Do you know what the common ingredient in Egyptian molokhia, the Middle Eastern moutabal and Emirati Jisheed is? Garlic – an ingredient that emerged 10,000 years ago. Used in almost every kitchen across the world, garlic holds the power to transform a dish due to its pungent and earthy taste, which sweetens up when cooked.
Some speculate that humankind began using garlic just after the last Ice Age. Nevertheless, evidence found in ancient caves and tombs in the Middle East and all over the world, strongly suggest that our ancestors used garlic ever since their hunting and gathering days – be it as seasoning, currency or medicine.
An ancient delicacy that helped build cities
The bulbous plant was first rooted to be domesticated during the Neolithic Age, when humankind evolved from hunter gatherers to sedentary farmers. During this period of evolution, they built permanent houses and began forming communities, which further evolved into cities. This evolution paved the way to ancient civilisations of Greece, Egypt, Rome, Indian, China and Mesopotamia – all of whose cuisines are heavily influenced by garlic.
Egyptian rulers often fed garlic to their workers, because they believed it was the ultimate source of strength needed, during the construction of the Great Pyramids of Giza around 2560BC. Several inscriptions found in these pyramids state that workers ate garlic, along with radishes and onions.
In addition to this, the evolution of these cities placed garlic at a high financial value, so much so that it was used as a form of currency among merchants who ferried goods and other valuables between Asia and Europe.
An ingredient with healing powers
My mum used to crush it and mix it with yogurt to relieve our stomachs, or she would smash it and put it on our backs to help clear out any congestion. I don’t know how, but it always worked....In Middle Eastern homes, garlic is a medicine first and an ingredient later.
Long before garlic found its spot as a pantry staple in Middle Eastern kitchens, it was primarily used as medicine. “I grew up eating garlic as a cure for common cold and food poisoning,” explained Dubai-based 33-year-old Jordanian expatriate Reem Masswadeh, who works in the media industry. “My mum used to crush it and mix it with yogurt to relieve our stomachs, or she would smash it and put it on our backs to help clear out any congestion. I don’t know how, but it always worked.
“Adults in their old age would also be advised to swallow a clove of garlic every day, because it is believed that garlic is a heart healthy ingredient, which also boosts immunity. We still follow these home remedies today. In Middle Eastern homes, garlic is a medicine first and an ingredient later.”
Like Masswadeh said, garlic does come with medicinal benefits. Several studies show that due to its antioxidant properties garlic may help decrease inflammation and boost immune function, because of its sulfur-containing compounds like allicin.
Middle Eastern cuisine is one of the healthiest cuisines, which uses raw garlic in its crushed form. When crushed, the beneficiary components are extracted, however, it is important to use garlic in moderation, because it is a very strong vegetable
“Consuming garlic on a regular is often associated with improving heart health,” explained Sakina Mustansir, a clinical dietician at Prime Hospital in Dubai. “It brings the benefit of reducing blood pressure, and is often eaten to reduce inflammation – which often is the root cause of most health problems. Additionally, garlic also helps stabilise blood sugar and several research papers also suggest that it helps improve brain health. Middle Eastern cuisine is one of the healthiest cuisines, which uses raw garlic in its crushed form. When crushed, the beneficiary components are extracted, however, it is important to use garlic in moderation, because it is a very strong vegetable.”
In fact, according to US-based travel writer and historian Robin Cherry, who notes in her book Garlic, an Edible Biography: The History, Politics, and Mythology behind the World's Most Pungent Food, “it [garlic] was powerful enough to cover up the taste of spoiled food, and it is the perfect accompaniment for long, arduous journeys”. Nevertheless, when used in the right proportion, garlic is said to bring a distinct flavour.
From medicine to marinades and dips
Raw, cooked or baked – that’s how we use garlic in our food....We primarily use garlic in our food because of the many health benefits it also brings to the table.
In Middle Eastern cooking, garlic is used in three ways, according to Dubai-based Lebanese Senior Sous Chef of DoubleTree by Hilton, Mostafa Sayed. “Raw, cooked or baked – that’s how we use garlic in our food. For example, when making hummus, foul or toum, we always use raw garlic. It is to retain the distinct flavours of a main dish when accompanied with these sauces. You will know the difference in a recipe that uses raw garlic and cooked or baked garlic – the former enhances flavour. We primarily use garlic in our food because of the many health benefits it also brings to the table.”
A popular sauce used in Middle Eastern cuisine is toum or garlic whip. “Toum is actually similar to mayonnaise, but instead of egg, we use raw garlic to stabilise the flavour,” explained Chef Mostafa. “It [toum] is quite essential in our cooking, because we can use it for marinating, as a sauce on the side with a shawarma. It is packed with a ‘punch’ because we add lemon juice in it. However, I add egg whites in my recipe. It is a vegan option as well – you can never go wrong with toum, whether you are eating it or making it.”
The key to perfecting Middle Eastern cuisine, lies in its use of spices and herbs as well, but without garlic, every dish would be incomplete. It is used mostly in its raw form, but when cooked, it must always melt into the dish....
Something that 31-year-old US-based Iranian cookbook author and food writer, Shadi HasanzadeNemati or @unicorninthekitchen, who specialises in Middle Eastern cuisine, agreed to. “Garlic is an integral part of Iranian cooking, especially in the North regions, or any Middle Eastern cooking for that matter. It forms the base of a dish, and adds a whole new layer of flavour. The key to perfecting Middle Eastern cuisine, lies in its use of spices and herbs as well, but without garlic, every dish would be incomplete. It is used mostly in its raw form, but when cooked, it must always melt into the dish, because no one would like to bite into a chunk of garlic when chewing their food. There is also a special way to cook with garlic.”
Cooking with garlic, the Middle Eastern way
Crushing the garlic and then adding it to oil will release its natural juices; but it must be monitored, because excessive sautéing can lead to the garlic becoming burnt, which could bring in a bitter taste
Crush, not chop; mince, not slice; roast, not fry – that’s the right way to cook garlic.
“You must always roast the garlic,” explained 27-year-old Dubai-based Lebanese expatriate, Jessica Jaber. “Since it brings character to a dish, it is always best to take your time when cooking with it. Also, the longer your cook the garlic, the sweeter and mellow the taste of your dish. Crushing the garlic and then adding it to oil will release its natural juices; but it must be monitored, because excessive sautéing can lead to the garlic becoming burnt, which could bring in a bitter taste.”
The roasting process tunes down the pungency of the bulb and releases the sugars, giving it a slightly caramelised flavour.
“You can also roast the garlic in its whole form,” added Masswadeh. “We often follow this roasting method for our barbeques. While the tomatoes, bell peppers, and meat are grilled, we cut the stem of the garlic bulb, drizzle a bit of olive oil, season it with salt and pepper, wrap it in foil and then grill it until it comes out tender. Nowadays, many people bake it home, as you can see all over social media, as a viral trend.”
Shawarma, molokhia, mirza ghasemi and fatteh
When we asked these expats and experts of a dish that brings the goodness of garlic, each of them was reminded of a memory that took them back to the days of their childhood.
“The best dish that really brings out the distinct flavour of garlic is mloukiye or molokhia for me,” said Masswadeh. “The way it is made is so wonderful to watch and without the garlic it is just a plain dish. The technique in which the garlic is roasted and poured on top is called tashah and nowadays several restaurants do this right before serving the customer as part of their signature serving style. The garlic undoubtedly makes all the difference. When I was young, I used to love watching my dad separate the leaves from the stalks, my mum cooking it, and how we all used to eat together after mum poured garlic on top of it… it’s such a core memory for me.”
The mloukiye is also a favourite for Jaber. “It reminds me a lot of home, and I also find myself craving it almost every day. Another dish that I absolutely love which brings the richness of garlic is a hot chicken shawama – be it is wrapped in the roll or served as dip, a shawarma with garlic sauce or toum is just perfect for every mood in the UAE.”
However, for HasanzadeNemati, the ideal dish that brings out the taste of garlic is the Iranian dish Mirza Ghasemi. “It is basically smoked eggplant, charred over an open flame or grill. It only takes 10 to 15 minutes to cook – and the garlic would be peeled, crushed and mixed with tomatoes and eggs, and is best eaten with steamed rice. The combination of garlic and eggplant has always stayed on my taste buds, and we always used to make it while going camping as a family, back in Iran.”
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