When most people think of the history of garlic, they likely think of the people of medieval Romania wielding garlic against suspected vampires. However, garlic was used long before the middle ages. So long before, in fact, that the actual origins of garlic (Allium sativum) are uncertain. It has been used historically in the Middle East and much of Asia to treat bronchitis, hypertension, tuberculosis, liver ailments, dysentery, colic, intestinal worms, rheumatism, diabetes, and fevers. Garlic has been used as a medicinal plant in India since the beginning of recorded history. The herb may have originated in central or southern Asia, or even southwestern Siberia. It’s known to have been used medicinally by the Sumerians, who lived in ancient Mesopotamia, and some historians believe that the Sumerians brought garlic to China, where it became a popular herbal remedy.
Garlic is known to have been used in ancient Egypt as early as 5,000 years ago, when it was important in the diet of lower class ancient Egyptians and slaves, especially those involved in heavy labour, as garlic was meant to help keep up their strength. Builders ate mostly nutrient-poor foods, making garlic consumption absolutely vital. The herb is even mentioned in the bible as being a food missed by Jewish former slaves after they left Egypt with Moses. Garlic was also used by the ancient Egyptians as a treatment for abnormal growths, circulatory problems, and infestations of parasites. The Talmud also recommends garlic as a treatment for parasitic ailments, and to promote sexual relations between married couples.
Like their Egyptian contemporaries, the ancient Greeks associated garlic with physical strength. The herb was an important part of the Greek military diet, and may have been consumed by athletes of the first Olympics prior to competition. Garlic was also believed to have great medicinal value, and was used to combat intestinal parasites, snakebites, and rabid dog bites, as well as to regulate the menstrual cycle. The ancient Greeks also laid garlic bulbs at main crossroads as an offering to the gods. However, those individuals with garlic breath were banned from entering temples.
The ancient Romans continued the Egyptian and Greek tradition of feeding garlic to those engaged in hard work, namely soldiers and sailors. As popular as garlic was among the working people of these ancient empires, garlic was not popular with the upper classes. The herb’s pungency and its association with workers and slaves made it inappropriate food for the wealthy. Thanks to the writings of ancient Greek physician Pliny the Elder, who listed 23 medical uses for garlic, the herb was also a popular remedy in the Roman Empire, particularly for toxins and infections.
Garlic use spread from the Roman Empire throughout Europe, where it remained a popular herbal remedy through the Middle Ages. Garlic was brought from the Middle East by returning crusaders, and the herb was grown in monasteries by monks who had particular knowledge of medicinal plants. Garlic was mentioned in the writings of St, Hildegard, a twelfth-century abbess who was also a leading physician. She believed raw garlic to be a stronger medicine than cooked garlic. As well as being a food fed to labourers and scorned by the upper classes, garlic was believed by medieval Europeans to be a remedy for constipation, dropsy, animal bites, and a preventative of heat stroke. It was used in wintertime to prevent pulmonary illnesses, and was also used to combat the Black Plague. In fact, the use of garlic is credited with saving 1,000 lives from an outbreak of plague in Marseille in 1720. Garlic was also valued by the Vikings, who took large quantities with them on their voyages.
Garlic’s medical efficacy has been proven in more modern times, as well. In 1858, Louis Pasteur described garlic as being effective against even bacteria that resisted other measures. The herb proved itself as an antiseptic against cholera, typhoid fever, and diphtheria. Garlic’s use by the Russians as a battlefield antibiotic during the Second World War earned the herb the nickname “Russian penicillin.”
But what about vampires?? That vampires are repelled by garlic is a common aspect of the modern vampire myth, and garlic was used as a protective measure in Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Vampires have existed in one form or another in European folklore for hundreds of years, especially in Eastern Europe, which is likely where our modern understanding of vampires is rooted. Though Stoker’s Dracula is, of course, fictional, Transylvania, in central Romania, is a real place, and Romanians really do use a lot of garlic—and not just in their food. According to Romanian folklore, garlic offers protection against evil spirits. Hanging rows of garlic cloves and smearing garlic on windows and doors to protect homes, and smearing the horns of cows with garlic to deter evil milk-sucking spirits are all old practices.
Garlic arrived in the Americas with European colonists, and it remains popular as both a cooking herb and as a supplement. It contains vitamin B6, vitamin C, manganese, selenium, and fiber, as well as a compound called allicin, and other sulfur compounds. These compounds give garlic its antibiotic, antibacterial, and antifungal properties. Taken in large quantities, garlic can help prevent ailments like common colds and flu. Garlic can also aid in reducing LDL cholesterol, and in preventing blood clots and fat deposits in arteries. Garlic is also an antioxidant and an antihypertensive.
Needless to say, everyone should eat more garlic! Fresh garlic is delicious, but peeling and crushing or slicing the cloves can be tedious and time consuming. Vanillablossom granulated garlic (sourced from China) is an easy alternative, and is generally superior to the garlic powder found in most grocery stores. Granulated garlic has a coarser texture than garlic powder, which makes it less likely to clump and easier to combine with both liquids (for various dressings, sauces, and soups) and other spices (for spice rubs).
Try Vanillablossom granulated garlic in this easy tahini dressing recipe! It takes only minutes to make, and will be a delicious topping for your next salad.
⅓ cup sesame tahini
2 tbsp olive, sesame, or peanut oil (depending on your flavour preference)
1 tbsp soy sauce
2 tsp granulated garlic
1 tsp cumin
Combine ingredients in a small bowl and stir. Add water tablespoon by tablespoon, stirring after each addition, until dressing reaches desired consistency. Drizzle over salad and serve.
Try Vanillablossom granulated garlic in this delicious hummus recipe! Eat it with nan, or try it with veggies.
3 cups canned chickpeas
½ tsp granulated garlic
⅓ cup sesame tahini
4 tbsp lemon juice (approximately the juice of one lemon)
2 tbsp olive oil, plus extra for garnish
Pinch of salt
Pinch of cumin
Pinch of sumac
1 ½ tsp baking soda (for peeling chickpeas, if desired)
Add chickpeas to a medium–large-sized pot and add water until the chickpeas are covered by about two inches of liquid. Bring to a boil. Simmer chickpeas for 20 minutes. Peel chickpeas, if desired (hummus with peeled chickpeas will be creamier, while unpeeled chickpeas create a more “rustic” texture). To peel, cover chickpeas with hot water and add baking soda. Let sit for five minutes. Rub handfuls of chickpeas together under running water to remove skins. Rinse well. Allow chickpeas to cool completely. Once chickpeas are cool, add to food processor and blend until the chickpeas have become a smooth paste. Add tahini, garlic, lemon juice, olive oil, and salt. Blend for 4-5 minutes. Add the resulting hummus to a serving bowl, and garnish with a drizzle of olive oil, cumin, and sumac. Refrigerate for an hour before serving.
Spicy Tip: If a recipe calls for fresh garlic, you can substitute ¼ tsp granulated garlic for each clove.