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Knoblauch Maria Petersson Geruch

We All Have Garlic Breath

There isn’t a garlic tool in the world that has met with my approval so far. I’ve probably tried all of the ones that are small enough to justify filling space in your kitchen. (As opposed to some overpriced whack-chopper machine advertised on TV.)

I tried the manicotti-shaped device in which you are meant to put in one clove at a time and rub vigorously until the peel, faint with the heat of all that friction, falls away. There’s the garlic masher, which looks suspiciously like a potato masher. Then there’s the ceramic dish with a ridged, grating surface in the middle of a sort of moat. Five fat, luxurious cloves were reduced to a pile of mush the size of my thumbnail. The rest remained stuck in the microscopic grooves.

My latest toy is a handheld garlic press which I imagined would extrude garlic like German Spaghettieis. In reality, everything burbled part way out before clogging the extruder holes. The inner trap still contained the skin of the peeled garlic which I then scratched out with my finger and minced down with everything else. It took watching a few videos to realize that you’re not supposed to peel it first.

The whole draw of these tools is to minimize actually touching the garlic, but why would you want to? Nothing quiets your mind and gives you total concentration like slicing or mincing garlic. It’s one of the few kitchen jobs that I refuse to relinquish if I’m cooking with other people. So the smell lingers on your hands. When it’s the result of a successful meal, my pungent little digits are a badge of honor.

A 2019 article in The Guardian  bemoaned the overuse of garlic, particularly in vegetarian cooking, deeming it lazy cooking. Of course finding seasoning in a way that tailors to the ingredients you are working with requires a lot of effort. But as someone who is determined to try every kind of spice and seasoning that the world has to offer, I will still love garlic like it’s Leo, giving me the one spot on the floating door. (Apologies if I just spoiled Titanic for you.)

Whenever I feel sick I make a vegetarian version of Česnečka, a Czech, garlic soup. The basis for my simple pizza sauce starts with cooking down slices of garlic and dried chili flakes in olive oil. It also composes one part of the holy trinity  in Indian cooking – ginger, garlic, and onions – the base for a variety of dishes.

Garlic was also a gateway ingredient into learning how to cook as a child. Things like cucumbers and tomatoes are great practice for chopping, but garlic can help acquaint a novice cook with more subtle aspects. As my kitchen duties expanded I saw the ways in which garlic’s merits were utilised in different dishes.

For a delicately flavoured samosa filling, pound fresh garlic and green chili  in a mortar and pestle with a little bit of salt to help break everything down. Crush peeled, whole garlic cloves under a stone break. Break them down just a little bit further with a broad kitchen knife, but leave them in generous chunks when making cooked tomato chutney. Whole tomatoes – garden tomatoes are always the best – are thrown into the pot until they split and begin to bathe in their own juices. Beady black mustard seeds, slices of onion, fresh curry leaf, and that one illusive little shard of cinnamon that you have to warn people in advance about so they don’t bite it, all serve to make the garlic mellow and deliciously melty.

I love garlic so much I once wrote a short story – as of yet incomplete – about a woman whose first task in the mornings is to slice garlic and fry it into crisp, burnished chips. There was a vague plot about being stuck as the guardian for her brother’s child, South Asian diaspora cuisine,  cultural values being turned on their head, yadda yadda yadda. The story didn’t make it past seven pages because I got way too caught up in the opening scene. It was impossible not to talk about the little beads of liquid that came flying out as the protagonist crushed a clove under her knife. Then there was the gentle way they bounced in a shallow pan of oil and the crystalline beads that gathered around each slice, shivering in anticipation of the autumnal color change about to take place. Unfortunately I had to take a step back from the story because I had completely lost focus on the story part of it.

There are two treatments currently dominating my usual allium love fest. The first is to use the garlic press to squeeze two cloves over a bowl of cooked chickpeas along with olive oil, dried chili powder, and salt. The chickpeas are roasted to crispy perfection and I have to make extra to compensate for the ones that get stolen from the baking tray before the meal is served. The other is to simply throw a few unpeeled cloves into the roasting tin with other vegetables. Served on their own dish, they’re wonderful when you’re by yourself, but best enjoyed with a group of close friends. Nothing binds the ties of friendship better than releasing those creamy, golden nuggets from their pods and popping them like lozenges. It feels as if you’re sacrificing yourself for the pleasure of the cook, but actually, it’s unspoken affection for one another; knowing that the next day, no matter how far you are from each other, there is still a smell that binds.

Crushing or cooking down garlic releases a volatile organic sulphur compound known as allicin. Fun fact: the allicin is produced as a substance that is meant to defend against pests and diseases. The allicin further breaks down into four different compounds, the most powerful of which is called allyl methyl sulfide. This little stinker not only seeps into your sweat and blood stream, but it can take several days before your body metabolizes it completely.

Human noses happen to be particularly sensitive to sulphur. Unfortunate, considering the tasty lineup of things it’s often associated with. Rotten eggs, skunk, city sewers on a hot day, tainted wine, and natural gas for starters.

And yet, garlic is a darling of cuisines the world over – until the next day. Garlic breath is something people feel compelled to point out to others.

I guess the vampires won’t be bothering you today!

The recipe called for a clove, not the whole bulb.

*referring to the minced garlic in a tube* You know you’re not supposed to brush with that stuff right?

Garlic is indeed the darling of cuisines across the globe. However, much like a regrettable one-night stand, it’s great the night of, but the next day you just need it to go away. 

Smells that are too powerful or rather, potent, are seen as something disruptive to an orderly, odour-free society. It’s no surprise then that reactions can often be extreme when people are faced with strong, unfamiliar smells. Eighteenth and nineteenth century western philosophy dismissed smell as the inferior sense. The one most associated with being an animal and therefore a savage, uncivilized beast. The late Polish writer and philosopher, Zygmunt Bauman wrote of the sense of smell, “modernity declared war on smells. Scents had no room in the shining temple of perfect order modernity set out to erect.”

Nothing sways human emotions quite like a powerful smell, which probably offers some clue as to why Western societies have categorized smells and created enduring associations that divide races, classes, genders, and nationalities.

Picture the scene. You finally get to enjoy half an hour of peace or time to chat with your friends out of earshot of authority figures. In front of you is a homemade lunch. You lift the lid or unwrap the foil to reveal the delights within, your stomach practically quivering in anticipation. It is the scent of all things delicious and wonderful. Maybe a parent or grandparent packed it. Or maybe you cooked it yourself and are immensely proud. Awash in blissful anticipation, you turn to your dining companions and notice that some of their upper lips have curled and become lost in the vicinity of their flared nostrils. Reactions range from polite disgust to direct insults. Humiliated and verklempt, you resolve to eat lunches of dry bread with cut fruit and handfuls of unseasoned nuts for the rest of your life.

Although the pop culture of the lunchbox moment trope has existed for a while, that name itself seems to have started in 2016 with a short video piece on NBC News online. First-born generation children of parents who immigrated to the United States shared their experiences of being mocked and bullied for bringing the foods of their heritage to school. It’s something you can find in books and on the screen.

I had to go far back into the childhood archives to recall my one lunchbox moment. My mother had packed me aloo chana wrapped in roti, both from the night before. As I pulled away the foil, revealing a perfect scattering of rich brown spots where the iron skillet had kissed the dough, a group of fellow first graders began screaming and gagging theatrically at the supposed smell. They didn’t care that it was potatoes and chickpeas and homemade masala. It looked and smelled nasty to them. I turned away, shoulders hunched and staring at a wall as I ate. They grew bored and moved on to something else.

When I told my parents, my dad responded, “tell them ‘lucky me, I have a homemade lunch. What do you have, peanut butter and jelly?’” The intended blow was delivered in his adult impression of a childish nya nya nya nya nyaaa tone. This overly nuanced response was meant to convey my lunch’s superiority  by simultaneously highlighting the contrasts of cuisine and the homemade. Not being a parent, I have no clue if they actually thought that would work. But, I was never ashamed of my culture’s food, before or after that one incident. On the days when I got Indian food for lunch, most kids’ reactions ranged from curious, to completely uninterested.

The Bay Area – a  part of California where I grew up – is home to cultures and foods from every corner of the globe. School lunches were a beautiful illustration of the diversity that I was lucky enough to grow up with. Those same kids who were screaming about smelly aloo chana were bringing tamales, egg fried rice, sushi, and bagels and lox for lunch. Nobody in my town was a stranger to Indian food.

Acknowledging this type of racialized bullying by naming it doesn’t go far enough. As it turns out, exposing people to different cuisines isn’t enough to change hearts and minds. How else could a group of people in biker jackets pasted with shrieking eagles, hammers of Thor swinging out over ungroomed patches of chest hair, walk into a döner kebab shop like they personally invented it?

I had to think of the garlic paradox. Something so universally acknowledged and loved in different parts of the world. Something which we melt in butter and pour over a crispy slice of bread, yet are supposed to avoid on a first date so as not to scare the other person – I would like to say that I do not agree with the latter thinking.

The garlic paradox exists in a döner being eaten by someone who spends their free time marching against pro-immigration policies. It’s in the white garlic sauce and in the cabbage that tastes lightly pickled and brings sharpness to the fresh vegetables. There’s a connection you find in flame kissed slices of meat or downright craveable fried elements like squares of toothsome cheese. Then there’s the bread, oh there is bread. On the outside it smells lightly of the grill and on the inside it’s soft enough to make you want to curl up in it. 

There is comfort in these relatable smells. Vegetables that are fresh or preserved, a little fire applied to meat or cheese and bread, and something creamy and fatty to bind it all together. If we want to understand one another, maybe it’s time to start sniffing out the smells that make us tick.

Our bodies don’t seem to have control when smells trigger a memory. In that moment, there is no time to romanticize the boring or sanitize the harrowing. Crushed cardamom and toasted semolina are comforting to me while cold cream and woodsmoke smell like mourning and grief. I love the smell of flour mixed with water and corn oil to produce roti dough and as an adult I will always miss the smell of toaster waffles in the morning. It was just what I needed to kiss my bleary eyes open with its sweet, buttery scent.

It’s not a bad thing to eat differently from one another. So let us all sit down to a big bowl of garlic and tap into our smell memory banks together.

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