Growing Up with Betel Nut

By Shaila Gupte

04 Betel Nuts 610-46 VFBetel nut (pronounced bet′-al) palm trees (Areca catechu) are grown in different parts of India, as well as elsewhere in South Asia and in China. Still, the betel nuts grown in Konkan—the coastal region south of Mumbai—are widely considered among the best quality.

My family owns a very small plantation, which is overseen by my brother, about 120 miles south of Mumbai. The various crops include betel nut (Areca catechu), coconut (Cocos nucifera), hapus mango (Mangifera indica ‘Alphonso’), 01 Betel Nuts 538 VFjackfruit (Artocarpus heterophyllus), pomelo (Citrus maxima), kokum (Garcinia indica), finger bananas (Musa acuminata Colla), soursop (Annona muricata), guava (Psidium guajav), chikoo (Manilkara zapota), various flowering shrubs, and vegetables. Out of all these, the major cash crop is betel nut, followed by coconut. In Konkan, a one-acre farm can support a family of four; vegetables and fruits grown on the farm are eaten, while extra items are sold. Grains and meat are purchased mostly with the money from the betel nut cash crop and also, to a much smaller extent, from coconut, fruits, and vegetables.

Betel trees can grow up to 50 feet in height and are slender and flexible, in contrast to coconut trees, which are very stout. The tree sprouts from a betel nut (with its green outer layer) planted about six inches deep in moist soil. The soil needs moisture until the first few leaves appear. The sapling is then transplanted to its permanent location in rows about 6 – 8 feet apart. After that, the soil needs to dry out between waterings. The most common and efficient irrigation is the drip system in which the water slowly soaks into the soil from soaker pipes at the base of the tree. The tree needs a year-round supply of water and grows best in full sun, though it can survive in partial shade. Usually, cow dung is 03 Betel Nuts 523 VFused as a fertilizer.

Betel nut fruits appear about 4 – 5 years after planting. Each fruit cycle takes about one year from when a small flower appears until the fruit is ready to harvest. When the fruit is ripe, the husk changes color to reddish brown. At that point, the fruit is cut off from the tree. Experienced betel tree climbers can bend the tree enough to jump from one tree to the other like monkeys. The ripe fruit is then dried in direct sunlight with the husk partially removed to speed drying. When completely dry, the fruit is “shucked,” leaving a hard tan colored nut the size of a walnut. The yield varies from 5 – 7 to 200 – 300 nuts per tree, depending on the tree’s age and growth conditions. In 2018, the wholesale price for the variety called “Shrivardan gota” was 200 – 300 rupees/kilo (about US $1.50-$2.50/lb). The price of betel nut has been dropping over the years as the production around the world increases.

Betel nut is eaten alone or in a paan. In most parts of India, paan is the most popular after-dinner mouth freshener. Paan is made with betel leaves from the Piper betle plant (closely related to black pepper, Piper nigrum), betel nut (Areca catechu), calcium hydroxide (slaked lime), catechu (an extract from acacia trees), cloves, cardamom, nutmeg, rose petal preserve, and other individualized ingredients. The betel nut contains the alkaloid arecoline, which is a habit forming substance similar to nicotine, with the side effect of cardiovascular constriction, among other health hazards. Paan5Despite this medical information, the belief is that eating paan helps digestion, especially after a heavy meal with meat. Some people put chewing tobacco in the paan for an extra kick. The saliva containing tobacco is not swallowed; it is spit out. (Note: Saliva causes a chemical reaction to take place between the betel leaf (Piper betle) and the lime, turning the saliva (and sometimes the consumer’s teeth) red. Because of this, one sees a lot of red colored street corners near the paan shops in India.) 

We had a shiny brass octagonal box for storing paan ingredients. My father ate 4 – 5 paans per day. My mother made paans for him in the morning and put them in a small silver box to take to work. When we were young, on Sundays after a heavy mid-day meal, we would buy paan from the paan shop with added ingredients to our liking, eat them, and stick our tongues out to see whose tongue was the reddest!

02 Shaila and Prakash with Betel Nuts 607 VFBetel nut is a sacred fruit for most Hindu religious ceremonies. It can substitute for deities or can be used as an offering. Some Hindu rituals are to be performed by a couple. In such cases, if the man doing the ritual is widowed, the betel nut can be used in place of the wife. Traditional wedding invitations are started by giving betel nut to the invitees. Paradoxically, betel nuts are also a symbol of a commitment for an evil deal between criminals.

Without a doubt, the betel nut contributes mightily to both commerce and religion in Maharashtra, the state in central India where Mumbai is located and where I am from.

Photo Credits: All photos courtesy of Stefan Kaben Images, except paan (Media India Group).

Medicinal Disclaimer: It is the policy of The Herb Society of America, Inc. not to advise or recommend herbs for medicinal or health use. This information is intended for educational purposes only and should not be considered as a recommendation or an endorsement of any particular medical or health treatment. Please consult a health care provider before pursuing any herbal treatments.


Shaila Gupte grew up in Mumbai, India. She came to the United States to study and now considers Maryland home. She is a gardening and greenhouse volunteer in the National Herb Garden at the U.S. National Arboretum in Washington, D.C., and is a Master Gardener. When not at the Arboretum, she likes to grow vegetables of Indian origin.

Chervil – Herb of the Month

by Maryann Readal

chervil plantChervil, Anthriscus cerefolium, is similar to parsley but has a milder, anise flavor. It is sometimes called French parsley or garden parsley. The Romans named it cherifoliu, the ‘cheri’ part meaning delight and the ‘folium’ part meaning leaves—the joy of leaves.

Chervil is important in French cuisine, where it is an ingredient in classic sauces such as béarnaise and ravigote. These sauces pair well with fish, veal, or chicken. Along with parsley, chives, and tarragon, chervil is in the French herb combination, herbes fines. Chervil is better used fresh as it loses its flavor when dried. It should be added at the end of cooking to get the most out of its flavor. It is a good addition to omelets and salads and can be sprinkled over fresh fruit. Chervil makes a flavorful and colorful butter. The leaves and flowers can be used to flavor vinegar.

Chervil is an annual herb that prefers moist earth and the coolness of spring. In warmer areas, it will be a winter herb. It produces long, dark brown seeds that easily germinate, and the plant can reseed. Because of its taproot, however, chervil does not transplant well. It is recommended to sow successive plantings to have a continuous supply of the herb. You just about have to grow chervil yourself if you want to use it in your cooking because it is not an herb commonly found in the fresh herb section of your supermarket. You would more likely find it in a farmer’s market.chervil seed - wikimedia commons 

Chervil is in the Apiaceae family, the same family as carrots, parsley, and dill. It has the same feathery green foliage as the other members of this family, and these lacey leaves are the prized part of this herb. The plant produces flower stalks that can grow to about two feet and are topped with umbels of tiny, white flowers. Gardeners use chervil to bait slugs so that they do not bother their vegetables. 

Chervil is native to the Caucasus region of Europe and Asia. It has been used for food as well as for medicine for a very long time. It was considered a warm herb by early herbalists and was used in medicinal applications for that reason. The ancient Greeks used chervil to create healing spring tonics and herbalists used it to cure digestive problems. Many early herbalists wrote about chervil. Pliny the Elder (23-79 CE) said that the seed in vinegar would stop hiccups. He and Nicolas Culpeper, a 17th-century herbalist, believed that, as Culpeper put it “[it] does much to please and warm old and cold stomach.” chervilDuring the Middle Ages, chervil was used to treat eye inflammations, smooth skin wrinkles, combat the plague, and treat blood clots. John Parkinson (1567-1650), a British botanist and herbalist, recommended that the green seeds be added to herb salads dressed with oil and vinegar “to comfort the cold stomach of the aged.” In the same period, John Gerard (1545-1612), a botanist and herbalist, wrote that the roots, “first boiled; which is very good for old people that are dull and without courage: it rejoiceth and comforteth the heart, and increaseth their lust and strength.” Chervil seems to have been an herb used for the elderly, as both a tonic and to boost brain health. Chervil was also used as a blood purifier, a diuretic, and to lower blood pressure (Chevallier, 2000).

Not much modern research has been done on the medicinal effects of chervil. However, a recent report in the journal Pharmaceuticals concludes that chervil holds promise for use in anti-cancer and antimicrobial treatments (Stojković, 2021).

In the practice of some earth religions, chervil is considered to be the herb of immortality. It is believed that when used as incense, it can help bring one in touch with one’s higher self and inner spirit. 

magi-myrrhIt is thought that the Romans brought chervil to France and England. It was one of the nine sacred herbs of the Anglo-Saxons of early England. The use of chervil has roots in early Christianity. The Romans called this herb ‘myrrhis’ because the smell and taste of the essential oil were reminiscent of the oil of myrrh, which was one of the gifts brought by the Maji to the Christ child in Bethlehem. Because of this, early Christians believed that chervil symbolized birth and new life. 

It is the custom in some European countries today to serve chervil soup on Holy (Maundy) Thursday. The Germans serve chervil soup on Holy Thursday, or as they call it, Gründonnerstag (Green Thursday), although it is thought that the word grün is derived from the word greinen, which means to weep, giving added significance to why the soup is served on Holy Thursday.

German Chervil Soup

4 hard-boiled eggs

2 bunches of chervil

2 spring onions

1 tablespoon butter

13-1/2 fluid oz. chicken stock 

8-1/2 fluid oz. cream 

1/2 cup crème fraiche

salt and freshly ground pepper

1 pinch sugar

1 teaspoon lemon juice

2 egg yolks beaten

Wash and dry the chervil, remove stems and chop finely, reserving a few stems for garnish.   Wash and slice the spring onions. Lightly fry the spring onions in the butter, then add the broth, cream, and crème fraiche and allow to come to the boil briefly. Season with salt, pepper, sugar, and lemon juice. Add the chopped chervil and keep warm without allowing the soup to boil.

Whisk in the egg yolks into the slightly cooled soup. Pour the soup into individual dishes.

Slice the hard boiled eggs and place them in the center of the soup. Sprinkle remaining chervil over the soup and serve.

(Recipe from German Foods https://germanfoods.org/recipes/chervil-soup/)

 

For more information and recipes using chervil, visit The Herb Society of America’s Herb of the Month web page, https://www.herbsociety.org/hsa-learn/herb-of-the-month.html

Photo Credits: 1) Chervil plant (Maryann Readal); 2) Chervil seed (Elric04, Creative Commons License); 3) Chervil flowers (CC BY-SA 3.0, Creative Commons License); 4) Adoration of the Magi by Bernardino Luini (Dennis Jarvis, Creative Commons License) (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/deed.en)

References

Behr, Edward. 1986. Chervil: One of the best and least appreciated herbs. Available at https://artofeating.com/chervil/. Accessed March 15, 2021.

Chevallier, Andrew. 2000. Encyclopedia of herbal medicine. London, Dorling Kindersley.

Crocker, Pat. 2018. Herbalist’s kitchen: Cooking and healing with herbs. New York: Sterling Epicure.

Gordon, Leslie. 1980. A country herbal. New York: W. H. Smith.

Hayes, Elizabeth.1961. Spices and herbs around the world. New York: Doubleday.

Stojković, Dejan et at. Jan 2021. Extract of herba Anthrisci cerefolii: Chemical profiling and insights into its anti-glioblastoma and antimicrobial mechanism of actions. Pharmaceuticals. 14 (1). Available from EBSCOhost. Accessed March 16, 2021.

Vyas, A. et al. 2012. Chervil: a multifunctional miraculous nutritional herb. Asian Journal of Plant Sciences, 11 (4): 163-170. Available from EBSCOhost. Accessed March 12, 2021.

Medicinal Disclaimer: It is the policy of The Herb Society of America, Inc. not to advise or recommend herbs for medicinal or health use. This information is intended for educational purposes only and should not be considered as a recommendation or an endorsement of any particular medical or health treatment. Please consult a health care provider before pursuing any herbal treatments.


Maryann is the Secretary of The Herb Society of America and a Texas Master Gardener. She is a member of The Society’s Texas Thyme Unit in Huntsville, TX. She gardens among the pines in the Piney Woods of East Texas.

Exploring Vanilla in the Rainforest and in the Kitchen: Part II

By Susan Belsinger

(Adapted from her article, “Exploring Rainforest Spices at Villa Vanilla,” featured in the 2019 issue of The Herbarist, the annual journal of The Herb Society of America.)

“Plain vanilla is very much like that little black cocktail dress—always welcome, simply chic, so quietly dramatic.”

                —Lisa Yockelson, from Baking by Flavor

Vanilla in the Kitchen

P1110888Although I am a chocolate lover, I have always adored the fragrance of vanilla. More than once as a child, I tasted vanilla extract straight from the bottle—knowing full well that I wouldn’t like it—I just could not resist, because it always smelled so good.   

Back in my early adult years—and the beginning of my lifetime association with natural foods, herbs, and spices—I used vanilla beyond the kitchen. I found the aroma alluring, so why not use it like perfume? I would dab it behind my ears and on my pulse points. Occasionally, I would sprinkle cinnamon or nutmeg on my hands and run them through my hair. Ah, the innocence of youth—here I thought I smelled exotic and delicious (vanilla is known as an aphrodisiac)—and most people probably thought I smelled like a cinnamon bun!

The fragrance of pure vanilla extract and the essential oil is at once exotic, tropical, warm, and sensual—a combination of flowery and resinous, with a slight hint of bitterness. Due to its enticing scent, one would think it tastes sweet and flowery, but that is not the case. We associate vanilla as being sweet because it is used in every type of confection and sweet food from cereals, buns, and cakes to cookies, ice creams, and, of course, chocolate. Some vanilla beans have that exotic flowery scent, while others smell like bitter chocolate, winey, or even slightly smoky. I think they taste fruity—rather raisin-like—sometimes flowery, smooth, and slightly sweet and resinous.

P1110219Vanilla is everywhere today—we seem to take it for granted—and it isn’t just plain old vanilla anymore. It partners with many other flavors—not just desserts—but drinks, soups, sauces, and rice dishes; with seafood, from lobster with vanilla butter to seafood salad; as a glaze for poultry and pork; in barbecue sauces and in condiments from vinaigrettes to mustard…even mashed potatoes! It makes chocolate seductive, and works well with spices—cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, ginger—while subtly enhancing just about any baked good. It complements dairy products, coffee, and tea and brightens any fresh fruit bowl or cooked compote. Generally, vanilla highlights most foods without being too forward or overbearing.

Vanilla Products

Vanilla comes in many forms. Although vanilla pods are the source for pure vanilla extract, they aren’t commonly used by the home cook as often as the extract is used. The following list of vanilla products should help you know your beans better:

Whole Vanilla Beans 

The largest producers of Vanilla planifolia are Madagascar and Mexico, and they are renowned for growing and curing the world’s best beans. Tahitian vanilla beans, V. tahitensis, are known for their intense perfume, though they are said to be less flavorful. When purchasing whole beans, they should smell fragrant, should be a dark chocolate brown, and somewhat pliable rather than hard and dried. Store them in a tightly closed jar in a cool dark place away from light, and they should last a few years. Do not freeze or refrigerate.

Pure Vanilla Extract

To extract the flavor from vanilla beans, alcohol must be used. It is usually done with a menstruum of alcohol and water (rather like making a tincture). An extract must be 35% alcohol—the label should read “Pure Vanilla Extract.” If it is less than this, it is considered a flavoring. Read your labels: imitation vanilla is often made from artificial vanillin rather than natural vanillin, which is usually synthetically made and is a by-product of the paper industry. Mexican vanilla extract can be very good if it is pure, but beware of inexpensive extracts; it should alert you to the fact that it is probably synthetic.

Vanilla Bean PasteVanilla bean paste

This thick brown paste is made from pure vanilla extract, vanilla bean seeds, sugar, water, and a natural thickener, gum tragacanth. The label states equivalents of 1 tablespoon of vanilla bean paste equals 1 vanilla bean or 1 tablespoon of pure vanilla extract. It is sweeter than vanilla extract and much thicker but can be used anywhere you would use vanilla extract. I use it in all kinds of baked goods from muffins and cakes to cookies and bars. It elevates oatmeal to another level when combined with fresh sliced peaches or dried blueberries or cherries and maple syrup.

Pure Vanilla Powder

This fine-textured powder is made from vanilla bean extractives and maltodextrin and is alcohol-free; it can be used in place of vanilla extract. Upon tasting it, it is slightly sweet and leaves a residue on the tongue. It can be used for dry mixtures and liquid- or color-sensitive products. You can sprinkle it on fruit or in your coffee, tea, or cocoa. I have used it in whipping cream, buttercream, and angel food cake. 

Vanilla Sugar

Vanilla sugar has been made for centuries by placing a vanilla bean in sugar to give it a lovely vanilla perfume and flavor. Nowadays, vanilla sugar can be purchased commercially, but you can easily make your own. 

For those willing to venture out from the grocery store offerings, below are some easy-to-make vanilla staple recipes.

Vanilla Bean Syrup

When I was a kid my favorite snowball flavor was Egg Custard. I could never figure out why it was called that—it tasted like vanilla to me. This syrup reminds me of that egg custard flavor. In fact, try it over shaved ice for a snowball. It also makes an excellent vanilla bean soda when mixed with sparkling water or served over ice cream for a vanilla ice cream soda. Use it with coffee to make a vanilla latte or as a sweetener in your hot or iced tea. It can be used in fruit salads, or drizzled over baked goods warm from the oven, like pound cake, scones, breads, or muffins. My kids used to object to the aesthetics of the little black seeds—I rather like them— so if they bother you, strain the syrup through fine cheesecloth or muslin to remove them. This can be made with maple syrup instead of sugar; however, the maple flavor will dominate.

(Makes a little more than 2 cups)

1 cup organic sugar

1 1/2 cups water

1 vanilla bean

Split the vanilla bean lengthwise and cut it into thirds crosswise.  

Combine the sugar and water in a heavy-bottomed pan and place over medium heat. Bring to a boil, add the vanilla bean pieces, and stir. Reduce heat, cover, and barely simmer for about 5 minutes. Remove from heat and let cool, covered.  

Remove vanilla bean and reserve the pieces—they can be dried and used to make vanilla sugar. Pour the syrup into a bottle or jar and label. It will keep in the refrigerator for one month or can be frozen for about six months. 

Homemade Vanilla Extract

Most pure vanilla extract is about 35% alcohol and contains water, sugar, and vanilla bean extractives. It is pretty easy to make your own version. It won’t taste just like the commercial brands—it probably won’t be quite as intense in vanilla flavor, but I find it very satisfactory. Vodka will allow the most vanilla bean flavor to come through. However, I often make mine with brandy or rum because I like the flavor of them. Remember, you only use 1 to 2 teaspoons in a recipe, so a little goes a long way. Try experimenting to see what you like best.  

(Makes about 1 cup or an 8-ounce bottle, or halve the recipe for a smaller amount.)

P11101942 or 3 vanilla beans

8 ounces of vodka, rum, or brandy

Cut the vanilla beans in half crosswise and then in half lengthwise. Put them into a clean, dark glass, 8-ounce bottle. (I save my old vanilla extract bottles for this purpose.) Using a funnel, pour the alcohol into the bottle. Cap the bottle and shake for a minute or two. Label and date the bottle. Place in a cool place out of direct light.  

The extract should be shaken once a day, at least for the first week. I do it whenever I go into the pantry and think about it. I usually uncap it and take a whiff—it is a form of kitchen aromatherapy for me, the wealth of the cook. You can use it after a week, but it is best after three or four weeks and gets better as it ages.

The longer it sits, the more intense the flavor. While commercial vanilla extract has the beans removed, I leave the beans in the bottle and as I use the extract, I top it off with more alcohol. Occasionally, I add another bean.

Vanilla Vinegar

Once you have this on hand, you will begin to use it in many dishes, and you will wonder why you never had it before. I use organic apple cider, umeboshi plum, rice wine, or white wine vinegar, which are naturally made and good tasting. Do not make this with distilled vinegar. I often make fresh fruited vanilla vinegars, with peach or raspberry being my favorites. (Add 1 whole, ripe peach, peeled and sliced, or 1-pint raspberries to the jar when combining the vinegar and vanilla bean, and let macerate for at least three to four weeks. Strain, if desired.) I use vanilla-flavored vinegar in small amounts in vinaigrettes, dressings, fruit and vegetable salads, and sauces. I particularly love what it does to Waldorf salad.

(Makes 1 pint)

1 pint good-quality vinegar, preferably organic

1 whole vanilla bean

Cut the vanilla bean in half crosswise and then in half lengthwise. Put the pieces into a clean, 1-pint bottle. (I save used vinegar or soy sauce bottles for this purpose.) Using a funnel, pour the vinegar into the bottle. Cap the bottle and shake for a minute or two. Label and date the bottle. I leave the bottle on the kitchen counter for about two weeks and shake it every day, twice a day. You can use it after a week, but it is best after 3 or 4 weeks.  

The longer it sits, the better the flavor. As the vinegar gets used up, I top it off with a little more vinegar. I also add pieces of dried vanilla bean that I have already used.

Preparing Vanilla-Scented Sugar

Scented sugars can easily be made the same way that the Europeans have been making vanilla sugar for years. Placing a vanilla bean in a pint jar of sugar transforms the sugar into a pleasing, fragrant addition to beverages, cakes, cookies, custards, whipping cream, and all sorts of sweets. Sprinkle a little on fruit and toss it, or stir some into your tea or coffee cup. If you do a lot of baking, make this in larger quantities—say a quart or half-gallon jar— as you will find that you use it often.

(Makes 2 cups)vanilla-2519484_1920

About 2 cups organic sugar

1 vanilla bean, cut into 3 or 4 pieces

To prepare scented sugar, use a clean pint jar with a tight-fitting lid. Fill the jar about one-third full with sugar, and place one or two pieces of vanilla bean in the sugar. Cover the vanilla bean with additional sugar so that the jar is two-thirds full, add another piece or two, and cover with sugar to fill the jar, leaving about 1/2-inch headspace. Shake the jar and place on a shelf in a cool, dark place.  

The sugar will be ready to use in two to three weeks and will become more flavorful with age. As the sugar is consumed, add more plain sugar to take its place and it will take on the fragrance in the jar. I also add dried pieces of vanilla beans that I have already used for another purpose.

Since vanilla beans contain moisture, the sugar will absorb some of it and perhaps cake together, or even harden. If this happens, just use firm pressure to crumble it with either your hands or the back of a wooden spoon.

Hot Vanilla Milk

Make this milk when you can’t sleep and cocoa might keep you awake, or for those rare individuals who don’t like the flavor of chocolate. You can use sugar to sweeten, but I really like the maple syrup best; go light on the sweetener as you hardly need any. If you don’t have vanilla bean paste, use a generous teaspoon pure vanilla extract and 1 1/2 teaspoons sweetener, or add 2 tablespoons of Vanilla Syrup.

(Makes 1 cup, easily doubled)

1 cup milk (whole, 1 or 2 %, or oat or almond milk)

1 teaspoon vanilla bean paste

1 teaspoon pure maple syrup or organic sugar

In a small saucepan, bring the milk almost to a simmer over medium low heat. Stir in the vanilla bean paste and sweetener and blend until it is dissolved. If you are using extract, remove the warmed milk from the heat and add the extract and sweetener; stir to dissolve. 

Taste the milk—if you have a sweet tooth, you may want to add another teaspoon of sweetener. Pour the vanilla milk into a mug. Inhale the vanilla aroma before you take your first sip. Relax and enjoy. 

Vanilla Butter Cookies with Cacao Nibs

This is a simple butter cookie recipe (from not just desserts—sweet herbal recipes), though instead of using herbs, cacao bean nibs are added. They are further enhanced by using vanilla bean sugar as well as pure vanilla extract; the vanilla compliments the flavor of cacao. These cookies keep well in a tin for a week or two, and they also freeze well.

(Makes about 5 dozen cookies)

12 tablespoons unsalted butter, softenedcocoa nibs

1 cup vanilla bean sugar

1 extra-large egg

1 1/2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract

1 cup unbleached white flour

1 cup whole-wheat pastry flour

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 cup cacao nibs

In the bowl of a food processor, cream the butter and sugar. When combined, beat in the egg and vanilla extract. Gradually mix in the flour and salt. Add cacao nibs and pulse just to combine. 

The dough will be soft. Divide the dough into two parts. Using plastic wrap to shape the dough, roll each part into a cylinder about 1 1/2-inches in diameter. Chill the rolls for an hour, or place in the freezer for 20 to 30 minutes.      

Preheat the oven to 350°F. Remove the plastic wrap, and slice the dough into 1/4-inch rounds. Place the cookies on ungreased baking sheets, and bake for about 10 minutes until the cookies are nice and brown.  Remove the cookies from the baking sheets while they are hot and cool on racks.

Photo Credits: 1) Author overlooking Costa Rican forest (S. Belsinger); 2) Vanilla products (S. Belsinger); 3) Vanilla bean paste (C. Moore); 4) Bundle of dried vanilla pods (S. Belsinger); 5) Vanilla bean sugar (Pixaby); 6) Cocoa nibs (C. Moore).

References/Resources

Here is a link to a BBC article about vanilla grown in other parts of the world—you’ll see why it is so expensive and actually how dangerous it can be to cultivate this valuable crop nowadays. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/resources/idt-sh/madagascar_vanillla

Conversation with Matthew Day for assistance reconstructing vanilla bean harvesting and curing information in Costa Rica. 

Belsinger, Susan. 2005. not just desserts—sweet herbal recipes. Brookeville, Maryland: Herbspirit.

Gargiullo, Margaret, Magnuson, Barbara and Kimball, Larry. 2008. A Field Guide to Plants of Costa Rica. Zona Tropical Publications.

Laws, Bill. 2010. Fifty Plants that Changed the Course of History. Buffalo, New York: Firefly Books. 

Rain, Patricia. 2004. Vanilla: The Cultural History of the World’s Most Popular Flavor and Fragrance. New York: Philip Lief Group, Inc.

https://www.vanillaqueen.com

https://www.rainforestspices.com/farm-tour/

https://www.rainforestspices.com/learn-about-vanilla/

http://www.srl.caltech.edu/personnel/krubal/rainforest/Edit560s6/www/plants/epiphytes.html


1-Susan BelsingerSusan Belsinger lives an herbal life, whether she is gardening, foraging, herborizing, photographing, teaching, researching, writing or creating herbal recipes for the kitchen or apothecary—she is passionate about all things herbal. Referred to as a “flavor artist”, Susan delights in kitchen alchemy—the blending of harmonious foods, herbs, and spices—to create real, delicious food, as well as libations, that nourish our bodies and spirits and titillate our senses. There is nothing she likes better than an herbal adventure, whether it’s a wild weed walk, herb conference, visiting gardens or cultivating her own, or the sensory experience of herbs through touch, smell, taste and sight.

Susan is a member of the Potomac and the Ozark Units of the Herb Society of America and served as Honorary President (2018 to 2020). Her latest publication Growing Your Own Herbs: The 40 Best Culinary Varieties for Home Gardens (2019, Timber Press) co-authored by Susan Belsinger and Arthur O. Tucker—is a revised, concise version for gardeners and cooks—of The Culinary Herbal: Growing & Preserving 97 Flavorful Herbs (2016). Currently, she is working on a book about flavor to be published in 2021. After blogging for Taunton Press’ www.vegetablegardener.com for the past eight years, those blogs (over 484 to be exact) are now posted at https://www.finegardening.com/?s=susan%20belsinger. To order books, go to susanbelsinger.com

Exploring Vanilla in the Rainforest and in the Kitchen: Part I

By Susan Belsinger

(Adapted from her article, “Exploring Rainforest Spices at Villa Vanilla,” featured in the 2019 issue of The Herbarist, the annual journal of The Herb Society of America.)

Vanilla in the Rainforest

P1110204Before going to Costa Rica, I researched gardens, restaurants, herbs, spices, botanicals and the rainforest—places where I wanted to go, see, and experience. Once I visited Villa Vanilla’s website, https://www.rainforestspices.com/, I knew that I had to go there. I made reservations for the farm tour in advance. It was one of my favorite things in Costa Rica—I loved seeing the tropical spice plants up close and personal—and I got to smell and taste so many things, which was a memorable sensory experience! 

During the half day Spice Plantation Tour, visitors experience the sights, tastes, and aromas of vanilla, cinnamon, pepper, and other tropical spices, essential oil plants, and a wide variety of tropical ornamental P1110256plants. The tour begins and ends at the post-harvest warehouse, where my eyes feasted on the spectacle of the ground covered with burlap sacks, which were spread with vanilla beans in various stages of fermentation and curing, and my nose filled with the delightfully overwhelming perfume of vanilla.

Vanilla is the main crop that is cultivated on this farm, with Ceylon cinnamon as a secondary crop. However, they also cultivate cacao, pepper, allspice, cloves, nutmeg, chiles, turmeric, cardamom, ginger (mostly ornamental), and a large number of epiphytes. 

On our tour, we sampled delicious treats made by the chef, who used the farm’s spices to titillate our taste buds. To cool off, we first had a glass of chilled hibiscus infusion while gazing out at the tropical paradise. The next sample was a lovely, smooth vanilla bean custard, not too sweet, with a creamy, melt-in-your-mouth texture. We were served a demitasse of hot chocolate flavored with a hint of cinnamon and chile accompanied by a crunchy, vanilla shortbread P1070032cookie speckled with cacao nibs. And the grand finale was a scoop of homemade vanilla bean ice cream made with farm fresh milk and cream from the farm’s own dairy cow. 

After visiting the Spice Shoppe, we walked back to the small warehouse where we were able to view different spices in various stages of drying. Our guide described and showed us some of the processes of harvesting and processing both vanilla and cacao pods, and we saw Ceylon cinnamon being barked. 

We learned about the process of the vanilla bean from harvest to cured, saleable bean. Once the plant has produced the green pods, they swell as they mature. When they are ready to harvest, they pull off easily from P1110195the stem. Green pods are placed in a large, clear plastic bag, which begins the fermentation process. Then they are laid outdoors in the sun every morning for four hours. Next, they are placed in insulated boxes while they are still warm from the sun and brought inside the warehouse for twenty hours. This is repeated every day for about three to four days. This process of sweating the beans in the sun makes a superior fermented end-product. (In other parts of the world, green beans are dropped in boiling water rather than curing in the sun.) After a week, the pods have turned brown, and they are removed from the plastic bags and spread out on burlap sacks. The four hours of sun/twenty hours in the dark process is continued for another three to four weeks until the pods have begun P1110187to shrivel and have lost about 80% of their original weight. Then they are left to cure—and this time varies among farmers—from nine months to two years. Villa Vanilla cures their beans for two years for best flavor and quality.

After curing, the beans are graded and separated according to size—there are about four sizes from thin to medium to large and extra-large. An extra-large bean is something to behold indeed! They are magnificent, thick and plump and slightly moist, bursting with the mouthwatering and intoxicating, inimitable scent of vanilla. 

Vanilla’s Aromatic Pedigree

The vanilla plant is a tropical vine that can reach a length of over one hundred feet. It belongs to one of the oldest and largest groups of flowering plants—the orchids (Orchidaceae)—currently known to contain more than twenty-five thousand species and counting. Of all the orchids, the Vanilla genus is the only one that produces an agriculturally valuable crop separate from the rare, hothouse exotic orchids cultivated and traded for their beautiful, colorful flowers. The vanilla orchid has its own appeal: a fruit with a scent so unique, so distinctive to the human palate that it was once worth its weight in silver.

vanilla-flower-542019_1920The vanilla orchid’s flower is not showy; it has only a slight scent with no element of vanilla flavor or aroma. When its pale-yellow flowers are pollinated, the ovaries swell and develop into the fruits we call “pods” or “beans,” just like extra-long green beans. Pollination in the wild is very iffy, so most growers hand pollinate to ensure a viable crop. This is very labor intensive and has to be done when the flower is just open, which is a very brief window of time–literally a few hours on a single day. Each pod contains tens of thousands of tiny black seeds. The growing process lasts up to nine months, but only when the pods turn brown after being dried and cured do they develop the distinctive aroma we call “vanilla.” Drying, curing, and conditioning the pods is an art, which, if done properly, takes at least another nine months. Understandably, vanilla is one of the most labor-intensive agricultural products in the world. 

P1070023There are more than a hundred different species of vanilla orchid, and they grow all over the tropics with the exception of Australia. All of the vanilla orchids produce fruits containing seeds, but only a few species bear the large aromatic pods that can be used commercially. Virtually all of the cultivated vanilla in the world today comes from just one species, Vanilla planifolia (sometimes called Vanilla fragrans), a plant indigenous to Central America, and particularly the south-eastern part of Mexico. At least two other species, V. pompona and V. tahitensis, also provide a serviceable culinary pod, although they are not as readily obtainable, and they produce a different flavor and aroma to the V. planifolia

Stay tuned for Vanilla Part II, including recipes from Susan, coming 8 March, 2021!

Photo Credits: 1) Villa Vanilla poster; 2) Drying vanilla beans on burlap sacks; 3) Vanilla custard; 4) Green, unripe vanilla pods; 5) Dried vanilla pods; 6) Vanilla flowers; 7) Vanilla vine. All photos courtesy of the author, except 6) (Pixaby).


1-Susan Belsinger

Susan Belsinger lives an herbal life, whether she is gardening, foraging, herborizing, photographing, teaching, researching, writing or creating herbal recipes for the kitchen or apothecary—she is passionate about all things herbal. Referred to as a “flavor artist”, Susan delights in kitchen alchemy—the blending of harmonious foods, herbs, and spices—to create real, delicious food, as well as libations, that nourish our bodies and spirits and titillate our senses. There is nothing she likes better than an herbal adventure, whether it’s a wild weed walk, herb conference, visiting gardens or cultivating her own, or the sensory experience of herbs through touch, smell, taste and sight.

Susan is a member of the Potomac and the Ozark Units of the Herb Society of America and served as Honorary President (2018 to 2020). Her latest publication Growing Your Own Herbs: The 40 Best Culinary Varieties for Home Gardens (2019, Timber Press) co-authored by Susan Belsinger and Arthur O. Tucker—is a revised, concise version for gardeners and cooks—of The Culinary Herbal: Growing & Preserving 97 Flavorful Herbs (2016). Currently, she is working on a book about flavor to be published in 2021. After blogging for Taunton Press’ www.vegetablegardener.com for the past eight years, those blogs (over 484 to be exact) are now posted at https://www.finegardening.com/?s=susan%20belsinger. To order books, go to susanbelsinger.com

Pink Peppercorn – Herb of the Month

The Peppercorn That is Not a Pepper
by Maryann Readal

The pink peppercorns that are found in the colorful mix used in clear pepper mills are not the true pepper of the Piper nigrum vine. These rosy colored berries are from the peppercorn tree, Schinus molle. The dried pink peppercorns do have a slight peppery, resinous taste and add color and sparkle when ground over any light-colored dish. Their milder flavor also makes them suitable for use in pasta and some dessert dishes like ice pink peppercorncream and fruit, or sprinkled over a cheese board.

The peppercorn tree is native to Peru and is also called the Peruvian or California peppertree. This drought resistant tree is evergreen and can be grown in warm parts of the United States, Africa, India, Australia, and New Zealand. In fact, it has naturalized in some areas outside of Peru, and is considered invasive in some places. It is confused with its close cousin, the  Brazilian peppertree, Schinus terebinthifolius, which grows in Brazil and other subtropical parts of the world.

Archaeological findings show that the tree was used in daily life in the Peruvian Wari Empire (600-1100 CE), an empire that predated the Incas. Harvesting of the berries was a communal event. The berries, leaves, bark, and roots of the tree were used in medicine, as a yellow dye, and in embalming. The dried seeds were used as fire starters. The primary use of the berries was for making the fermented drink chicha de molle, which was similar to beer. Later, Spanish explorers cleared large tracts of the peppertree and used the wood to make wagon wheels and fence posts.

pink peppercorn tree Forest & Kim StarrThe peppercorn tree has been grown in California for over 200 years. It is one of the iconic trees in the Southern California landscape, where the trees have lined many famous boulevards. It was brought to California by Jesuit priests who had traveled to South America and brought back the tree and planted it in missions. In fact, a peppercorn tree in Orange County, CA, is listed in the National Registry of Champion Trees in the U.S. with a circumference of 367 inches. The graceful, hanging branches of the tree are a desirable feature, as well as the pink-to-red berries that are harvested in the fall. According to American Forests, “the tree is critical to the ecosystem because it provides food and shelter for wildlife, purifies water, and reduces CO2 in the atmosphere.” The tree is dioecious, meaning that a female and a male tree are needed to produce berries. It has fallen out of favor in California because it attracts a black scale that is harmful to citrus.

Several breweries have attempted to recreate the authentic chicha de molle fermented drink of ancient Peru.  Chicago brewer, Off Color Brewing, offers it as Wari beer. Brewers there worked with Chicago’s Field Museum researchers who discovered the remains of an ancient Wari brewery in Peru. The Dogfish Head Craft Brewery also brewed a craft beer using Schinus molle berries and purple Peruvian corn. Their recipe followed the ancient method of chicha makers who first chewed the corn and then spat it out and dried it. Don’t worry, the beer was then boiled before fermentation.

peppercorn beer mugThe Peruvian peppertree is not without controversy. In 1982, The US Food and Drug Administration banned import of the berries from France’s Réunion Islands because allergic reactions to the berries were reported. France objected because the berries were a major cash crop for the islands. They presented research showing that their berries were safe. However, it was noted that the tree was in the cashew and sumac family (Anacardiaceae), and anyone who is sensitive to these plants could have a reaction when eating the peppertree berries. It was determined that the Peruvian Schinus molle berries had a slightly different chemical content because of where the tree was grown and the berries were safer to eat. Restaurateurs who had hailed the pink peppercorn as “the spice of the 80s” were happy.  The berries of Schinus molle do have the FDA’s GRAS status (Generally Recognized as Safe).

Indigenous people all around the world have found uses for the leaves, bark, berries, and roots of the Schinus molle tree. Some of these uses continue today.

  • A tea is made from the leaves in some African countries to treat respiratory problems.
  • Ethiopians use the leaves to repel houseflies.
  • A fumigant made from the essential oil has been found effective against bedbugs.
  • Extracts of the leaves and fruit have been found effective against some types of bacteria and against leukemia cells.
  • In New Zealand, the tree is the host plant for the giant gum emperor moth caterpillar.pepper corn Male_Emperor_Gum_Moth
  • In Mexico, a fermented drink called copalocle is made from the berries.
  • Fresh, green leaves were used in traditional cleansing and blessing ceremonies in Central America.
  • In Peru, the sap is used as a mild laxative and a diuretic, and the entire plant is used for fractures and as a topical antiseptic. The oleoresin is used externally as a vulnerary (wound healer), styptic (stops bleeding), and for toothaches, and it is taken internally for rheumatism and as a purgative.
  • Other traditional medicinal uses of the tree include using it as an astringent, diuretic, and expectorant. The ailments it is known to treat include menstrual disorders, bronchitis, gingivitis, gonorrhea, gout, tuberculosis, tumors, ulcers, urethritis, warts, wounds, and urogenital and venereal diseases.

The pink peppercorn is The Herb Society of America’s Herb of the Month for February. For more information on Peruvian peppercorns, please visit The Herb Society of America’s Herb of the Month webpage. https://www.herbsociety.org/hsa-learn/herb-of-the-month.html

Photo Credits: 1) Pink peppercorn leaf and berries (Creative Commons); 2) Pink peppercorn tree (Forest and Kim Starr via Wikimedia Commons); 3) Wari Empire Kero chicha de molle mug (National Academy of Sciences of the United States Proceedings 11/25/05); 4) Giant emperor gum moth (Creative Commons)

References

American Forests. Champion Tree National Tree Register: Peppertree.  Sept. 15, 2016. https://www.americanforests.org/big-trees/peppertree-schinus-molle-2/  Accessed 14 Jan 2021.

Ewbank, Anne. “When people panicked over pink peppercorns.” https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/are-pink-peppercorns-poisonous September 18, 2018. Accessed 14 Jan. 2021.

Health Benefits Times. “ Know about the California Peppertree.” https://www.healthbenefitstimes.com/california-pepper-tree  Accessed 14 Jan. 2021.

Masters, Nathan. “When Pepper Trees Shaded the ‘Sunny Southland’.” KCET. September 13, 2013. https://www.kcet.org/shows/lost-la/when-pepper-trees-shaded-the-sunny-southland Accessed 14 Jan. 2021.

Moseley, Michael, etal. “Evaluating an ancient imperial colony.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States. Nov. 29, 2005. https://www.jstor.org/stable/4152467 Accessed 14 Jan. 2021

Valdez, Lidio M. “Molle beer production in a Peruvian central highland valley.” Journal of Anthropological Research 68, no. 1 (2012): 71-93. http://www.jstor.org/stable/23264591. Accessed 11 Jan. 2021

Medicinal Disclaimer: It is the policy of The Herb Society of America, Inc. not to advise or recommend herbs for medicinal or health use. This information is intended for educational purposes only and should not be considered as a recommendation or an endorsement of any particular medical or health treatment. Please consult a health care provider before pursuing any herbal treatments.


Maryann is the Secretary of The Herb Society of America and a Master Gardener. She is a member of The Society’s Texas Thyme Unit in Huntsville, TX. She gardens among the pines in the Piney Woods of East Texas.

Christmas Herbs of Trinidad, Part I

By Amy Forsberg

Trinidad_tobago-esI was visiting my mother just a few weeks before Christmas in 2017. She had recently moved to a wonderful small family-run assisted living home. The owner, Ann Abdul, asked me if I’d like to taste some “sorrel drink” she had made for the holiday season. I had no idea what that was. It looked Christmassy–a brilliant ruby red. I took a sip, and the most delicious taste filled my mouth. It was a rich, complex, and unfamiliar burst of flavors. But it tasted like Christmas, too—it was sweet, and I thought I could detect cinnamon, cloves, and vanilla. But it also tasted a bit like lemonade with a pronounced citrusy tartness. I loved it, and I had to know more! 

Ann and her family are from Trinidad, and over the next two years, I learned so much from her about Trinidad cuisine and culture. The island nation Trinidad & Tobago has a complex history of colonization, slavery, indentured labor, and immigration from all around the world, which has led to a cuisine and a culture that blends Indian, African, Creole, Amerindian, British, French, Spanish, Chinese, and Middle Eastern ingredients and traditions. It is one of the most diverse cuisines in the world and is full of bold flavors. 

There are certain recipes–food and drink–that are essential for Christmas in Trinidad. Ann says it simply isn’t Christmas without them. Maybe you will want to explore some of them and add them into your own celebrations. First, let’s look at what drinks are important to Christmas in Trinidad.

20171009_171414It turned out that “sorrel” is a name for the calyces of Hibiscus sabdariffa, a plant commonly known as roselle, as well as the beverage that is made from them. If you have ever tasted Celestial Seasonings Red Zinger tea, then you have tasted sorrel. (This sorrel is not related to the leaves of Rumex acetosa, also known as sorrel, which is used as a salad green and fresh herb.) In the Caribbean, the fleshy calyces are used fresh or dried to make the beverage. They are boiled along with various whole spices, then strained, sweetened, and cooled. It is served cold, with or without rum. The exact recipe varies from family to family, but the spices used would typically include cinnamon stick, bay leaf, cloves, allspice, ginger, star anise, and orange peel. Ann’s recipe calls for cinnamon, bay leaf, clove, and vanilla. In Trinidad, many people grow their own Hibiscus sabdariffa so they can harvest the fresh, but highly perishable, calyces, which ripen around Christmas-time, for making their sorrel. (Fresh sorrel may be hard to locate in some sections of the United States, but packets of dried sorrel are easier to find in the International food sections of stores or through Caribbean/International markets online.) For additional information on Hibiscus sabdariffa, check out the blog’s previous post on roselle.

Angostura bittersAnother essential Trinidadian Christmas drink is one more familiar to most Americans. Ponche de crème is their flavorful take on eggnog. Served straight or spiked with rum, this delicious drink must contain a special Trinidad ingredient: Angostura Bitters. You may be familiar with Angostura Bitters as a cocktail ingredient. It has a history that goes back to the early 19th century and is worthy of a post all its own! It is a concentrated alcoholic herbal concoction said to contain as many as 40 botanical ingredients, the exact recipe of which is rumored to be known by only five living people! It started out as a medicine and made its way into flavoring food and drink. Although the recipe is unknown, it is widely believed to include orange peel, vanilla, cinnamon, anise seeds, juniper berries, cocoa nibs, and the intensely bitter Gentiana lutea, a European alpine wildflower with a long history in medicine and brewing. Just a dash of Angostura Bitters is enough to help flavor most recipes. And in Trinidad, according to Ann, a dash is added to almost everything, particularly fruit juices. 

IMG_20201027_074741_444Lastly, the third beverage essential to Christmas in Trinidad is also enjoyed year-round: ginger beer. Ginger beer is a strongly flavored version of ginger ale that is non-alcoholic. The rhizome of Zingiber officinalis contains volatile oils, such as zingerone and gingerols, that give ginger its characteristic “zing.” Most families in Trinidad, as well as the rest of the Caribbean, make their ginger beer at home from fresh ginger rhizomes, and the resulting ginger beer often has a very strong punch of ginger flavor. It contains other spices such as cinnamon and clove. It is made very strong, and it can be diluted with water or club soda to suit your taste.

Next week: Trinidad Christmas foods!

All recipes from Ann Abdul and/or adapted from “The Multi-Cultural Cuisine of Trinidad & Tobago & the Caribbean” (which is the 2002 updated version of “Naparima Girls’ High School Diamond Jubilee 1912-1987, Trinidad & Tobago Recipes”. These are the quintessential cookbooks on Trinidadian cuisine, found in almost every home, according to Ann.)

Ann’s Sorrel Drink

  • Dried sorrel1 package dried sorrel (Angel brand easily available online or in Caribbean market)
  • 10 cloves
  • 6 bay leaves
  • 2 sticks of cinnamon
  • 8 cups of water

Boil until tender, then cool. 

When cool add:

  • 1-2 cups sugar or to taste (sorrel is extremely tart)
  • ½ cup rum (optional)
  • 1 TBSP vanilla extract

Store in refrigerator and enjoy throughout the season!

Ponche De Crème

  • 6 eggs
  • Peel of one lime
  • 3  15 oz. cans evaporated milk
  • 1½  14 oz. cans sweetened condensed milk (or to taste)
  • 1 tsp Angostura bitters
  • ½ tsp grated nutmeg
  • ½ cup rum or more to taste

Directions:

  1. Beat eggs and lime peel until light and fluffy.
  2. Add evaporated milk.
  3. Sweeten to taste with condensed milk.
  4. Add bitters, nutmeg and rum according to taste.
  5. Remove lime peel.
  6. Serve with crushed ice.

Notes:

You can substitute 1 ½ cups pureed steamed pumpkin for eggs. Consuming raw eggs carries risk of salmonella bacteria illness. Using pasteurized eggs reduces this risk.

Ginger Beer

  • 1 lb. fresh ginger root
  • 8 cups water
  • juice and peel of one lime
  • 4 cups granulated sugar (or to taste)
  • 1 cinnamon stick
  • 4-6 cloves

Directions:

  1. Wash, peel, and grate ginger root.
  2. Place in a large bottle with 8 cups of water and juice and peel of one lime.
  3. Leave in the sun for one day. Next day, drain and sweeten with sugar.
  4. Pour into clean bottles and place in the refrigerator. Allow to settle for 2 days.

If too strong, dilute with club soda or water to taste.

Photo credits: 1) Map of Trinidad and Tobago (Wikimedia Commons); 2) Hibiscus sabdariffa (sorrel/roselle) calyces (Michael Rayburn, Rayburn Farms); 3) Angostura Bitters (angosturabitters.com); 4) Zingiber officinale (ginger) rhizomes (Michael Rayburn, Rayburn Farms); 5) Dried sorrel calyces (angelbrand.com).


Amy Forsberg is a horticulturist who was the 2000-2001 National Herb Garden intern. She has gardened at the U.S. Botanic Garden (2002-2005) and the U.S. National Arboretum (2006-2018). She has long been fascinated by the history of herbs and spices and their role in creating culture and cuisines.

Tamarind – Herb of the Month

By Maryann Readal

The tamarind tree (Tamarindus indica) is one of many tropical herbal trees. Its leaves, bark, wood, roots, and fruits have many uses. The tamarind tree Tamarindus indicais also an evergreen, long-lived landscape tree, reaching a height of 40 to 60 feet tall and a width of up to 25 feet wide. Its pinnate leaves close up at night. The branches droop to the ground, making it a graceful shade tree. A mature tree can produce up to 350-500 pounds of fruit each year. It is native to tropical Africa and is in the Fabaceae family. 

One of the earliest documented uses of tamarind was found in the Ganges Valley of India, where wood charcoal dating back to 1300 BCE was discovered. Tamarind was mentioned in ancient Indian scriptures as early as 1200 BCE. Arab physicians were reported to be the first to use the fruit pulp as medicine. It was the Arabs who named the tamarind, calling it “tamara hindi” or Indian date. It is thought that the Arabs were responsible for the spread of the tamarind through the Persian Gulf region and Egypt. There is documented use of tamarind in Egypt in 400 BCE. The tamarind was brought to the Americas by the Spanish in the 1600s. A tamarind tree was planted in Hawaii in 1797.

Tamarind-based drinksThe tamarind tree grows well in USDA Hardiness Zones 10-11 and therefore, is not commonly seen in the continental United States, except in southern Florida. It produces a showy light brown, bean-like fruit, which can be left on the tree for up to six months after maturing. The sweet-sour pulp that surrounds the seeds is rich in calcium, phosphorus, iron, thiamine, and riboflavin and is a good source of niacin. The pulp is widely used in Mexico to make thirst-quenching juice drinks and even beer. It is also very popular in fruit candies. The fruit is used in Indian cuisines in curries, chutneys, meat sauces, and in a pickle dish called tamarind fish. Southeast Asians combine the pulp with chiles and use it for marinating chicken and fish before grilling. They also use it to flavor sauces, soups, and noodle dishes. Chefs in the United States are beginning to experiment with the sweet-sour flavor of tamarind pulp. Did you know that tamarind is a major ingredient in Lea & Perrins® Worcestershire Sauce? Tamarind CandyThe fruit pods are long-lasting and can be found in some grocery stores, especially those serving Hispanic, Indian, and Southeast Asian populations. 

All parts of this ancient tree have been used in traditional medicines in Africa and Asia and have a long list of maladies that they have treated. According to Purdue’s Horticulture and Landscape Architecture Department (https://www.hort.purdue.edu/newcrop/morton/tamarind.html), “Tamarind preparations are universally recognized as refrigerants in fevers and as laxatives and carminatives.” The ground-up seeds have been used as a poultice for boils, while the boiled leaves and flowers were used as poultices for sprains and swollen joints. The bark is astringent, tonic, and a fever reducer. An infusion of the roots has been used to treat chest complaints and leprosy. It has also been used to treat sunstroke, Datura poisoning, and alcohol intoxication. According to WebMD®, there is not sufficient evidence to determine the effectiveness of tamarind to treat most of these illnesses. However, research has shown that eye drops containing tamarind seed extract do improve dry eye.

Throughout the tropical world, there are many legends and superstitions regarding the tamarind tree. Here are a few:

  • A Buddhist parable about tamarind seeds says that they are the symbol of faithfulness and forbearance. 
  • Some African tribes believe that the tree is sacred, and some Indians believe that one should not sleep under one because of the acid it “exhales” during the night.  
  • Some even believe that nothing will grow under a tamarind tree. However, Maude Grieve, in her 1931 book, A Modern Herbal, claimed that “some plants and bulbs bloomed luxuriantly under the tamarind trees in her garden in Bengal.”
  • The Burmese believe that the tree is the dwelling place of the rain god, and that the tree raises the temperature of the ground beneath it.
  • In Nyasaland, tamarind bark is soaked with corn and fed to livestock as a way of guaranteeing their return if they are lost or stolen.
  • In some Asian countries, it is believed that evil spirits inhabit the tamarind tree and building a house where it grows should be avoided.
  • In the Caribbean, old tamarind trees are believed to have spirits living in them.

The tamarind is an incredibly useful tree. The young leaves and shoots are eaten as a vegetable, and the flowers and leaves can be added to salads. The flowers are also important as a pollen source for bees. The leaves can be tamarind seed podsused as fodder for domestic animals and food for silkworms. The leaves are also used as garden mulch. 

The seeds are ground to make flour, or roasted and used as a coffee substitute or as an addition to coffee. The seeds are also processed to produce a natural pectin and food stabilizer. There are many more uses of the seeds that are too numerous to list. 

The oil produced from the tamarind is culinary grade oil and is also used in specialty varnishes, adhesives, dyeing, and tanning.

The wood of the tamarind is another example of exceptional usefulness as it is very hard and insect resistant. It makes great handles for tools and is prized for furniture and paneling. It is considered a valuable fuel source because it gives off intense heat. The branches of the tamarind are used as walking sticks. The bark contains tannins and is used in tanning hides and is also used to make twine.

Lea & Perrins Worcestershire SauceThe fruit pulp is useful as a dye fixative, or combined with sea water, it cleans silver, brass, and copper. In addition to all of these uses, school children in Africa use the seeds as learning aids in arithmetic lessons and as counters in traditional board games.

The next time you reach for a bottle of Worcestershire sauce, remember the ancient tamarind tree and its usefulness in the tropical parts of our world.

 

 

Photo Credits: 1) Tamarindus indica (JIRCAS); 2) Tamarind-based beverages; 3) Tamarind-based confections; 4) Tamarind seed pods; 5) Lea & Perrins® Worcestershire sauce (Photos 2 – 5, courtesy of the author).

References

Ebifa-Othieno, Esther, et al. “Knowledge, attitudes and practices in tamarind use and conservation in Eastern Uganda. Journal of Ethnobiology & Ethnomedicine. Vol. 13. Jan. 2017. Available from Ebscohost. Accessed 10/16/20. 

El-Siddiq, K., et al. Tamarind, Tamarindus indica. England, Southhampton Centre for Underutilized Crops, 2006. Available from Google Scholar. Accessed 10/18/20.

Grieve, Mrs. M. A Modern Herbal. Harcourt, Brace, & Company. 1931.

History of tamarind.  Available from https://www.world-foodhistory.com/2011/07/history-of-tamarind.html.  Accessed 10/16/20.

Missouri Botanical Garden. Plant Finder. Available at http://www.missouribotanicalgarden.org/plantfinder/plantfindersearch.aspx. Accessed 10/16/20.

Tamarind. Purdue University Horticulture and Landscape Department. Available from https://www.hort.purdue.edu/newcrop/morton/tamarind.html. Accessed 10/18/20.

Tamarind. WebMD.  Available from https://www.webmd.com/vitamins/ai/ingredientmono-819/tamarind. Accessed 10/18/20

Tamarind tree. Available from https://www.permaculturenews.org/2009/02/20/tamarind-tree/. Accessed 10/16/20.

Medicinal Disclaimer: It is the policy of The Herb Society of America, Inc. not to advise or recommend herbs for medicinal or health use. This information is intended for educational purposes only and should not be considered as a recommendation or an endorsement of any particular medical or health treatment. Please consult a health care provider before pursuing any herbal treatments.


Maryann is the Secretary of The Herb Society of America and a Master Gardener. She is a member of The Society’s Texas Thyme Unit in Huntsville, TX. She gardens among the pines in the Piney Woods of East Texas.

Herbal Hacks, Part 1: Food and Drink

We asked and you delivered! Over the summer we asked folks to share how they used herbs to make their lives easier or more fun. We received many great responses, and want to thank everyone who contributed a little snippet of herbal how-to. We received so many responses, in fact, that we’ve decided to offer them in installments, categorized by topic for easy reference. Please enjoy this week’s selection – herbs in food and drink.

Violet banner_Creative Commons via Pxfuel

I love to use fresh herbs as drink garnishes and in ice cubes. Edible flowers and leaves enhance my beverages, from my morning smoothie to my afternoon glass of wine! – Janice Cox

Dried blue cornflower petals sprinkled over salads – or as a garnish on other foods – for a beautiful blue punch of color! Flowers are harvested each year from my garden at the end of a hot day, dried on white cotton tea towels on cookie sheets for two to three days before removing petals, then I hang the petals in mesh bags to finish drying for a week or more before putting them into clean, labeled jars to use throughout the year. – Becki Smith

I infuse sugar with herbs to punch and kick it up a notch or two when baking special treats. – Eliza G

In late fall I heavily prune back many of my herbs. After washing, I put them – stems included – in a large pot, cover with water, and make a strong herbal broth. I freeze it in two and four cup amounts to use as a base for soups through the winter. The two cup amounts can be mixed with chicken or beef broth if I want that flavor. – Terry Senko

Infusions! ‘Rober’s Lemon Rose’ (a Pelargonium) simple syrup for our margaritas, and lemon verbena (Aloysia citrodora) infused into heavy cream for our homemade ice cream! – Lois Sutton

Colorful herb drinksA cool tip I learned my first season in Herb Society of America was how to make canned lemonade taste like fresh: add the juice of one lemon. How simple is that! I had success with other citrus as well. Add your favorite herb to make it chic. The first tip I learned from Madalene Hill was put an herb in the bottom of the cake pan to add complexity and surprise to your cake. The second was her mantra: “fat delivers flavor”. – Adrianne Kahn

A roll of goat cheese covered in fresh chopped thyme, with crackers on the side, makes for a quick appetizer tray to serve or to bring to a gathering. – Becki Smith

When the first snow is expected, I harvest my fresh garden herbs. I cut thyme, oregano, and basil fine, and put the mix in ice cube tray pockets. Then I pour olive oil (any oil would do) over the herbs, freeze, and package. When I need to oil a pan I add one or two. As the oil melts, the herbal fragrance smells of summer, and the taste is fresh herbs. – Lola Wilcox

When serving white pasta dishes, garnish with a chiffonade of purple ruffles basil – looks fabulous and tastes wonderful. Add borage to your Pimms cup – pretty colored flower and refreshing cucumber flavor. – Kim Labash

Tiny bits of finely minced anise hyssop can be added to sliced strawberries macerating with a bit of sugar, or to chunks of cantaloupe, or to almost any fruit to add an ethereal, spicy sweetness that transforms and elevates a simple fruit dessert. Pair it with a floral rosé wine and linger at the table with your guests on a soft summer night. – Kathleen McGowan

Water infused with herbs. – Linda Hogue

Borage and creamI grow herbs and vegetables. I also save onion peels, potato peels, carrot shavings, the hard bits of celery, etc. Instead of sending them directly to the compost, they go into a freezer bag. After I fill a one gallon bag, the veggie bits go into the crock pot along with fresh herbs, salt, and pepper, and one to two quarts of water (enough to cover the veggies). I slow cook this for about six hours, strain the broth, and put it into Mason or Ball quart or pint jars (within one inch of the top), and freeze it. Finally, all of the leftover veggie bits get to go back to the compost pile to feed the next round of herbs and vegetables. – Catherine O’Brien

I planted a beautiful bay laurel bush just outside my kitchen door so I can add fresh bay leaves to potatoes, soups and more by walking out the door, and to use for wreaths when I prune the bush. – Becki Smith

I like to put fresh herbs in ice cubes for drinks in summer. Some favorites are a borage flower in a cube for a gin and tonic, or lavender petals to chill my glass of Earl Grey tea! Cheers! – Cheryl Skibicki

Photo Credits: All photos from Pixabay

Peru Balsam, the Loveliest Fragrance

By Erin Holden

Myroxylon_balsamum_-_Köhler–s_Medizinal-Pflanzen-141The first time I smelled balsam of Peru essential oil, I was hooked. The word that keeps coming to mind is decadent – deep, rich notes of vanilla with soft, smooth cinnamon and serious undertones of propolis. This isn’t surprising, as the oil shares thirteen constituents with propolis, a sticky substance made by bees for various purposes, similar in scent to honey. It also contains vanillin, responsible for vanilla’s fragrance, and a whole host of cinnamon-related compounds.  

I’ve been using small amounts of the essential oil in my personal perfume blends for many years. When I recently found a source for the resin, I immediately bought 2 ounces, thinking I could grind it up and use it in some homemade incense. I was quite surprised when I received a bottle of liquid more like molasses instead of the hard grains reminiscent of frankincense that I was expecting. That, in turn, prompted me to learn more about this tree, and then share what I found about this little known (at least to me!) resin. 

Peru balsam resin and oilBalsam of Peru (also called Peru balsam and many other similar names) is a balsam – an aromatic oleoresin containing benzole or cinnamic acid – extracted from a tree in the Fabaceae family, Myroxylon balsamum Pereirae Group. The genus name is Greek for “fragrant wood.” Despite its common name, Peru balsam is mainly produced in El Salvador – the confusion comes from the fact that the Spanish originally shipped the product back to Europe out of a Peruvian port. A very similar product, balsam of Tolu, is extracted from Myroxylon balsamum Balsamum Group, and is mainly produced in Brazil and Venezuela. It has a similar, though gentler, fragrance profile. For Peru balsam, strips of bark are removed from the tree and boiled, with the resulting resinous material collected. Another harvest method is to make incisions in the bark and wrap cloth around the wounds to soak up the resin, then boil the cloth to separate the resin out. 

Commercially, Peru balsam is used as a fragrance and flavoring agent in many consumer goods. Colas, aperitifs, baked goods, flavored tobaccos, cough medicines, and dental cement can contain the oil for flavor. It lends its fragrance to deodorants, lotions, sunscreens, and shampoos, as well as fine perfumes like Guerlain’s Vol de Nuit, Youth Dew of Lauder, and Elixir des Merveilles by Hermès. Drawing on its purported antiseptic qualities, Peru balsam has also been used in surgical dressings and wound sprays. 

coca-cola-4555178_1280 from Pixabay free for useBecause of its widespread application, I was surprised to learn that Peru balsam is considered one the top five contact allergens, and in 1982, the International Fragrance Association banned the use of crude Peru balsam in fragrances. From what I understand, this doesn’t extend to the essential oil distilled from the balsam, or to its use as a flavoring, so it can still be found in some foods and cosmetics. I found many case histories of fragrance- and  food-triggered dermatitis, where allergy testing produced positive results for Peru balsam. And interestingly, foods that have similar compounds to Peru balsam, such as cinnamon and vanilla, can also trigger this reaction.  It’s fascinating to me that there are some seemingly ubiquitous ingredients in many of the products we use everyday, but we just don’t know about.

Photo credits: 1) Myroxylon balsamum ({PD-US} Franz Eugen Köhler); 2) Peru balsam resin and essential oil (author’s photo); 3) Coca cola with Peru balsam (Pixabay)


Erin is the gardener for the National Herb Garden at the U.S. National Arboretum in Washington, D.C. She is a member of the American Herbalists Guild, United Plant Savers, and a member-at-large of the Herb Society of America.