When I was young I was taught to crush some garlic, toss it into hot oil and then consider what to cook. Without garlic, many of the world's great cuisines would be a poor shadow of what they are today.
Garlic bulbs, commonly known as "heads"
Probably Central Asia.
Garlic is one of the few species of genus allium no longer native to Central Asia, whereas about 700 other species are found widely, with their centre of diversity ranging from the Himalayas to Turkestan. Garlic is cultivated world-wide. In Europe, garlic has been a common spice since the Roman Empire and it was grown in medieval monasteries in accordance with Charlemagne's Capitulare de Villis. It was extensively used from India to Eastern Asia even before Europeans arrived and its use spread rapidly to Africa and both Americas.
What is usually referred to as a "head of garlic" is botanically a bulb, i.e. a subterranean reserve structure derived from a cluster of leaves. The single leaves are known as "cloves of garlic" and these are the part of the plant used in most cuisines, although some make minor use of fresh garlic leaves.
Alliaceae (onion family).
Strong and characteristic odour, which differs significantly in the fresh and fried states. The pungency of fresh garlic vanishes after boiling or frying.
Garlic (Old English gārlēac) is a native Germanic word with two elements. The first element gar means "spear" and refers to the pointed leaves. It is cognate to Gothic gaar and archaic German ger, closely related to Old Irish gae "spear" and Latin gaesum "heavy javelin", which is thought to be a Celtic loan. A possibly related word is Greek chaios "shepherd's crook". All these forms could derive from an Indo-European root ghaiso "javelin" and there may also be a remote connection to the verbal root ghei "set something in motion" from Sanskrit heti "missile" and Langobardic gaida "point of an arrow".
The second element -lic has many cognates in other languages which generally mean either leek or onion, e.g. German lauch, Swedish lök, Dutch look; Russian luk, Latvian ķiploki, Estonian küüslauk and Finnish laukka). The common explanation derives these words from an Indo-European verbal root leug meaning "bend" or "turn", probably referring to the shape of the leaves, as in Lithuanian liaunas "flexible" and Greek lygizein "bend".
In Scandinavian languages, cognates of leek have adopted the meaning "onion", e.g. Danish løg, Swedish lök and Icelandic laukur. The name of garlic is formed by prefixing the adjective "white", e.g. Danish hvidløg, Swedish vitlök and Icelandic hvítlaukur. Similar naming motives reappear in Eastern languages, e.g. Sinhala sudulunu and Indonesian bawang putih "white onion". The name in Croatian is bijeli luk "white leek".
The only Indo-European cognate of garlic is Old Greek aglis. Most modern Romance languages have names for garlic derived from allium, e.g. Italian aglio, French ail, Provençal aïo, Spanish ajo and Portuguese alho. The botanical species name sativus means "cultivated".
In the German name of garlic, knoblauch, the first element knob- is sometimes explained as meaning "knot" (because the leaves of garlic are frequently tied together to improve growth of the subterranean parts). But it seems more probable to relate it to the verb stem klieb, meaning "split" (cf. English "cleave") derived from Indo-European gleubh "cut", "carve" or "peel", related to Greek glyphis "notch" or "mark" and Latin glubere "peel". The second part, lauch, is equivalent to English "–lic" and refers to onion or leek. Slavonic names for garlic such as Czech česnek, Polish czosnek, Ukrainian chasnyk and Russian chesnok also connect semantically to splitting and partitioning, with Czech část, Polish część and Russian chast all meaning "part".
In the term "clove of garlic", the English word "clove" means both a bulb and an aromatic spice from the Moluccas and both meanings are related. The German knoblauch and English "clove" are etymologically related and both refer to the "cleavability" of garlic bulbs. The German for garlic cloves, zehen, means toes.
The French name thériaque des pauvres reflects the medical value of garlic. In the Middle Ages, an expensive and complicated mixture of exotic ingredients called "theriac" was believed to be extremely powerful against many illnesses.
Garlic is one of the most popular spices in the world and was enthusiastically accepted wherever it was introduced. It is reported that in Ancient Egypt the workers who built the great pyramids were provided with a daily share of garlic and the Bible mentions garlic as a food the Hebrews enjoyed during their sojourn in Egypt. Ironically, although garlic has been cultivated in Europe for millennia, the plant today is least appreciated in Northern Europe, where its strong smell is often considered to be unpleasant.
Some cuisines are fond of raw garlic, as in parts of Austria where salads are prepared with vinegar, pumpkin seed oil and minced garlic. Raw garlic appears in a multitude of Mediterranean sauces including the Provençal specialty aïoli (mayonnaise based on olive oil and enriched with garlic), Greek skordalia (a paste made from cooked potatoes and raw garlic) and Turkish çaçık (a soup made from plain yoghurt, shredded cucumber, garlic and peppermint leaves). Similar, but thicker, is tsatsiki in Greece, often served with barbecued lamb souvlaki. Many appetisers from Western Asia (e.g. hummus) contain some fresh garlic and it is sometimes spread along the edge of Italian pizza.
In China, raw garlic appears in many salad dressings, particularly from Sichuan. A mixture of finely chopped garlic and sesame oil (diluted with vegetable oil to taste) is often served as a table dip. In Vietnam (especially in the North), freshly grated garlic is used in liberal amounts in spring rolls and soups. In Vietnamese cuisine a subtle effect can be achieved by adding grated or crushed raw garlic to a dish that already contains cooked garlic. Raw garlic may also be pickled in vinegar or olive oil and as some of the aroma is extracted by the liquid, pickled garlic is usually very mild.
Use of cooked garlic is much more common than use of raw garlic. On heating, the pungency and odour are lost and the aroma becomes subtle, harmonising well with ginger, pepper, chillies and other spices. An interesting example from Northern Italy is bagna cauda, a sauce made by cooking garlic in olive oil very slowly and adding pungent fermented anchovies, acciughe. In Piedmont, bagna cauda is served as a dip with raw or slightly cooked vegetables.
Various Asian cuisines make different use of this versatile spice. Many Indian recipes add garlic in an early phase, frying it for a long time together with onion and other spices to provide the basic masala. In the finished dish the garlic taste is no longer individually discernible.
In Indonesian and Chinese stir-fries, which usually start with frying a few cloves of garlic, a faint garlic aroma persists until serving because of the much shorter cooking time. In Indonesian cuisine, mixtures based on minced garlic, ginger and chillies are often used to season meat pieces before roasting or grilling.
In Thai cuisine, it is common to fry garlic slices in very hot oil to a crisp texture and decorate foods with the brown, crisp garlic slices. Other Thai recipes avoid the frying of garlic but prefer gentle simmering for spicy soups or creamy curries. Garlic is also an essential component of Thai curry pastes (especially green paste). Similar custom is found in Cambodia, where pastes of garlic, together with chillies, lemon grass or ginger, are added to soups or stews.
In the Southern states of the US, garlic is also very popular. The town of Gilroy in California claims to be the "garlic capital" of the world and hosts an annual garlic festival. Garlic consumption is also high in Central America, where the bulbs are used for Mexican mole and salsa.
In today's Europe garlic is most popular in the Mediterranean countries where it is commonly combined with pungent chillies, e.g. Italian spaghetti aglio ed olio "spaghetti noodles with garlic and olive oil" and it is an important constituent of most Mediterranean sauces. Food prepared with either red or white wine calls for some garlic. Rabbit stewed in red wine together with generous amounts of garlic and bay leaves, fenek bit-tewm u bl-Inbid, is a national dish in Malta and Portuguese porco vinho e alho "fried pork cubes seasoned with white wine and garlic" is delicious. The latter food was adapted to South-Western India where it is known as vindaloo.
Of botanically related plants, onion is certainly the most important. Even more closely related, however, is bear's garlic, whose fresh leaves have a tradition of use in Central Europe. In recipes from Northern and Central Europe garlic is normally cooked for a long time to reduce its odour and reduce its aroma to a level better suited to the mild food of this region. Cooks tend to use garlic with some Mediterranean herbs (thyme, bay leaves) but also with indigenous spices such as juniper and caraway. Garlic finely cut and suspended in olive oil with parsley leaves is often served with barbecued fish in Croatia.