Which Came First—Chicken or Garlic?
This chapter’s title is my own eccentric take on the familiar, ancient question, “What came first, the chicken or the egg?” By the way, I’m convinced it was the chicken that came first, not least because I believe God made everything, and therefore had no need to create an egg. (Even if God did make the egg, there were no chickens back then walking around in the Garden of Eden to sit around on the egg and hatch it into a lovely chick.)
Now that we’ve established the primacy of the chicken, let’s fast forward several millennia to Beirut, capital of Lebanon and part of a historic region called the Fertile Crescent, which stretched from the northern edge of the Syrian Desert to the Nile Valley and where much of human history was made. It was there, in a tiny storefront devoid of tables and chairs—not even a cash register—that Zankou Chicken was born in 1962.
Named after a river in Armenia, Zankou (pronounced Zaan-koo) was located on a street corner in Lebanon’s Little Armenia neighborhood in a neighborhood called Bourch Hamoud. “Bourj” is the Arabic word for “bridge,” and although the background of the neighborhood’s name was strictly architectural—apparently that part of town had some famous and well-made bridges and roadways—over the years the first Zankou store would serve as a link between the cradle of civilization and the mecca of capitalism that is America.
Zankou was born two years after the formation of the Beatles, widely regarded as the world’s greatest rock band, and precisely two years after the boys from Liverpool took the United States by storm. And just as the Beatles were arguably imploring the world to love them in their first hit single, Love Me Do, my family began the process of making a hit combination that would soon become almost as famous as the Beatles. (It’s a funny little fact, given that we once had the Fab Four hanging on the wall of our Glendale store.) In hindsight, I think what we were trying to do was challenge our customers to fall in love with a single competitor who had a better chicken recipe.
It was my grandma who came up with the recipe for the garlic sauce. She never went to Le Cordon Bleu or any other cooking school. She just had a God-given talent for cooking and making amazing recipes from scratch. To me, that’s a little bit like the artistic greats of history.
As a huge art buff and an artist myself, I greatly admire the masterpieces of Leonardo Da Vinci and Michelangelo. The greatest artists and cooks in history didn’t go to school—the world was their school. They worked meticulously on their craft every single day no matter where they are. That was my grandma. She would cook and spice from morning till night, every single day, for more than 70 years. She would cook when we were at my cousin’s house, she would cook at our house, she would roll sarma and dolma for customers in Hollywood and then she would cook for our family. She was an amazing chef.
And that brings me to the second component of this chapter—garlic. One of the most an ancient of foods, garlic (Allium sativa) is an essential ingredient in every major cuisine in the world. Who hasn’t marveled at the aroma of this condiment as it’s being sautéed in the frying pan or baked whole in the oven. Indeed, of all the vegetables that compliment chicken, perhaps none is as wonderful as garlic. At Zankou, we serve a special garlic sauce meant to be eaten side by side along with our rotisserie chicken. The idea is to make the chicken both tasty and digestible, a practice that underscores a vital principle of premodern cuisine: To be well assimilated, foods must stimulate the digestive juices through the pleasure of eating.
The Chinese word for garlic, suan, is represented by a single character, signifying that the condiment was widely used from the beginning of the evolution of the language. And not just as a food. Garlic was used from antiquity to treat animal bites, especially snake bites. Soldiers in World War I were said to apply garlic to treat their wounds. And what’s more, garlic also has a legendary reputation in scaring away vampires—although this supernatural power sounds less reassuring in light of the fact that vampires may be attracted rather than repelled by garlic’s anticoagulant properties.
What’s certain is that garlic has the power to destroy a lot more than vampires and evil spirits. After all, not for nothing is it the world’s most commonly used condiment. Although an odorless plant, it has more flavor and aroma than just about any other plant, including onions. It is pungent and earthy, yet subtle and delicate.
Only in recent years has the scientific community realized garlic’s healthful properties, especially its role in flushing out carcinogenic substances from the body. Garlic contains phytochemical compounds that have proven anticancer properties, particularly in the prevention of cancers of the stomach, esophagus, prostrate, colon and breast. Garlic is especially effective in protecting against cancers caused by a class of chemicals known as nitrosamines, a powerful carcinogen that interacts with the body’s DNA and is formed in the intestine from nitrites, a class of food additives used as preservatives in meat products such as sausages, bacon and ham as well as pickled foods and cured meats. Garlic prevents the formation of nitrosamines by reducing the risk of cancer-causing genetic mutations.
Researchers have studied least 20 compounds derived from garlic and have found them to possess anticancer properties. Of these compounds, two—diallyl sulfide (DAS) and diallyl disulfide (DADS)—are fat-soluble and considered to be the principal compounds in garlic that play a role in preventing cancer. In fact, DAS has been shown to even defuse the development of lung cancers caused by an exceedingly toxic nitrosamine called NNK, which results from the ingestion of nicotine while smoking tobacco.
But to fully harness garlic’s anticancer properties, the condiment must be consumed shortly after it is freshly crushed or chopped. That’s because anticancer molecules in allicin, the strong-smelling ingredient that gives garlic its pungent odor, are strongest when the condiment is crushed, chopped or chewed.
In the very beginning at Zankou, we didn’t even have garlic sauce. In fact, we sold raw chickens along with cooked ones for the first decade or so. Over time, customers fell in love with our garlic sauce. And that raises the question: What makes garlic taste so great with chicken? Maybe the answer lies in the fact that both foods are powerfully healthy for the body when combined. After all, chicken is one of the best forms of animal protein—and what could be a more palatable way of eating it than with garlic. Or maybe it’s that chicken is a bit dry all by itself, and that creamy garlic sauce gives the meat that special, zesty kick required to render it as palatable as healthy. Perhaps it’s just the power and amazing taste of the raw garlic itself, and the chicken is just the vehicle with which the garlic must travel into our mouths. Sometimes our body craves that powerful garlic sauce because of its healing, nurturing and antiseptic properties.
At the end of the day, what wins all of us over is the taste. That amazing, fresh taste of the crispy skin on the chicken. The aroma of the chicken being cooked for hours in the oven, and that remarkable aftertaste that has the effect of leaving us hungrier with every bite.
Suffice to say that the taste of garlic and chicken stick with you. Your friends may avoid you because you smell of garlic, but in the end it’s your garlic-infused immune system that you’ll thank when everybody but you keeps falling ill.