Arabic: Thum, Thoom Allium sativum; Alliaceae (Onion Family)
Botanist David Hooper, in his survey of useful plants in Iran and Iraq in the 1930’s, observed that garlic was the potherb par excellence of the East—not only was it used in a dizzying array of culinary dishes, but it also aided digestion and was a gastric stimulant. If anything, Hooper’s comment was an understatement. We now know garlic has a wealth of other medicinal properties to complement its enduring value as a cooking herb.
Garlic, a bulbous perennial, probably originated in Central Asia, the only place where it grows wild. (There are other plants in other lands referred to as “wild garlic”; they are part of the Allium genus but are not true garlic, A. sativum. Garlic has edible flowers but it is primarily grown for its bulbs, each of which contains 12 to 20 cloves. Garlic has been cultivated by humans from time immemorial. Hundreds of varieties have spread out from Asia to encompass the globe.
How to use: 1) Crush, chop or use garlic cloves whole to flavor dishes; 2) Bake, roast or grill a bulb of garlic. When softened, squeeze out the pulp from the individual cloves to eat; 3) Mash the softened pulp of baked garlic to form a smooth paste and use it in soups, sauces and dips. Alternatively, grind fresh garlic to a paste with a mortar and pestle.
In the kitchen: Garlic is a much appreciated ingredient in both hummus bi tahina (chickpea and sesame puree) and baba ghannouj (eggplant and sesame puree), two popular dips with Arab bread.
When frying, use enough olive oil or butter to coat the pan and stir often. Garlic burns quickly if cooked over high heat.
Store garlic in a cool, dark pantry. Garlic stored in the refrigerator quickly dries out and rots.
Remedies across Arabia:
- Use garlic for ant bites. (Northern Province)
- Use a clove of garlic to relieve the pain of a bee sting. (United Arab Emirates)
- Use an ointment made of ground garlic on a wound even if it hurts, since this prevents gangrene. Also, you can clean wounds by mixing ground garlic in warm water and washing the wound with it to kill the microbes. (Eastern Province)
- Rub a raw garlic clove on the spot where a scorpion stings you, and it will heal. (Eastern Province)
- My grandmother used garlic to kill warts and prevent them from reappearing. (Bahrain)
- The Greek historian Herodotus, during a tour of Egypt, reported seeing an inscription on the Great Pyramid at Giza that recorded the quantities of radishes, onions and garlic consumed by the laborers who constructed it.
- According to tradition, the Prophet Muhammad recommended garlic, applied topically, to remedy viper bites and scorpion stings.
- Al-Kindi, the medieval Arab physician, used garlic in a drug for treating earaches and other diseases of the ear.
- Despite garlic’s known antibiotic activity, and despite Internet rumors to the contrary, there have been no scientific studies showing garlic has any effect against anthrax.