In Mexico City last week, I was wandering through the huge Abastos market when I saw a display case of black jars with a sign that read “Ahora en Mexico: Ajo Negro” (Now in Mexico, Black Garlic).
I first saw black garlic in Chicago at the National Restaurant Association show in 2008. Then, it was new to Chicago.
According to some reports, however, black garlic seems to have been around for upwards of 2,000 years. Originating in Asia, black garlic is surrounded by folklore: in Japan and Thailand, black garlic is thought to promote longevity…perhaps even immortality! (I wouldn’t put any money down on that claim.)
Garlic turns black when it’s heated at low temperatures for a month or more. Under conditions of controlled heat and humidity, the garlic undergoes the Maillard reaction, which creates new flavor compounds and tames some of the sharper sulphur notes.
Nutritional benefits of garlic are believed enhanced by the blackening process. Those enhanced benefits include reduced cholesterol buildup and stronger arterial walls, reduced blood pressure and increased white blood cell and antimicrobial activity.
And get this: garlic is believed to increase testosterone in men and libido in women. If its scent were not so potent, garlic (like oysters, rhino horn, etc.) could be one of the more romance-friendly foods. Black garlic solves that bad breath problem by minimizing or even eliminating garlic stank. Joe Rosa of old Slicker Sam’s in Melrose Park once told me that when Sinatra visited his parent’s place for dinner, he would ask Joe’s mom to not use garlic in his food, likely because it interfered with the loving. Had black garlic been around in the Fifties, Frank could have had his garlic without fear of unromantic consequences.
Black garlic is also well-tolerated by the digestive system, so if garlic sometimes challenges your tummy, those unpleasant side-effects are less likely with black garlic.
Black garlic is mellower and lacks the bite of fresh garlic: it’s somewhat sweet, sticky, slightly acidic, almost citrus-y, and creamy, like very soft fruit. You can eat black garlic out of hand. We had a whole clove, chopped, with noodles, chicken and asparagus. Mild preparations are best for showcasing the unique flavors of black garlic; it’s subtle, so it can be steamrolled by heartier ingredients (like onions or beef).
Neither Trader Joe’s nor Whole Foods carry black garlic (though I suspect it’s just a matter of time before they do). We ordered two bulbs (about $10, not cheap) on Amazon. Then I called Gina Milkovich at Sugar Beet Co-op, who exclaimed “Omigod, I’m obsessed with black garlic.” But…Sugar Beat currently doesn’t carry black garlic– a situation that Milkovich said she’s looking into correcting. If you see it soon on the shelves at Sugar Beet, you’re welcome.
April 19 is National Garlic Day in the United States. For a twist on this day of celebrating of garlic (which we Italian-Americans celebrate every day of the year), consider getting some black garlic. It’s fun.