in China around 3000 BC, garlic has spread its tantalizing odor all across the planet. From the Med to the Atlantic, from one Pole to the other, you’ll find garlic bulbs adorning the kitchens of every country on earth.
According to Ayurveda, garlic is a promoter of agni, the body’s digestive fire, and is used as a carminative (appetite stimulant) and for gastric distress in general.
Regular consumption of garlic is believed to improve circulation and revitalize the body. For the same reason, garlic is believed to be a potent aphrodisiac. That’s why since Vedic times, the scriptures forbid its use by students, Brahmins and anyone engaged in spiritual pursuits, lest they get aroused by naughty ideas.
The French, on the other hand, take large amounts of it, for exactly the same reason. No wonder they also make the world’s best perfumes. The Russians use it a lot in their cuisine, mainly for rheumatism and joint pains.
Believe it or not, garlic makes a good face pack. It is effective against skin disorders like acne and pimples. That’s because garlic is a fairly strong antibacterial agent. Raw garlic paste directly applied on to the affected area will drive acne and worms away (and have the same effect on the general public).
The science behind the stink.
Garlic’s benefits and its smell are both caused by a group of sulfur-containing chemicals. Chief among them is allicin. This sulfurous phytochemical is responsible for many of garlic’s effects. There are so many scientific studies on garlic and allicin that one can mention just a handful of them here.
Blood pressure: Garlic is a vasodilator, that is, it dilates small blood vessels, and increases blood circulation. It brings down blood pressure as a result, and both Ayurveda and modern medicine recommend the moderate consumption of garlic by hypertension patients.
Cholesterol: Clinical studies on garlic show that it can potentially reduce cholesterol levels.
Antioxidant: Allicin has been studied as an antioxidant and for its effects on tumors. The results are encouraging. Allicin has been shown to inhibit a process called apoptosis or cell death. It can inhibit aging, in other words. So, an allium a day, keeps old age at bay, and everyone else away.
Statutory Warning ( I mean it!)
Garlic is known to interact with several drugs. Eating large amounts of garlic when you’re on blood pressure medication can be a genuine health risk. Garlic can decrease blood pressure by itself. In combination with anti-hypertensives, it can have a nasty synergistic effect.
Garlic can cause bleeding when used in combination with blood thinning drugs that are commonly prescribed to heart patients (like myself). Garlic can react adversely with herbal formulations and other nutritional supplements, so be careful if you’re the type who falls for nutraceutical TV ads hosted by nubile nymphets.
If you want to use garlic for its health benefits, the golden rule is: First ask your doctor. More so if you want to take garlic capsules for their claimed benefits. No matter how you use garlic, please do so in moderation and reap its benefits without any worries.
Size does matter. Large bulbs stink less. The extra-large variety has a mild, nutty flavor and can be cooked as a vegetable by itself. The tiny variety, on the other hand, will definitely make its presence felt in your breath, so use it sparingly.
Garlic cloves can get charred quickly, so always fry them on a gentle flame, along with onion or ginger, never alone.
There’s no point in gargling desperately with mouthwash after a garlicky meal. Garlic breath happens because garlic’s breakdown products are partly eliminated by the lungs. Even if you swallow a garlic bulb without chewing it or gulp a garlic capsule, you’ll still get garlic breath an hour later. Try chewing a few coriander leaves and keep one clove (lavang) in your mouth for a few minutes, and hope for the best. If you’re a heavy eater of garlic, one would strongly recommend a regular sauna to flush your skin of garlic by-products. Or else, your body will exude garlicky fumes all day long.
A recipe for you from my part of the world: Belluli Rasam (or mulligatawny soup, if you will).
Blanch and peel ten medium-size garlic cloves. Gently heat two tablespoons of pure ghee or butter, sauté a diced onion till light brown, add the garlic cloves, and sauté gently. Add a pinch of freshly ground pepper, a dash of cinnamon powder, one finely chopped green chilli and one thinly sliced finger-size piece of ginger. Fry for a minute and add a blanched and roughly chopped tomato, sauté till the tomato turns dry. Then add a teaspoon of commercial rasam powder, sauté for a minute more or until the aroma fills the entire building, add three cups of warm water (about 400 ml), bring to a gentle boil. Simmer for ten minutes.
At the end, add half a teaspoon of salt, simmer for one minute. Then drive out your salivating neighbours, lock the door, and, as we say in Bengaluru, enjoy like anything only. Serves three, but who cares?
Stay healthy. Stay safe. As Nature intended.
Garlic National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, US Dept of Health and Human Services.