Garlic (lasun) is a plant (allium sativum) of the onion family. The usual variety is a bulb with anything from four to twenty cloves although there is a single clove variety known as Pearl or Solo, if you can get hold of this then do - it is more fragrant and absolutely delicious. There are different colours of skin; pure white, purple and a hybrid of the two, I have never noticed much difference in the taste.
It is very easy to grow - I have grown it myself, each clove can be used as a seed to grow another plant. Although it is usually only the bulb that is eaten, the whole plant is edible - even the flowers.
It can be bought in many forms; freeze dried, flakes, powder, granules, roasted, in oil and of course fresh. The main reason for this is that fresh garlic will start to germinate and all these other products will keep much longer than fresh garlic (Although to be honest, garlic gets used pretty quickly in my house so this is never much of a problem.)
Although the whole cloves have almost no odour, once they are chopped or crushed they have a very strong smell. Raw they have a pungent, bitter and slightly hot flavour, when cooked they are sweeter and less pungent.
Garlic is thought to have originated in Asia but since it has been cultivated since before recorded time it is difficult to be more precise than this. Like the onion it was worshipped by the ancient Egyptians and eaten by Greek athletes and has had a long history of both culinary and medicinal use.
In Greek and Roman times it was known as the stinking rose and Arabic legend maintains that it spring from the Devil's footprint left in the Garden of Eden. It is mentioned in the Bible, the Talmud and by Roman historians.
The plant spread throughout Europe during the middle ages when it was known as the noblest onion and came to Britain probably in the early 16th century. The English name derives from gar and leac meaning 'spear-leak'.
Garlic is used in the cuisine of just about every culture on earth (yeah ok there's probably some mysterious Peruvian tribe that has never heard of it). Small amounts in almost any dish will be almost undetectable but will bring out the flavours. In the more robust dishes of the Mediterranean it is an essential ingredient. And of course it is equally essential to Indian cooking.
I store garlic in the fridge, it should be loosely wrapped to stop the smell affecting everything else in the fridge. The most important thing is that it should be dry it will start to sprout and/or go mouldy quickly in warm damp conditions.
Most books say to crush the cloves with the flat of a knife, but a fork is even better. Unless you require slithers, then even better is a press, these work very well and you don't even need to peel it as the skin will be left behind.
Once crushed it releases allicin which is the 'active ingredient' so to speak. This is an antibacterial compound which is the garlic's own defence against pests and what gives it its smell.
The probable reason that garlic has been used medicinally for so long is that it is a veritable storehouse of everything good for you. It is packed with vitamins and minerals; it has protein, carbohydrates, dietary fibre and almost no fat. It is also a massive anti-inflammatory. It lacks Vitamins A and B12, but has just about all the rest including huge quantities of Vitamins C, B6 and Thiamin. It has just about every dietary mineral including Manganese, Selenium, Copper, Potassium and Iron. It also has lots of important essential amino acids and is low in cholesterol. Wow.
Over the years it has been used for just about every ailment known to man, from preventing colds to curing cancer. A good number of these claims are justified and have been backed up by scientific study. Since it contains antibacterial, antiviral and antifungal agents, this should be no surprise.
As a natural antibiotic it is particularly useful as it does not kill the body's own 'flora' (your good bacteria) and recent studies suggest that this may be one reason for reducing the risk of gastric tract cancers.
Reduction of cholesterol levels is another big claim and again this is backed up by some studies although the science suggests that it is better at preventing a build up rather than reducing already high levels of cholesterol. Why you would want to reduce a substance that is vital to your body and actually made by your liver is a mystery, but there you are.
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