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Garlic's Flavor All Depends on How You Slice It

December 14, 1989

Garlic, which French chefs in Provence call the "poor man's truffle," actually offers a variety of flavors, depending on how you handle it.

The slender clove can have a meek, onionlike taste in a vinaigrette where it is used raw, unpeeled and whole. The intense flavor and fragrance that characterizes Chinese broccoli with garlic sauce comes from peeling and mincing garlic and frying it in hot oil.

The ancient Greeks apparently didn't care for that aroma--they forbade garlic-reeking worshipers from entering their temples, and ancient Britons were similarly anti-garlic.

Egyptians and Romans, on the other hand, regarded garlic as the first steroid. The Pharaohs fed it to their pyramid-building slaves, and over in Gaul you could tell leagues away when a phalanx of garlic-eating soldiers was near.

More recently, garlic has been used for everything from an antidote to cholera to dog-bite medicine, a love charm, cancer therapy and, when all else fails, a cure for baldness.

Garlic, a member of the lily family properly called Allium sativum , has fared better as a seasoning.

What accounts for the variations and nuances in its flavor and smell is a chemical reaction that occurs when the tissue cells are disturbed.

When a garlic clove is in its original state, whole and covered with a double layer of paper skin, it has a subtle flavor and mild aroma.

Slicing that same clove causes an enzyme reaction, resulting in the creation of diallyl sulfide, the primary culprit in garlic odor. The more you break down the tissue cells by peeling, chopping or mashing the clove, the more pronounced the garlic flavor and odor.

This formula holds true for the three most popular varieties of garlic, available according to the season in the marketplace. They are white-fleshed Californian, the purple-tinged Mexican and the dark-pink Argentinian, and they can be used interchangeably.

Elephant garlic, a hybrid now available in limited quantities, has extra-large cloves but a disappointingly bland flavor.

If final proof is needed that the garlic bulb can be tamed, it lies in a dish called chicken with 40 cloves of Garlic, a specialty of Provence in southwestern France.

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