The Search for Closer Cloves

posted in: Recipes | 21

little garlic, where came thee?

It’s no surprise to me, as an average American consumer, that nearly everything I wear, step on, brush my hair with, carry my things in, or merely touch in my day-to-day routine was made in and exported from China. So perhaps I should likewise not be surprised that something as ubiquitous in my daily life as fresh garlic should come from the same place. After all, black pepper hails from Indonesia.

But no. Black pepper is another story, a dried spice historically shipped around the world from an area known even today as the “Spice Islands.” Garlic, on the other hand, does grow a bit closer to where I live. Particularly in San Joaquin Valley, California, where a town called Gilroy is the supposed “Garlic Capital of the World.”

The illusion is quickly losing its veneer. But will it ever come back, in this day in age of global produce and convenience as king?

I’ve read here and there that imported Chinese garlic had outsold US-grown garlic in the states for the first time last year. I’d heard about the outrage from California farmers, grappling with how to deal with the unexpected competition. And I followed when, in July, tighter food safety laws in China heavily decreased the percentage of garlic exports to the United States.

But let’s face it: Garlic from China is usually more than half the price per pound as garlic from California. And before everyone got concerned about the American garlic growing industry, safety issues, or freshness, we consumers all said, well hey, garlic is really cheap all the sudden. I did it. Come on, I know you did, too. But I didn’t realize where it came from, who, what, why, when or how. I mean, it’s garlic. And until recently, I didn’t even realize how little choice I had over what kind of garlic I was purchasing — domestic or imported. Because the only choice my local supermarkets in Brooklyn have been stocking for quite some time now is Chinese garlic, which is usually packaged as five bulbs in one white plastic netting sleeve. Erased from the picture are the piles of loose bulbs, indiscriminate in appearance as to its origin. (I just noticed this last weekend, if you’re wondering why the sudden tirade.) Is that happening in your neighborhoods, too?

I use garlic an awful lot. It probably comes up in more than 80% of these recipes. So when I run out of garlic, or when the rest of the bulbs in the netting go stale on me there’s no time to lose or fuss with. Perhaps with the drastic drop in Chinese garlic exports this fall there will be less white-netted garlic to go around. But I doubt it.

Or rather, I should say that I doubt that anything which might seem curious to import to a country that it itself produces will not fall prey to cheaper competition, from anywhere. In the meantime, I’m just hoping that food safety laws at least keep my garlic more pesticide-free. And come spring, I’m digging up plenty of wild garlic.

Further reading:

-NPR’s “All Things Considered” program from Sept. 22, 2007, discussing the impact of China’s tighter food safety measures on garlic exporters.
Newsday article from November ’06, advocating for buying Long Island-grown garlic. –
-A 2005 report from Australia
, showing that this is not just a US concern.

21 Responses

  1. OhioMom

    Which is why I buy my garlic from a local family-owned farm 🙂 BTW, don’t look to the FDA to protect our food, what with the massive cuts in funds.

  2. SMDNY

    Something kind of related – I recently learned the difference between the code stickers on produce:

    PLUs consist of 4 to 5 numbers.
    4 numbers = conventional produce
    5 numbers, starting with 9 = organic produce
    5 numbers, starting with 8 = genetically engineered produce

    I realize that “conventional” is pretty vague, but I will be avoiding those GE items like the plague.

  3. lindsey

    obviously, because i’m twenty minutes from gilroy, there’s plenty of loose garlic to be had where i live. i’ve never actually ever bought bagged garlic, because i didn’t start using fresh garlic until i moved here. i was always a jarred, minced garlic kind of girl. but now that i do buy fresh garlic, how do you know where the loose bulbs came from?

  4. Yvo

    Hmm, interesting. A while back, Fresh Direct had “Chinese garlic” on its page and it never occurred to me it was just telling me the origin- I thought it was a type, which I posted about, people made suggestions, I google’d, but what came up (elephant garlic & Chinese garlic are supposedly the same?) was completely different from what I had, so now I have reason to believe it was actually origin. Anyway.

    BTW, have you seen my “new” site? It ties into Not Eating Out, sort of 🙂

  5. joanne

    I noticed the white netting garlic a couple of months again. I am having a hard time when buying garlic to discern whether it is California garlic or Chinese. Last week when I went to one of my local supermarkets, I found loose garlic. I can’t say where it’s from. If you buy the prechopped or minced stuff then there’s a label. Of course it doesn’t taste as good.

  6. Susan in Italy

    So they’re importing Chinese garlic to the States too. I had the same feeling when I bought garlic in Milan last year and the tag stated it had come from China. I was especially surprised since my first introduction to garlic was in Italian food.

  7. ianqui

    Yeah, about 6 months ago I noticed the bags of Chinese garlic in the grocery store too. Not only did that piss me off, but the garlic actually tastes pretty bad–really dried out compared to fresh garlic.

    So, even though it’s a little tough to shell out $1.25 at the greenmarket for a single bulb of garlic, that’s what I do. New York farms actually grow quite a bit of garlic themselves, and what I can get in Union Square is tasty stuff.

  8. Lisana

    Southern California here, and I’m able to find loose garlic at the normal grocery store; haven’t seen the bags of 5 cloves, though they have had the big garlic braids from time to time. I just don’t go through it that fast; maybe a head a week.

    I’d just naturally assumed it what I’ve been getting here was California grown, but I’ll keep an eye out for the produce boxes when we shop, as they’re usually stocking on Saturday mornings when we make our grocery run.

    I used to live much closer to Gilroy (in San Jose to be more precise), but only recently started using fresh garlic instead of something out of a jar.

  9. rachel

    Farmers markets generally have garlic nearly year ’round that is local and cheaper than what you seem to be paying for the imported stuff-we get it for about 20 cents a bulb.

  10. danny

    Is there a taste difference between imported vs. domestic garlic?

  11. masticator

    If you aren’t buying old hardneck varieties like rocambole(sp?) the garlic from the greenmarket can be pretty cheap. And it usually is so much better due to being stored correctly.
    The way they stack the cloves is tricky. As a child I bought discount threepacks of old comic books where you could see the covers of two of the books but the middle was a “surprise.” Which was always something I never wanted(comics meant for girls). Likewise with the garlic, because you can’t see the root end on any of the cloves(the bag knot covers the bottom one) you can’t really tell how dry they are by checking for cracks(or even gray mold). Gross, and in the end not much of a discount.
    The thing that really pisses me off is the white netting – its the same trick as printing thin diagonal orange stripes over the “window” areas on bags of carrots(especially those multi-bag-discount Canadian carrots they practically give away in my neighborhood) – a trick of the eye to convince you of the freshness of the product. Which is why I no longer buy anything already in a bag. How hard is it to put something in a bag?

  12. OhioMom

    ….”Is there a taste difference between imported vs. domestic garlic?”

    Consider the fact that you are buying a “fresh” product that has traveled thousands of miles as opposed to one grown within 100 miles of home.

    Had a delicious apple lately … the crunch has been replaced with mush 🙁

    Also check up on the environmental (or lack thereof) of the farming practices in China !

  13. cathy

    Masticator: Nice point about the white netting…
    Susan in Italy: It’s true! Chinese garlic is everywhere, and it’s far more common than US-grown here (or it was last year at least).
    Danny: the Australian article that I link to above discusses possibilities of Chinese-exported garlic being treated with not only fertilizers but bleachers, growth inhibitors, and may even be last year’s crop. The end result may be difficult to taste or smell, but certainly these would all affect quality.
    All: Thanks so much for the input and suggestions. I will definitely be scoping out garlic from my Farmers’ Markets next.

  14. Sue

    I have it pretty easy in this regard – I live in Southern CA and I also have grown my own garlic (super easy and very strong at times!)I had no idea about the inroads being made by the Chinese garlic. The lack of ANY food quality controls in China scares me, I read my labels in Trader Joes very carefully these days.

    It’s pretty cheap at the many green markets and organic stores here too.

  15. vanessa (of vanesscipes)

    I’m with OhioMom – get the farmers market stuff. It’s tastier because it’s fresher, you’re saving buckets and buckets of oil (most NYC farmers markets are well within 100 miles versus the 3000 shipping miles to CA) and you can feel good knowing that the farmers and workers are making fair wage (on those big farms you never know.)
    Great post!

  16. michael

    Chinese garlic is fine… I eat it every day. Delicious! Do they have the kind of garlic in the US where the entire bulb is one huge garlic section? It’s generally smaller than your average garlic, and the flavor is sweeter and less, umm, garlic-tingly??

  17. cathy

    Sue: Actually, China has recently strengthened their food safety laws, as described in the NPR link above. But I don’t blame you one bit for double-checking labels in these times.
    Hi Michael: I’m sure the garlic is great over there in their native continent. I’m just not sure what they’re treating those things with for the long travel and shelf time they embark on when heading to the US (and elsewhere). And no, never seen a big huge 1-section garlic bulb… got a photo to share?

  18. Emily

    You could always try growing it! It would be satisfying and you would definitely cut down on shipping.

  19. ann

    There’s also an NPR article out there (I link to it somewhere on my site) about the fact that Chinese garlic also tastes different from American garlic. It’s more bitter and doesn’t stand up as well to cooking. When I was in Cali I bought some local, organic garlic and brought it back to NY where I did a side by side of Chinese garlic, Cali garlic and Finger Lakes garlic (my favorite is from the wine guys at Union Sq on Saturdays).
    The Chinese was hands down the most unpleasant, while the Cali was the best in cooking and the NYS most pleasant raw. Local garlic is more expensive, but it tastes better and is better for the environment. Ah garlic…

  20. cathy

    Wow, that’s fascinating, Ann! I’ll have to do a taste test myself soon!

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