No country for garlic haters
Updated: Jan 21, 2019
I am brushing my teeth for the second time and stuffing a piece of chewing gum into my mouth, praying that the ultra potent radioactive smell of garlic disappears before I pick up my daughter from kindi. I fear -yet again- it probably won’t and I’ll have to avoid engaging in any conversation and then escape with my daughter as soon as possible to prevent anybody from discovering I am a garlic-eater, worse even, a garlic-lover. Hopefully, by the time my husband arrives home in the evening, and after some extra teeth brushing, tea munching, yoghurt drinking, coffee biting, mint ruminating, lemon sucking and gum chewing, there will be no trace of my lunch today: Homemade Shaanxi oat noodles (otherwise known as yóumiàn kǎolǎolǎo 莜面栲栳栳), with three dipping sauces, two of which were packed with lots of coriander, scallions and raw allium sativum.
Don’t want the garlic stench? Then just eschew it altogether and instead have bland, less tasty versions of what actually are flavorful and mouthwatering meals, right? A frequent dilemma, indeed. But this is China after all, garlic is omnipresent. Long gone are the days when having just arrived I used to beg my Ayi to chop the garlic cloves big enough for us to be able to pick them out with our chopsticks, or not to cut them at all, just squash them, like when preparing a tomato sauce for a dish of penne all’arrabbiata. When I think about it, I can only imagine how ridiculous I must have appeared to my Ayi, trying to instruct her on the “proper” way of using garlic.
In Italy, garlic is usually squished and slightly browned to infuse the olive oil with its flavor. This is done to keep the taste level of the dish whilst saving commensals from ingesting the little stinker. Such a big piece of garlic cannot be ignored and inadvertently eaten. If it happens it’s because you have chosen to do so - as I did every single time. I was very discreet about it though, and normally would poke it together with the last bit of pasta and almost immediately let the waiter take my plate away, fast enough for nobody to see the evidence of my crime.
Squashing garlic is an effective way to let all the essential elements and flavors out. When the clove’s membrane is disrupted (whether it is by chopping, slicing or bashing), the odorless compound called alliine interacts with the enzyme alliinase and produce alliicin -the chemical responsible for the peculiar smell and for the “miraculous properties”. Pounding (transforming garlic into a paste with the help of a mortar and pestle) and blooming (sizzling minced or sliced garlic so it turns tender and gold) are other ways of using the bulb. The first method is frequently used in marinades, butter or vinaigrettes. The second can serve as an addition to pasta dishes.
Here, in the Middle Kingdom, ginger, green onions (or the larger varieties that are similar to leeks) and garlic conform the basic triad of the local cuisines. Garlic appears in all the possible ways: chopped, squashed, pounded, minced, sliced, bloomed, sizzled, steamed, boiled, raw, pickled, and preserved. It finds its ways in dishes from all across the country, but it is in the northern regions, where it truly reigns. The smell of raw garlic lingers invisible, although not imperceptible, in the streets, inside buildings and houses, in long queues, on trains, planes, in the cabs –oh, the garlic cabs. Nobody seems to notice yet you sense it all around. In his book 'The Unprejudiced Palate' (1948), Angelo Pellegrini said: “The human body, when it freezes in eternal silence, is said to be worth about ninety-eight cents. The body of an ordinary south European, if we could devise the means for extracting the garlic from it, would be worth a bushel of gold.” If the amount of garlic eaten by a south European is worth that much, I wonder how much would be worth the garlic eaten by the last taxi driver who took me recently for a 50-min drive.
Just as many did in past centuries (and across different geographical latitudes), people in the north of China eat raw garlic in the mornings as a trusted and cheap preventative and curative medicine (the benefits of the allicin being greatly reduced when garlic is cooked or pickled in vinegar) and it seems cab drivers are the ones that need it most to protect themselves from all the microbial infections, bacteria, virus and fungus carried by us, the germ-infested riders. The nickname “Russian penicillin” or “natural penicillin” was not arbitrary, as garlic phenomenal properties were applied in cases ranging from heart problems, headache, arthritis, digestive disturbances, bites, worms, ulcers and tumors, dementia, cancer, to even increasing strength and endurance, and helping women during labor, to name a few.
My aunt, who lives in Poland, goes on and on about how healthy it is to eat a significant doze of garlic everyday. She slices it thinly and lays it on a piece of buttered bread. She makes sure to eat it very early (or very late), and keeps a safe distance from anybody that may cross her path. I myself remember that back in college my dermatologist prescribed a garlic extract shampoo and conditioner to help combat my massive stress-provoked hair loss. I went around smelling like a kebab sandwich, but I used it religiously, I didn’t want to go bald at the age of 18. Even today, when I close my eyes I can still invoke the strange garlicky fumes mixed with the fragrance of my Nivea soap and the vapor that used to fill up my shower cabin. I am not quite sure whether it was the hair cosmetics, or the fact that I had managed to pass that horrendous math final exam (with the extreme minimum required), or my well-deserved vacations in the Middle East (after the final exam) that solved my problem, but something definitely worked.
The magical powers of allium were invoked in matters of the heart too: “Two whole garlics are joined with a steel nail, the top one represents the spell-caster, the bottom one the person whose love is desired”. This lucky charm has then to be left in a dark room with the hope that the magic works. Although, hard to believe, the power of garlic could apparently “rouse the passion between loved ones”.
I cannot help but wonder if the streets of the Roma Antica or the fields of Medieval Europe smelled like Dongzhimen in Beijing. Were these people walking around with half-eaten bulbs of fresh garlic in their hands, or with garlic necklaces hung on their necks? Would I seem crazy if I hanged a garlic garland on my baby’s cradle instead of the kitchen window today? After all, this world of ours is no stranger to witches and evil energies, they just wear nicer clothes than before.
Garlic then have power to save from death
Bear with it though it maketh unsavoury breath,
And scorn not garlic like some that think,
It only maketh men wink and drink and stink.
- by Sir John Harrington, in The Englishman’s Doctor (1609)
Throughout history, as much as garlic has been hailed, it has also been ostracized. It was mostly consumed by working and lower classes (probably due to its affordable costs), while shunned by aristocracy and the wealthier sectors of society as a result of its socially unacceptable foul odor. It was also banned from religious temples in Ancient Greece, rejected by the Brahmans in India and carefully bypassed by Buddhists monks who feared that being ensnared in its haze would interfere with praying and meditation. In fact, in Buddhist tradition garlic is one of the five pungent vegetables (五荤- wǔhūn) to be avoided in meals.
It would be a very hard life to lead, indeed. There are too many excellent dishes that would just not work without garlic. Just think of pesto alla Genovese, Greek tzatziki, Spanish gazpacho, Cesar dressing, a tangy aioli sauce, garlic bread, Romanian mujdei, or camarones al ajillo. Take the garlic out of these recipes and the charm is gone. And Chinese food more often than not relies heavily on garlic. We were living in Beijing for a few months already when our close friends decided to come and visit. We were very excited. Contrary to Rome, where we had somebody staying with us almost every weekend, China has never been on our friends’ radar. The only problem –huge problem- was that one of our friends deeply hates garlic. Every night, we would go out and I would repeat the same phrase in a poor Chinese: “Please don’t add any garlic to the dishes, my friend is allergic”. I had to come out with a good excuse for the waiters and chefs, otherwise how could I explain such a bizarre request. Health issues are rarely questioned; people tend to accept them as an undisputed truth. But not in China. Thankfully, my friend was not really allergic, as otherwise she would have landed at the ER with conditions that could have ranged from mild rashes to obstructed breathing. Somehow, garlic did find its way into several of our plates. I rejoiced when that occurred -I don’t wish my friend any wrong- but those few times chefs decided to honor our petition, the food was just crap.
I think about a lobster with glass noodles and minced garlic (suànróng fěnsī lóngxiā蒜蓉粉丝龙虾), like the one we had in Dàlián (大连) a few months ago. The lobster is cut into small pieces and then reassembled together, then it is coated with mung bean translucent vermicelli and topped with minced garlic previously fried in oil and seasoned with soy sauce, shaoxing wine and other condiments. A plate with the whole thing is then steamed for several minutes –depending on the size of the crustacean- and brought to the table while still piping hot. Sure, you end up stinking the place up and your clothes’ only destination ends up being the laundry, but I believe it is totally worth it. Now take the minced garlic away...
Or I picture one of the many Chinese cold dishes (liángbàn cài 凉拌菜), for example a crushed cucumber salad (liángbàn pāihuángguā凉拌拍黄瓜). Just last week, I was craving it. Smashed cucumbers, coriander, scallions, raw garlic, vinegar, salt, sugar, all topped with a splash of boiling oil which was previously heated together with – again- garlic, Sichuan peppers and hot chilies. A final drizzle of sesame oil to bring a delightful fragrance is necessary. Once more, take the garlic out and you are left with a decent, although completely forgettable blah salad.
In her piece in The New Yorker “Garlic in Fiction”, Shirley Jackson writes about the use of symbols and images as “small devices” or “tricks” that an author can employ “to catch at the reader and hold him”. She claims these should be used as garlic “sparingly and with great care, but used always to accent and emphasize”, as “garlic is a splendid thing, and one that is irreplaceable, yet there is no question but that it is possible to use too much of it”.
Not in China, here this just does not apply. It does not apply to me either, and I am not alone in believing so. In one of my favorite books, The Raw and the Cooked, Jim Harrison lets us perceive the central role garlic played in his cooking, and used in voluminous quantities, may I say. I feel a connection when I read phrases such as: “The meal was splendid… raw tuna salad, a paste with peerless squid and slivered jalapenos, a small grilled chicken with a side of garlic the equal of any I’ve ever had”. Or “I’m steaming a smallish chicken (a noble flier) on a bed of mushrooms, eggplant, green and red peppers, scallions, a few sprigs of tarragon, a pinch of lemon zest, and a couple of heads of garlic.” Or again: “I studied the rain, then the dense, cold wind, as I made pork and broccoli with pasta (a head of garlic), a couscous using a massive turkey thigh, winter vegetable (and a head of garlic), and a stewed squid with a head of garlic.”
But, why can’t we find a middle way? Our whole existence is based on the concept of compromise. Some eat carbs once a week, others reward themselves with a sweet prize on Sundays after a hard week’s work, and there are those who take breaks (longer or shorter) from alcohol to lose weight or to make sure they are not turning into alcoholics. Can’t we also compromise on garlic? Ban it Monday through Friday and allow at Saturday lunch as long as there isn’t a scheduled party in the evening, in which case it could be Sunday lunch or better yet, Sunday dinner, after which a good night sleep will help us digest all that heavy load.
I myself have stopped rationing my garlic intake. A lover of Chinese food, I just figured there are so many succulent dishes I can’t simply stop eating just for the sake of smelling a spring meadow. Aware of the consequences of my decisions, I am still searching for the right antidotum. Ideas abound since times immemorial, some quite peculiar: “If a man would not have his breath stink with eating of garlic, let him do no more but take a beetroot roasted in the embers, and eat it after, it shall extinguish that hot and strong flavor.”; or, “the strong smell of garlic is removed by eating boiled beans or lentils, or by chewing zedoary, or garden mint of the wild sort, and drinking a little vinegar afterwards”. Nothing really works. I still have to frequently respond to my husband’s question in the evenings: “What have you eaten today czosneczku (my little garlic)”? And I do the only thing a girl in my situation could do -make sure he eats for dinner just as much garlic as I have.