Korean Narrative: What’s With the Garlic?

Su Un Taeh Kim


In continuation to the series of attempts to introduce Korean history and culture in the most ‘interesting’ fashion, this week’s Korean narrative is about the culprit behind the peculiar scent found in most Korean food: Garlic (마늘).

Starting from the average pork belly chop house at Wangsimni to almost all Korean traditional joints, garlic can either be found in its naked and raw (spicy) form or minced and hidden as an supplementary ingredient in a dish. As it can be guaranteed by the reporter writing this article that garlic is literally everywhere in the Korean culinary experience, then the question should be as the title expresses “What’s with the garlic?”


Koreans have been taking garlic into their kitchen for nearly four thousand years, taking note to the legendary tale of the bear who became human, thus becoming the maternal ancestor of the Korean people. She or the bear (originally a bear) had to endure several trials of commitment which included surviving 100 days in a cave with a bundle of mugwort and of course the Korean favorite, garlic (twenty cloves). Since then, garlic has been a staple in the Korean table with medieval sources addressing it as “ilhaebaekri (일해백리一害百利) literally meaning its beneficial in a hundred ways except the smell. It seems quite interesting to find that Koreans have enjoyed garlic for so long while being fully aware of its strong and viciously spicy taste/smell. Then what makes garlic so irresistible even with it’s noticeable scent? Whether you know it or not, garlic is a natural medicine.

Besides the average Korean being constantly exposed and being used to garlic since childhood home-made cuisine and our ancestors praising garlic for its healing attributes, garlic is actually scientifically proven to be a useful and quite helpful when it comes to your health. Allicin, the main culprit behind garlic’s notorious smell is a powerful sterilizer and is with antibacterial effects that eradicates food poisoning bacteria and even helicobacter prolytic bacteria that causes stomach ulcers. Continuing with the scientific frantic, Allicin also turns into allithiamine when combined with vitamin B1, ultimately acting as a natural booster that is quite helpful in restoring energy and heat in our bodies (high temperature inside our bodies can be an inhospitable environment for cancer cells and virus). Besides the scientifically proven health benefits, cooked garlic and even raw ones can be quite addictive once the taste bud becomes used to it.


Moreover, since almost 90% of Korean dishes have garlic in them, you are most likely to be already addicted to garlic if you have at least one favorite Korean food e.g. Kimchi. With the history behind the Korean love affair with garlic and it’s actual health benefits taken into account, any false alarms that usually goes off when you come into contact with garlic should be neutralized as it’s not so bad as it sounds (smell in this case). After all, it’s inevitable (found in almost all Korean dishes) and most importantly a natural antibiotic for a time like this (COVID-19 nightmare). Thus, better to stay home with your manners and some maneul(garlic in Korean).

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