What: The many varieties of the onion species Allium sativum, otherwise known as garlic.
Why: I have stated for years that there are very few food dishes which cannot be improved by either the addition of more chocolate or the addition of more garlic (but not both). Chocolate is outside the scope of this category—it is often the only flavor in a dish—so I’ll turn my focus solely to the sweet breath of life. Whether roasted, braised, infused, or grated, garlic is a potent culinary catalyst. Humble bread becomes the appetizer of choice; mere French fries become the centerpiece of a ballpark meal. Garlic bonds with other flavors, so it will hold a taste in your mouth better than any other flavoring. It will also stay in your blood for longer than you might abide, because the allyl methyl sulfide inherent in garlic cannot metabolize, leading to well-known aftereffects. No matter. If you want your guests to recall what you made for dinner, add more garlic.
Impact: Garlic is primarily associated with Italian food, so much so that a common slur against Italians is “garlic eaters.” It may surprise, then, that almost all the garlic in the world is grown and consumed in China. Here in America, we’re no pikers; we have our own capital of production in the aromatic Gilroy, California. Garlic’s world-spanning appeal is based not only on taste, but on the simple fact that garlic will keep you alive, and not just because the vampires will back off. Don’t believe me? Hey, just ask Dr. Mao. It’ll keep your bad cholesterol down, fend off the common cold, and maybe even prevent incidence of cancer. Good health never tasted so good.
Personal Connection: To my mom’s horror, I used to eat garlic raw. Like, a lot. I’ve laid off that habit as being socially responsible started to mean more to me. But I’m still of a mind to put garlic in just about anything. I’m not the only one: The Muddle-Headed Wombat was feeling a bit more muddle-headed than usual a couple weeks back, and wanted the gift of garlic on his birthday. So yandros, lemurtanis, and I took him southward to the Chehalis Garlic Festival. There we gutsily braved garlic pasta, garlic tofu, garlic donuts, garlic popcorn, garlic ice cream, and garlic peanut brittle. We also ran into iuztheevil, who proceeded the next day to complain that he’d had, and I quote, “too much garlic.” Such an imagination, Mr. Bulmahn. I’ll bet you believe in vampires too.
Other Contenders: a pinch of saffron, as good as it is expensive, especially in my stepmother’s homemade risotto; habanero chilies, currently serving as the souped-up undercarriage of my wife’s prize-winning spicy raspberry jelly; berbere and masala, the spice mixes that power Ethiopian and Indian cuisine, respectively; the juice of a meyer lemon drizzled over an entree; the bracing bohemian horseradish, or its honored kinsman from the Far East, wasabi.