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Some people like the smell of garlic; others don’t. And it won’t necessarily make you sexier or healthier. But if you eat it for the taste alone, you’ll certainly eat better, writes Vir Sanghvi.

india Updated: Jan 20, 2009 15:13 IST
Vir Sanghvi
Vir Sanghvi
Hindustan Times

As you probably know, there is a scale that measures the hotness of chillies. And many fans of the chilli pride themselves on the extent to which they can eat hot chillies without collapsing. My friend, the late Sabina Saigal Saikia, for instance, could consume the hottest of chillies and still smile while the rest of us would be looking for water, Coke, ice-cream, anything! to put out the fires in our mouths.

But is there a similar scale for garlic? I ask because I’m pretty sure that if such a measure existed, I would be to garlic what Sabina was to chillies.

Some people complain about too much garlic. I always wonder what they mean. As far as I am concerned, there is no such thing as too much garlic. I have never ever encountered a dish that has been spoilt by the addition of more garlic and while I concede that garlic has such a powerful taste that it can mask most other flavours, I have to say that, on balance, I would take garlic over all the other flavours.

In Europe, they associate garlic with the French, who the English always describe as reeking of garlic. But any Indian who saw how much garlic the French actually used would be astonished by their moderation. The French idea of flavouring with garlic is to rub a clove around a salad bowl before making the salad. Most Indians wouldn’t even taste a garlic flavour that was so subtle.

In my view, the French get too much credit. The only people who really understand garlic and know how to use it are Indians.

Consider our cooking. It’s hard to conceive of even the most basic Indian dish without the flavour of onions and garlic. When we make chutneys, we look for garlic: the classic chutney of Gujarati cooking, for instance, is lasan ni chutni, which is nothing more than a concentrated dose of garlic. Indians think nothing of eating garlic pickle and chomping on the whole cloves. When we go to so-called Chinese restaurants we like ordering Prawns in Garlic Sauce or any other dish which is redolent with the flavour of garlic.

Small wonder then that India is the world’s second largest producer of garlic after China and while the Chinese export a fair amount of their crop (to India, among other places), we like to consume most of our garlic ourselves.

But we don’t make a fetish of garlic. It always intrigues me how people in the west treat a love of garlic as a dangerous perversion on par with sado-masochism or bondage. There’s a restaurant in London’s Soho called Garlic And Shots which is frequented by strangely dressed people in chains and leather trousers. The food itself is rubbish but the restaurant gets by because it goes on and on about how it puts garlic in everything. There are garlic cocktails, garlic fish, garlic meat, garlic sauce etc etc. I doubt very much if anyone actually likes the food but the idea of eating so much garlic seems to give white people a decidedly sexual thrill.

Actually, that’s not so odd. Even within the Indian tradition, garlic is associated with the creation of heat and passion in the body which I suppose is an old-fashioned way of saying that it is a bit of an aphrodisiac. Conservative Hindus will not eat garlic and all good Jains are forbidden to eat it. (As you may have guessed, I’m a very bad Jain.)

Having lived on garlic for much of my life, I can state with authority that reports of its effects on potency and desire are vastly overrated. All it does is make you smell of garlic for several hours afterwards. Some people like the smell (I certainly do) but others don’t. Nevertheless there is no way of avoiding the garlic odour, no matter what you try. Garlic is excreted by the body through the breath and the skin so even a strong mouthwash will make only a marginal difference.

Some foods go better with garlic than others. I find that most salad vegetables and barely cooked fish improve with the addition of garlic. The French have known this for a long time and one of their more inspired inventions is aioli, a garlic mayonnaise. You use it as a dip for crudités but it goes particularly well with a simple dish of boiled prawns. You dunk the prawns in the aioli till their cool, firm flesh is soaked with the flavour of garlic and then pop them into your mouth.
Cooked vegetables also improve with garlic. Sauté mushrooms with onion and the flavour will be nice. But add garlic and suddenly, the dish will come alive. I don’t know why more people don’t use garlic with potatoes: the flavours are made for each other. Similarly, asparagus improves with a garlic flavoured olive oil.

Italians use garlic almost as much as the French do. One of the classic pasta dishes of Italian cooking is spaghetti alio olio, which is spaghetti simply cooked with olive oil and chopped garlic. In India, we like to add a little chilli as well (in which case the dish becomes spaghetti alio olio peperoncino) but most Indian tastebuds are so immune to the flavour of garlic that we need to add much more garlic than Italians would regard as necessary. My friend the Princess has the rare distinction of having sent back the spaghetti alio olio at nearly every Italian restaurant she has ever eaten at on the grounds that there isn’t enough garlic. Now, when I order the dish for her, I tell the chef “Put the most excessive quantity of garlic that you can think of. And then, when you have done that once, do it all over again.”

Oriental cuisine always seems to me to rely less on garlic than our own food. The Chinese use garlic but do not accord it the almost mythic status that we do. The Thais use such a complex mixture of fresh herbs in their cooking that they are reluctant to let a single flavour such as garlic overwhelm the dish. Even so, one of the best dishes you can get on the streets of Bangkok consists of small prawns, freshly shelled and fried very quickly with lots of garlic. Like the French, the Thais know that garlic and prawns are old friends and make the most of the combination.

You will often hear about the medicinal properties of garlic. In one version of the Ramayana, Kaikeyi got around Dashrath by giving him a garlic-based medicine that killed the parasites in his stomach. And in most schools of ancient medicine, garlic crops up in some form or the other.

Even modern medicine has been known to recognise that garlic can be useful in the prevention of heart disease. Recent research on the subject however is somewhat contradictory so I would be wary
of popping those garlic capsules on the grounds of good health.

But garlic is so strong that cultural traditions usually imbue it with mythical powers. For instance, it is said that vampires are put off by the smell of garlic, a useful tip to remember should you ever find yourself having dinner with Count Dracula.

My view however is that if you eat garlic because of medicine or myth, you are doing yourself a grave injustice. Eat it for the taste alone. It is one of the world’s great flavours – better even than say, white truffle – and it is widely available at the cheapest possible cost.

Sadly, because it is so common, we tend to take it for granted. So, the next time you step into the kitchen, look closely at that clove of garlic. Should you just be chopping it up or pulverising it as part of some masala? Isn’t that a waste of such a great taste?

Think creatively with garlic. It won’t necessarily make you sexier or healthier. But you’ll certainly eat better.

First Published: Jan 19, 2009 15:57 IST