Garlic Medicine: Folklore Traditions from the Far East

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(Updated July 1st, 2020)

Through the centuries, people have either believed that garlic was divine or, with fanatical aversion, detested its very name. This well-known condiment with a unique flavour not found in any other vegetable has caused, and is still arousing, much controversy.  To admirers who adore the taste of garlic, it is the king of seasonings. However, those who have a deep dislike for this pungent herb often quote an old proverb which says, “garlic make men wink and drink and stink”.

An all-round flavouring and medicinal herb, garlic was one of humankind’s earliest foods – believed to have first been cultivated in the Euphrates and Nile Valleys more than 5,000 years ago.  In Middle Eastern mythology, when Satan sat triumphant in the Garden of Eden, onions sprang from his right footprint and garlic from the left.

The ancient Egyptians, who listed 22 garlic prescriptions for a variety of ailments, placed garlic as an offering on the altars of the gods. They believed it to be so healthy that they tried to take it with them in the afterlife – garlic was found in King Tutankhamen’s tomb. Later in history, Greek Olympic athletes were fed this vegetable-herb to give them strength and the Romans believed that it could cure over 60 diseases.

In India and Sri Lanka, the time-honoured ayurvedic physicians employed it to lower the cholesterol level, and in China, which today consumes half the garlic in the world, it has been utilized for centuries in the treatment of high blood pressure, gangrene, heart problems and meningitis.

Inhabitants of Asia and the countries surrounding the Mediterranean have employed garlic in their cooking since the dawn of recorded history.  For centuries, these people, from which almost all the known civilizations sprang, knew the gourmet and medical benefits of garlic, employing it extensively in their cuisine.  Even today, Egypt, China, India, Thailand and Spain remain the largest garlic growing and consuming countries in the world.

Garlic contains water, carbohydrates, protein, fats, thiamine, riboflavin, niacin and ascorbic acid. Its essential volatile oil has antiseptic properties that prevent the formation of bacteria, which aids in the healing process of many diseases. It also contains a high amount of sulphur compounds that could very well account for its antibacterial properties.

Medieval doctors and health writers in eastern lands have long attributed benefits to garlic. Before modern medicine, herb doctors in China, India and Arab lands prescribed raw garlic as a remedy for the common cold, senility, menstrual disorders, impotence and cancer. According to medieval Arab herbalists, garlic gives strength, beautifies the complexion, acts as an aphrodisiac, and helps cure countless diseases.

In 1858, Louis Pasteur found that garlic had antibacterial qualities and Dr. Albert Schweitzer used it for the curing of gastrointestinal disorders.  Morton Walker, author of 42 books on alternative medicine, calls garlic ‘nature’s gift to mankind’ and maintains that ancient myths about its power to heal are true descriptions of its healthful qualities.

Recent scientific evidence confirms garlic’s health benefits. A study at the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia found that if mothers eat garlic before they begin breastfeeding it can help to kindle the newborn’s appetite for breast milk. Experiments held at the Hamburg Institute of Pharmaceutical Biology have found that garlic contains a colourless compound known as Russian penicillin which acts like a fungicide in killing bacteria.  In a study published in 1981 in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, it was shown by Dr. Arun Brodia that garlic has a cholesterol-lowering effect.

According to Lloyd Harris in The Book of Garlic, allicin is a great help in fighting bacterial infections and acts as a heavy-duty antibiotic. In the same vein, Dr. J. Martyn Baily, member of a research team in Washington, has found that this natural medicine inhibits clot formation, reducing the risk of heart attacks and strokes.

According to Gary L. Huber, MD: “Hippocrates, who lived 460 to 370 BC and is considered the father of western medicine, recommended garlic for pneumonia and other infections, for cancer and digestive disorders, as well as a diuretic to increase the flow of urine and a substance to improve menstrual flow. Another Greek, Dioscorides, who lived in the first century A.D. and is held in esteem as the founder of the modern pharmacy, dispensed garlic to treat rabid dog bites, snake bites, infections, bronchitis and cough, leprosy, and clogged arteries, and more.”


The qualities of dishes cooked with garlic are greatly enhanced by its subtle use. Cooks in Asiatic and Mediterranean countries who flavour appetizers, salads, soups, stews and meat and vegetable dishes with garlic know the culinary pleasures of this condiment. To these lovers of garlic, fresh, cooked or utilized as extracted oil, it is a delicious and healthy addition to a myriad of dishes.

Garlic Sauce – Taratour

There is no place in the world where garlic is more employed and enjoyed than in the Middle East.  A simple fiery garlic sauce called taratour is a common dish of the peasants.  They use it as a condiment with fowl, meat or vegetables in the manner of mint sauce, horseradish or ketchup.

2 heads of garlic, peeled
1/2 cup olive oil
1/2 cup lemon juice
3/4 teaspoon salt

Place the garlic cloves in a blender then blend for a few moments.  Add remaining ingredients then continue blending until a creamy-looking sauce is formed.

Place in a container with a tight fitting lid and refrigerate until ready to use.

Sesame Sauce – Tahini

Garlic used raw is at its most potent – both as a medicine and as a spice. It is much milder when cooked. This Middle Eastern dish can be eaten as an appetizer, scooped in pita bread, or used as a sauce with other food.

1/2 head of garlic, peeled
1/2 cup tahini (sesame seed paste)
1/4 cup water
3 tablespoons lemon juice
1 Tbsp finely chopped hot pepper
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup finely chopped parsley
1 Tbsp olive oil

In a blender, place the garlic cloves then blend for a few moments. Add tahini, water, lemon juice, hot pepper and salt, then purée, adding more water, a little at a time, until the sauce becomes light in colour and the same thickness as mayonnaise.

Place on a serving platter, then garnish with parsley.

Refrigerate for half an hour then sprinkle with the oil just before serving.

Roasted Garlic

Roasted garlic cloves have a mild nutty taste and are delicious eaten on toast.

1 to 2 heads garlic
oil, salt

Peel garlic then place in a casserole.  Brush with oil then lightly sprinkle with salt.  Roast in a 350E F preheated oven for 20 minutes or until cloves turn light brown.

Garlic-Zucchini Appetizer

For a healthy but not as tasty version of this recipe, the zucchini can be baked.

6 Tbsp olive oil
1 small head garlic, peeled and sliced
1-1/2 lbs zucchini, cut into 1/4 inch thick slices
4 Tbsp apple cider vinegar
2 Tbsp finely chopped green onions
2 Tbsp finely chopped fresh coriander
3/4 tsp salt
1/2 tsp pepper
1/8 tsp cayenne

Heat oil in a frying pan, then sauté garlic slices over medium heat until they turn light brown. Remove garlic slices with a slotted spoon and set aside.

In the same oil, sauté zucchini slices over medium heat until golden brown, turning them over once and adding more oil if necessary.  Remove, then set aside allowing to drain on paper towels.

Combine remaining ingredients to make a sauce then set aside.

Place zucchini on a serving platter then spread sauce over zucchini.  Evenly top with garlic slices then allow to stand for at least 4 hours before serving.

Garlic Soup

Garlic cloves shed their skin easily if they are tapped before peeling or soaked overnight in cold water.

(Serves about 10)

4 Tbsp olive oil
1 large onion, chopped
1 head garlic, peeled and chopped
2 medium sweet peppers, finely chopped
1 small hot pepper, finely chopped
2 cups stewed tomatoes
4 Tbsp chopped coriander leaves
6 cups water
2 tsp salt
1 tsp pepper
1 tsp cumin
2 organic eggs, beaten

Heat oil in a saucepan, then sauté onion, garlic, and both sweet and hot peppers over medium heat for 10 minutes.  Stir in tomatoes, coriander leaves and water, then bring to boil. Cover and cook over medium/low heat for 30 minutes.

Add remaining ingredients, except eggs then bring to boil.

Re-cover then cook over medium heat for 20 minutes.  Stir in eggs and serve immediately.

Habeeb Salloum’s articles have been published in the Toronto Star, Backwoods Home Magazine, Forever Young Information Magazine, and Vegetarian Journal, among others. His most recent book Asian Cooking Made Simple – A Culinary Journey Along the Silk Road and Beyond is available at amazon at:

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