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Garlic, Onions, Leeks, and Other Related Vegetables Used as Foods and Medicines in Turkey
Date 01-15-2021
HC# 072038-656
Garlic (Allium sativa, Amaryllidaceae)
Onion (Allium cepa, Amaryllidaceae)
Leek (Allium ampeloprasum, Amaryllidaceae)
Uses as Foods and Medicines in Turkey

Ekşi G, Gençler Őzkan AM, Koyuncu M. Garlic and onions: an eastern tale. J Ethnopharmacol. May 10, 2020;253:112675.  doi: 10.1016/j.jep.2020.112675.

Understanding the historical connections between foods and medicines can provide insight into food consumption and healing practices. Garlic (Allium sativa, Amaryllidaceae) has been used historically worldwide as food and medicine. Along with onions (A. cepa), leeks (A. ampeloprasum), and other related vegetables, garlic plays an important role in Turkish daily life. These authors from Turkey, analyzed how food and medicine have been perceived as closely connected entities in a specific cultural sphere, focusing on the wild and cultivated Allium species from the historical perspective of Turkish culture. The authors searched Google Scholar, Science Direct, PubMed, Elsevier E-Book, Scopus, ISI-Web of Science, Ebook Central (Ebrary), and other web sources for historical data, considering the past 50 years for traditional use of the plants as medicines and foods in Turkey.

The cultivation of Allium species began more than 4,000 years ago in ancient Egypt during the Old Kingdom, in ancient Mesopotamia by the Sumerians, and in ancient Anatolia (the Asian part of Turkey) by the Akkadians between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Preserved garlic was found in Tutankhamun's tomb around 1325 BCE, and clay models of garlic were found in El Mahasna's tomb around 3700 BCE. Examples of onions are included in writings that date back to the 6th century BCE in India. The ancient Egyptians introduced garlic to the Greeks. Hippocrates, the father of medicine, prescribed garlic for urine output, to aid breathing, and to heal wounds. 

Turkey sits at the crossroads of the Eastern Mediterranean, the Middle East, the Caucasus, and the Balkans. Medical texts from the Hittites, whose empire covered most of Anatolia and extended into Syria and the Eastern Mediterranean region, describe the beginnings of Anatolian folk medicine. The Hittites used many bulbous plants, including onions and garlic, for magical and healing purposes. In the third century, the Roman Empire split in two. Garlic, onions, and leeks were used by the Byzantines (the Eastern Roman Empire) for various reasons, including stomach pain, urine output, chest irritations and coughs, trachoma of the eye, and rabies. Garlic, onions, and other related vegetables continued to be used as both foods and medicines during the Ottoman Empire, which began at the end of the 13th century.

More than 200 Allium taxa grow naturally in Turkey. Garlic and onions play an important role in the country's ethnobotanical lore, culinary culture, and economy. About 30 wild Allium species are used as medicinal, edible, ornamental, and dye plants.

Allium species are widely used in Turkey because of their abundance and consumer preference. The authors identified 15 Allium taxa that are used to prepare ripened cheeses containing herbs, which are consumed in eastern Anatolia. Because of rising demand, the herbal cheeses have recently begun to be produced industrially.

The most common medicinal uses of Allium species are for high blood pressure, wound healing, worms, cold, inflammation, loss of appetite, fungal infection, intestinal disorders, infertility, and blood sugar management.

The authors reached the following conclusions:

  • The large amount of information about Anatolia provides a large humanistic heritage in every sense.
  • Plant use is among the most important factors of traditional knowledge.
  • Taste is a part of ethnopharmacology.
  • Cultivated plants are included in biodiversity and ethnobotanical polychromy.
  • Remedial foods are related to culture and belief systems.
  • Considering food and medicine as a whole rather than separately in research provides an important insight into food consumption and the healing process.

Allium species have played an important role in Turkish diets and folk medicines. Garlic, onions, and other related vegetables are considered common functional foods because of their accessibility, low cost, and healing properties. "Healthy foods like garlic were and will be a critical component of maintaining good health," write the authors.

Shari Henson