Garcinia Longings

By Rini Barman

My digestive tract goes for a toss once seasons are about to change in Assam. I am speaking of that eerie intermediary period when the winds, too, aren’t very sure which direction to follow. With rising temperatures and global warming each year, weaker tummies only go from bad to worse. One cannot predict when the ghastly phenomena of multiple burps or dumps might occur. I have tried everything—eating bland, working out, sleeping early, chucking out midnight Netflix, and even taking mild antacids. 

Mother used to say I have a cursed tummy when none of her ‘gut’ suggestions worked. And a sour stomach is a lot to deal with. Imagine the dreariness amidst the super fast-paced nature of life—the speeding cars under the terrace, the local shopkeeper screaming to set up his tiny outlet of edible greens, the small children taking their dolls to the street for they now have no place to play. No time to slow down a bit and look back at the concrete urban disasters one has cooked for oneself.

When I asked their parents about their nonchalance, they told me the grapes are all sour. I had invited them to my terrace—I thought, well let’s have some thekera (garcinia peduncalata). Most of them had homes outside Assam. They’d not really tasted it and thought it was some black-coloured leaf.

Dried garcinia pieces. Credit: author.

 

My weekends are now often occupied in drying fresh thekera and storing it in small containers. I befriended a local fruit-seller; he too knows that an ill person has a dozen medical bills and he’d rather not fleece them. His name is Hemendra Deka, Hemen for short. His wife left behind twin daughters whom he has to feed by selling fruits and veggies by evening and milk by day.

Tangy Liaisons

Local proverbs tell us one shouldn’t eat anything sour alone: ‘sakala tengati okole nakhaba’. Doing so irritates the tummy more. The idea here is that sourness stimulates enzymes and makes one crave it more—greed, after all, is a vice. Thus, sharing sour fruits and vegetables is a sign of caring for each other—a kind of intimacy even. Elderly women also believe harsh tanginess can be injurious to health, and must be balanced out with sweeter stuff (like sugar syrup and jaggery) at weddings and social events. But to totally cut it out is to miss out on the spice of tanginess altogether. The term ‘tenga hoi gol’ implies it has gone all to waste—this is used liberally from rotten food to relationships. There’s also ‘tenga lagise’ as a synonym for tiredness to mean ‘I am now bored and sick of it.’ The reference to unpleasant tastes and rotten food as having gone ‘sour’ is quite interesting. 

Tanginess Spectrum

Basking in the winter sun isn’t a distant memory to me. I still find excuses to do it while peeling lemons, oranges, tamarinds, and other stuff like mixing chillies and salt with robab tenga, our very own pomelo (Citrus Maxima). The locals also consume the tender leaves of the edible garcinia and add them into their curries. A slight addition also adds a distinct flavour. The Northeastern region of India is home to a lot of piquant species—there’s a tanginess spectrum and a rich, rich palette. One cannot pin it down to an either/or.   

Sun dried garcinia pieces turn blackish. Credit: author.

 

To me, the sourness of thekera isn’t like lemon or the abundantly available elephant apple, ou-tenga—both of which are mostly consumed raw. But thekera is usually sun-dried and for usage later on. Amongst the diverse sour plants and fruits, thekera has a kind of moderate tanginess—the reason why it balances the stomach. Available and consumed across Thailand, Malaysia, Myanmar and other Southeast Asian countries, it works wonders with reflux ailments. Powdered thekera is a medicinal potion to ease digestive problems like dysentery; it also helps menstrual aches heal. 

No Quick Fixes

During that time of the month, I crave some tangy eating, unlike my cousin sisters who don’t have lemons or anything sour to prevent too much bleeding. What I do is dip one or two slices of thekera into boiled lentils or my fish curry. For those who enjoy more tanginess, you can soak thekera overnight in water and use it as a souring agent in your dishes the next day. My mother used to add thekera in case other kinds of vegetables like tomatoes were not as sour as she expected them to be. It worked as a quick fix back when I was a child. 

But life now is very far from such quick fixes. Hemen told me new fruits in the market are mostly chemically-ripened and that there is cutthroat competition. Local sellers are desperately juggling to make ends meet. “Raising daughters is no mean feat—you too must be careful, don’t eat tangy stuff all the time, tummies can be delicate at this age”, he advises me with his ‘fatherly’ basics, as he puts some thekera into my bag. 

I think of him dearly very often, wondering what his daughters might look like and how difficult it is to make do without a parent. My summer evenings are no longer filled with rum and whiskey but with thekera-flavoured water. Perhaps life too is going to be more of the same—a choice between dried tanginess and raw acidic toxins. I guess one has to keep swimming! 

Thekara cocktails on the terrace. Credit: author.

The Thekera Cocktail

Ingredients

  • 3 slices of dried thekera (soaked overnight in water)
  • Ice cubes
  • Rock salt
  • Sugar or honey
  • 1 medium glass of chilled water

The next day, strain the water  into a separate glass. Mix 4-5 tbsp of that into a glass of water. Add honey/ sugar and salt to taste. Add the ice cubes. Your humble cocktail is ready.

Thekara cocktails on the terrace. Credit: author.

 


About

Rini Barman is an independent writer and researcher based in Assam. Her interests include art and culture, ethnicity, folklore among others. Her essays have appeared in esteemed national dailies and magazines. She tweets @barman_rini.  

The Magic of Socotran Aloe

By Shireen Hamza

“The people of this island are without faith — and they are strong magicians. They originate from Greece.”

What?

I had been flipping through Ikhtiyārāt-i Badī‘ī, a Persian pharmaceutical manuscript composed in the fourteenth century by Ḥājī Zayn al-‘Aṭṭār (d. 1404). The British Library has many surviving manuscripts of this text, including one copied by the author’s son.[1] I was looking through each of them to see whether they included any Arabic-Persian glossaries, for an ongoing project. I was stopped short by the sentence above.

It was part of an entry on aloes. I read the entry from the beginning:

Aloes are of three varieties: Socotran, Arabic and Samḥābī. The best variety is Socotran. Socotra is an island close to the shore of Yemen. It is forty leagues [long]. The people of this island are faithless and are strong magicians. Their origins are from Greece. Alexander sent them from Greece to this island in order to make aloe. Their women are even stronger magicians.

I was beginning to wonder what this had to do with aloes. Zayn al-‘Aṭṭār continued.

On whole, the situation is so extreme that if they have a conflict with another person, and that person is present — or if they even focus on their memory of the person’s face — and they put a glass of water before themselves and begin to do magic, a drop of blood eventually appears in the glass. Then, they put the glass on their liver, heart or lung. That person falls dead on the spot. And if one were to open the person’s belly, they would find no liver. People exaggerate about their magic to this extent. The best type of Socotran aloes are the color of liver, smell like marw (Maerua), and are full of leaves [with juice] similar to gum Arabic. If someone has pain, massaging [the afflicted area] with this will quickly bring relief. It has the color of saffron and emits the smell of goose fat.

With that, I was abruptly returned to the familiar land of medieval Islamic medicine. What had these magicians to do with aloe? Livers disappear from the victims of magical attacks and reappear as the color of the best aloes — perhaps referring to the color of the juice extracted from the plant’s leaves. But this seemed a happenstance juxtaposition; the author drew no correlation.

Arid landscape and blur sky. Plan with wide lower leaves that are brown. Several long, spiny flowers that are bright red (narrow) grow out of it.
Aloe Perryi in Socotra. Credit: photo by Todd Masilko, accessed at Flickr.

 

Ḥājī Zayn al-‘Aṭṭār’s narration of the history of this object is unusual, for this text and for pharmacopeia in general. The rest of the entry continues in the usual way — Arabic aloes are also called Yemeni and Adeni aloes; aloes are hot and dry to the second degree, though some say to the first and others to the third, and Jālīnūs (Galen) says dry to the third degree, hot to the first; aloe is among the most beneficial medicines for the stomach, and for treating swelling and pain; it is a purgative for yellow bile; it pulls excess moisture and phlegm from the head and joints; it clears obstructions from the liver; with age, it turns black and loses potency; and so on. This story of the island’s magicians seemed to belong more to another kind of book.

Indeed, this story appears often in Arabic literature. The earliest version is in “Accounts of China and India,” a travelogue by Abū Zayd al-Sīrāfī, likely written in the ninth century. Attesting to the wide renown of these aloes, al-Sīrāfī begins his description of Socotra as “the place where Socotran aloes grow.”[2] According to him, Aristotle had instructed Alexander the Great to find this island, expel its inhabitants and resettle it with Greeks who could guard the aloe and export it — because “no purgatives (ayārijāt) are complete without aloe.” He then explains how these Greeks eventually became Christian — and how their ancestors remained Christian in Socotra, living there among other peoples. Another famous traveler, al-Bīrūnī, included a brief mention of the story in a pharmaceutical text he wrote in the eleventh century — the closest precedent to Zayn al-‘Aṭṭār. By the thirteenth century, several well-known authors included some version of this story in their work, like Yāqūt in his geographical text, al-Qazwīnī in his  “Wonders of Creation,” and al-Nuwayrī in his lengthy encyclopedia. While Islamic literature is full of stories of Aristotle’s advice to Alexander, some scholars have argued that these authors drew on Greek accounts that don’t survive, and that the story spread further through The Alexander Romances.[3]

“Alexander Visits the Sage Plato in his Mountain Cave,” a painted folio from a Khamsa (Quintet) of Amir Khusrau Dihlavi made in 1597-1598, likely in India. Credit: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

 

Zayn al-‘Aṭṭār says nothing of Christianity on Socotra. al-Sīrāfī says nothing of magic. But a few pages later, Zayn al-‘Aṭṭār translates a lengthy aloe recipe by Ibn al-Bayṭār (d. 1248), originally in Arabic. This and other citations of Arabic medical texts suggest that Zayn al-‘Aṭṭār could read Arabic, and may have taken his account from any of the texts mentioned here. But why?

Writing from far-away Shiraz, Zayn al-‘Aṭṭār dismisses the magical abilities of Socotran people as exaggeration. But though he disagreed, he included the story as part of the information in circulation about Socotran aloe, for the sake of creating a comprehensive entry. This is why he also included contradictory accounts of the hotness and dryness of this aloe. But did he believe that Alexander’s ancient interest in Socotran aloe was additional proof of its continued superiority to other varieties of aloe?

Modern botanical research includes a survey of a plant’s history on earth, a legacy of early modern Natural History. The discipline of Natural History does not translate easily to sciences before the eighteenth century in any region.[4] But there are narrative “histories” of certain substances within texts of ṭibb, Arabic and Persian medicine, as well as in encyclopedia, lapidaries, bestiaries and other genres. Origin stories appear alongside the most practical of information.

Objects, and especially plants, are difficult to pin down — they feel unstable as we follow them through different periods, geographic contexts and even textual genres. I imagine that Zayn al-‘Aṭṭār may have felt the same way. Perhaps by whisking his reader onto the scene of an ancient conquest, he felt that his enthusiasm for the remedy would come with a strong recommendation.


Postscript

The people of Socotra are currently struggling under very real conditions of occupation due to the ongoing war, cholera pandemic and COVID-19 pandemic in Yemen. If you can, please support the work of the Yemen Relief and Reconstruction Foundation or comparable organizations.

Notes

[1] British Library India Office Islamic 3499

[2] Abu Zayd Al-Sirafi and Ahmad Ibn Fadlan. Two Arabic Travel Books: Accounts of China and India and Mission to the Volga. (New York: NYU Press, 2014): 122-123

[3] Mikhail Bukharin, “The Mediterranean World and Socotra,” in Foreign Sailors on Socotra: The Inscriptions and Drawings from the Cave Hoq Ed. I. Strauch. (Hempen Verlag: Bremen, 2012): 494-531, at 504-505.

[4] Karen Reeds and Tomomi Kinukawa, “Medieval Natural History,” in Lindberg, David C., and Michael H. Shank. The Cambridge History of Science: Volume 2, Medieval Science. Ed. David Lindberg and Michale Shank. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013): 569-589.

Revisiting David Shields’ American Bitters

With summer in full swing, many of us are enjoying an Aperol Spritz (or 2) in our gardens or on our tiny balconies. To give you something to ponder as you sip your drink, today we revisit David Shields’ wonderful post on American Bitters. Here, David not only tells us about the medicinal qualities of various  bitter elixirs but also offers a recipe for those itching to brew your own. Elaine Leong


By David Shields 

Nowadays bitters are an aroma and a flavor used in building cocktails, or a digestif taken in small doses after heavy meals. Prior to the twentieth century they were a medicinal infusion of vegetable material in alcohol. In the Galenic humoral system, they countered an excess of choler or bile in one’s system.

After the Islamic invention of the distillation of alcohol, distillates of bitter herbs could be preserved and volatilized more efficiently than in a water solution. Bitters became a standard stomachic in Renaissance pharmacology. Physicians had such faith in the power of bitter plant matter to right disorders of the stomach that they gave a general prescription for Extractum amarum, not specifying which bitter plant should be used, or what variety of gastrointestinal disorder was being dosed.

From the 1750s to the 1850s bitters were patent medicines prepared according to secret proprietary formulae. American newspapers brimmed with ads for improbable tonics: Dr. Rawson’s Genuine Anti-Bilious and Stomachic Bitters; Dennison’s Improved Jaundice Bitters; Plantation Bitters; Stoughton’s Bitters; James Gartland’s Genuine Herbaceous Bitters.

StoughtonsBitterslabel

What did these elixirs promise?

“These Bitters stimulate and strengthen the coats of the stomach and intestines, expel wind, correct the bile, remove redundancies, assimilate the nourishment, and possess a suitable proportion of nervine and diaphoretic properties; which, by restoring to the nerves their tone and firmness, and acting on the surface of the body by insensible perspiration, restore that balance and equilibrium so necessary to health.” [“Dr. Rawson’s Genuine Anti-Bilius & Stomachic Bitters,” Norfolk Commercial Register (November 29, 1802), 3.]

When Dyspepsia (acid reflux indigestion) became a cultural obsession in the early nineteenth century, bitters enjoyed an efflorescence in popularity.

In North America, the flora differed from that of Europe, Asia, and Africa, and so the materia medica ready to hand for concocting bitters recommended a change in formulae. In William P. C. Barton’s Vegetable Materia Medica of the United States the bitter medicinal plants are flagged: tulip tree, Liriodendron tulipifera; marsh pink, Sabbatia angularis; bloodroot, Sanguinaria Canadensis; flowering dogwood, Cornus florida; feverwort, Triosteum perfoliatum; small magnolia, Magnolia glauca; stinking chamomile, Anthenis catula; checkerberry, Gaultheria procumbens; black alder, Prinos verticillatus; yaupon holly, Ilex vomitorium. Yet the one repeatedly published recipe in American newspapers from the 1780s to the 1830s used none of these common bitter plants. Furthermore, it had a curious set of features: water as a liquid base rather than alcohol; and calamus as the principle bitter agent, rather than gentian (the favorite old world bitter).

Common calamus. Source: Wikipedia.
Common calamus. Source: Wikipedia.

“Take the common meadow calamus, cut into small pieces, or rue, wormwood, and chamomile or centaury of hore-hound, or each two ounces, add to them a quart of spring-water, and take a wine glass full of it every morning fasting.” (1788) [“A Receipt for Bitters,” Carlisle Gazette (September 3, 1788), 3].

Calamus as the central ingredient of bitters became a peculiarly American choice. Even enormously famous British bitters formulae—Stoughton’s Bitters,a gentian and sour orange peel brew dating from the second quarter of the eighteenth century, would be transformed in the United States by the substitution of sweet flag for gentian. Here is the recipe for the transmuted American version of the Stoughton’s Bitters found in The Independent Liquorist.

½ pound wormwood

1 dozen canella bark

1 dozen cassia

1 dozen coriander

1 dozen grains of paradise

¾ dozen cardamoms

1 ¼ dozen chamomile flowers

4 dozen orange peel

½ dozen calamus

The ingredients were infused ten days in ten gallons of 20% spirits; “then take 60 gallons spirits proof and run it through a felt filter containing 9 pounds red sanders, after which you run the infusion through; then add one quart white syrup and 10 gallons water.” (p. 62).

If gentian was the hallmark of European Bitters, and the prime ingredient of Angostura Bitters (1822) , the preference for calamus was not universal in America. In that most European of American cities, New Orleans, tastes tended rather toward gentian. Peychaud Bitters (New Orleans 1830), the city’s historical cocktail concoction, made the taste central in its amalgamation of orange oil, caramel, oil of cloves, and maybe cinnamon oil to spirits. Some thought a synthesis of bittering agents—a formula using both gentian and calamus such as Seaman’s Bitters, doubled the tonic effects.

The non-alcoholic recipe calling for calamus, rue, wormwood and chamomile first appeared in the Pennsylvania newspapers toward the end of summer in 1788. In 1812 it appeared again in St. Louis. In 1826 it found its way into papers in South Carolina and was reprinted in state’s first cook book, The Carolina Receipt Book by “A Lady of Charleston” in 1832.

Why the firm retention of water as the base of the decoction, despite its comparatively modest capacity to volatilize? I suspect it may have to do with children as much as the rising popularity of temperance. Water based bitters can be administered to children without qualms about the effects of alcohol. The number of recipes devoted to stomach problems in household manuals cue the acute cultural concern for the digestive health of offspring.

Sources: “A Receipt for Bitters,” Carlisle Gazette (September 3, 1788), 3.

David Dennison & John Parker Whitwell, His Majesty’s Royal Letters Patent. Improved Jaundice Bitters (Boston, [1800-1813). Charles Julias Hempel, A New and Comprehensive System of Materia Medica and Therapeutics (New York: William Radde, 1865), 2: 570. L. Monzert, The Independent Liquorist (New York: Dick & Fitzgerald, 1866), 95.

David S Shields is the Carolina Distinguished Professor at the University of South Carolina and the Chair of the Carolina Gold Rice Foundation.  He publishes monographs in the fields of early American literature and culture, the history of photography, and Food Studies.

Revisiting He Bian’s Fetch Me at Pearl Nest Street: Rhubarb Pills as Panacea in Qing China

Today we revisit He Bian’s fascinating post from 2018. Here, He tells us about the global trade in Chinese rhubarb (dahuang) roots, panaceas and notions of difference in premodern theories of the body. Fascinated by this post and want to learn more about drugs in early modern China? You’re in luck as He’s monograph Know your Remedies: Pharmacy and Cultures in Early Modern China is now out with Princeton University Press. Have you ordered your copy? Elaine Leong


He Bian

In the late eighteenth century, American ginseng opened up a new niche market in Qing China. At the same time, Chinese rhubarb (dahuang) roots, harvested from the northwest regions of the empire, were transported by Chinese traders all the way to the southeast coast and sold off to foreign customers in Canton (Figure 1). Part of these transactions took place in the Ryukyu Kingdom (present-day Okinawa Islands), a vassal state of the Qing but also an important node of global trade that crisscrossed the West Pacific. At some point in 1789, the Qing court issued an edict to the Ryukyu king that explicitly forbade him from selling rhubarb to Russians, with whom the Qing was then engaging in an all-out trade war. Rhubarb featured prominently in the Qing strategy because they believed that Europeans imported so much of this drug that they could not live a day without it.[1]

Figure 1. Chinese or Turkish rhubarb (Rheum palmatum): flowering and fruiting stem with leaf. Coloured zincograph after M. A. Burnett, c. 1842. Credit: Wellcome Collection, https://wellcomecollection.org/works/cvty3qqk
Figure 1. Chinese or Turkish rhubarb (Rheum palmatum): flowering and fruiting stem with leaf. Coloured zincograph after M. A. Burnett, c. 1842. Credit: Wellcome Collection, https://wellcomecollection.org/works/cvty3qqk

Yet is it really true that pharmacological visions in early modern China and Europe were so different that they could not possibly reach a consensus over rhubarb’s properties ? Classical Chinese pharmaceutical literature listed rhubarb as a drug with a “very cold” nature, and generations of physicians were taught not to use the cold drug in curing cold-natured diseases. This suggested that Russians (and other Westerners, as seen in this post on rhubarb in early modern England) had different bodies than the Qing Chinese, as they depended on rhubarb as an all-round cure. Pharmacological theories, in other words, engendered a vision of difference that seemed insurmountable.

During my recent reading of Qing medical recipe books, however, I discovered that rhubarb in fact functioned as nothing short of a panacea for Qing Chinese. This is evident in the text Bianyong liangfang (Excellent Recipes for Expedient Use), which appeared in the Jiaqing reign (1796-1820). Compact (only 2-juan in length) and very nicely printed (with carved woodblocks), it arranges pills, powders, tinctures, and decoctions by symptom. The book has about 120 pages, and most recipes are merely a few lines in length. What surprised me was that one very long recipe at the end of the text takes up the entirety of 13 pages. The remedy in question, mi shou Qingning wan (Secretly transmitted pill of purity and tranquility), calls for “several dozen pounds” of good quality rhubarb roots as the principal ingredient. Rubbed clean and steeped in rice water, the rhubarb was sliced, sun-dried, processed with “ash-less good rice liquor” for three days, and then put through a lengthy, elaborate protocol of fifteen rounds of steaming. Each steam involved a different set of herbs. Finally, makers took the resultant rhubarb paste, mixed it with “yellow ox milk” (using cooked honey as substitute if there was no milk), boy’s urine, ginger juice, and rolled it into tiny pills. The recipe listed hundreds of common illnesses that could be treated with this pill, ranging from headache and hemorrhage to gynecological disorders.

Figure 2. Luo Benli ed. Bian yong liang fang. Vol. 2b, p. 50b. c. 1796-1820. Princeton University Library. Downloadable PDF available at http://pudl.princeton.edu/objects/fn107159v
Figure 2. Luo Benli ed. Bian yong liang fang. Vol. 2b, p. 50b. c. 1796-1820. Princeton University Library. Downloadable PDF available at http://pudl.princeton.edu/objects/fn107159v

I have tried to look up this recipe in earlier Chinese medical texts, and my preliminary findings suggest that it probably came into existence no earlier than the seventeenth century. It became wildly popular in the eighteenth century, and recipe books serve as evidence of its widespread consumption. On the last page of Bianyong liangfang (Figure 2), the compiler, Luo Benli, announced that he had a batch of rhubarb pills prepared during his tenure in Guizhou – a southwestern province of China – and that, in case of emergency, readers could “call upon my house on Pearl Nest Street” and look for the “residence of Mr. Luo of the Ministry of Defense (bingbu Luo zhai).” Pearl Nest Street (zhuchaojie), a neighborhood in Qing Beijing not far from the Forbidden City, featured prime real estate. As a military official who had served in the frontier provinces, Luo was less bound by medical norms of the day and possessed the financial and political capital to manufacture elaborate pills like these. Was there, in other words, a sub-culture of health and medication championed by military elites such as Luo, which stood distinct from classical prescriptions?

One last word about this recipe that hints at a hidden connection between different cultural realms in early modern China: Sun Xingyan (1753-1818), a prominent scholar who combed through medieval sources for fragments of ancient texts, published the same recipe for Pill of Purity and Tranquility in his scholarly series. The inclusion of this Qing text alongside ancient monographs so bewildered modern bibliographers that they mistakenly attributed the recipe’s author to a seventh-century figure. In fact, Sun Xingyan made it clear that it was a contemporary remedy and provided an elaborate scholarly argument to defend rhubarb’s all-around efficacy to cure both hot and cold-natured illnesses. He also suggested that “vulgar physicians” despised the pill because if everyone had access to this remedy then their businesses would be lost. Therefore it does appear that, when it comes to rhubarb, Qing Chinese scholars and military commanders were no less enthusiastic than what they imagined about the Russians.

[1] I recommend this excellent essay by Chang Che-Chia (translated by Penelope Barrett) for more on this curious episode.