Defeating Pain

One Person's Battle Against Chronic Pain


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Sandalwood, good for just about everything!

Life, is chaotic as usual! I have a lot of sewing projects (a lot) along with a lot (seriously too many) of migraines (so many it took way too long to finish this post). Time to sit and write feels so precious these days, and this post took way longer than I wanted to get out. But, without my writing I don’t feel whole – so I make time! (  >_<)9

The Hubs is growing a beard, seems to be all the rage these days with the male of our species in my age group. He went to get a shave and a haircut at a local place and they put some oil on his beard for conditioning it. He loved it, and I thought it smelled really great! Like cut wood and lovely (he would probably disapprove of that term but who cares 😉 ). So we looked up the ingredients, because I wanted to make it for him – like I love to do, and of course one of the ingredients was sandalwood – the others were pine and cedar wood with some hair friendly carrier oils, (remember rosemary is good for head hair, it is light and won’t weigh it down). Sandalwood had popped up in my saffron post, and I was growing more curious about it after reading some snippets here and there about it. So the dive into research began!

History and Uses of Sandalwood

Wow.Who knew that sandalwood was so cool? Well most of ancient India that is for sure! I love the stories surrounding the Gods and Goddesses of India, Durga, Sarasvati, and Lakshmi are personal favorites. So imagine my happiness when I found out that Sandalwood is sacred to that lovely Goddess Lakshmi! She is thought to reside in the wood itself, as mentioned by the Brahma Vaivarta Purana.

image from www.chitrahandicrafts.com

Lakshmi carving of made of Sandalwood (you can buy these from the site linked…for a pretty penny)

The name Sandalwood comes from a corruption of the sanskrit word Chandam, which then evolved through linguistic corruption into Sandal possibly along the path Chandam → Sandanam → Sandalum → Sandal. Chandam could mean literally “wood for burning incense” or “shining, glowing” from candrah. Most likely the word we use today is from a late Greek word – santalon – which probably influenced Medieval Latin to create sandalum which then led to sandell in Old French and then sandal in modern English.

Sandalwood and some sandalwood powder.

Sandalwood heartwood and some sandalwood powder.

All sandalwoods are what is known as a hemiparasite which Wikipedia defines as –

“a plant that is parasitic under natural conditions and is also photosynthetic to some degree. Hemiparasites may just obtain water and mineral nutrients from the host plant. Many obtain at least part of their organic nutrients from the host as well.”

Sandalwood is very similar, as well as related, to the well known mistletoe. While they do photosynthesize to create their own food, many of the species also have a taproot that seeks out other plants and then feeds from them. Sandalwood has a sad story of destruction and overuse by humans, so it is extremely important to not only check for the species of sandalwood used in an oil, but also that it is sourced in a sustainable and ethical way. Generally the more expensive the sandalwood oil is, the more likely it is of the right species and from a legit harvester that is approved by the Indian government. Since it is so endangered in the wild there are strict harvesting rules and regulations around sandalwood trees. Sandalwoods are very slow growing trees, which makes restoring the wild population difficult when illegal harvesting is happening. And the older the tree the better quality and stronger smelling the oils (and wood will be).

It’s scent is what makes it so alluring, and I know well of this. My parents lived in China right before I was born, and I had a lot of unusual things growing up. One of them was a carved sandalwood fan, it was so delicate and I would take it out of its little protective box to just sit and smell it.

My fan looked much like this sandalwood carved fan

The scent was just so addictive to me even then, and I think this scent is what has drawn humanity to it over the centuries. It is also used in a lot of religious carvings from prayer beads, to statues of gods and goddesses, to even little fans like mine.

Sandalwood has a large part in human history as well as religions. Sandalwood is mentioned in Indian texts for at least 2,000 years and was used for religious practices as well as medical uses for possibly up to 4,000. It is basically a huge part of life in Hindu culture, it is used in birth rituals, marriage ceremonies, and death rituals. It is used in its oil form, and the wood is used in a powdered form and both are used for the aforementioned religious and medicinal reasons – which I briefly mentioned in the saffron post since it is great for skin masks, soaps, and other preparations, and helps treat and reduce acne as well as other skin conditions. It was also very prized for religious carvings, and for other carved wood products since it retains its scent for decades. In Hinduism specifically it is used as a paste, which is mixed with saffron or other herbal pigments, and is called chandan. Chandan is sacred and can only be prepared by those who are ritually pure. The paste is then used by devotees and is put on the forehead, neck or chest in a ritual manner. Chandan can also be mixed with herbs, or other items to create javadhu which is generally used as a perfume or mixed with water to make a paste and used as deodorant.

Typical Javadhu powder you would find in a store

In both Hinduism and Ayurveda sandalwood is a very holy, and thought to bring one closer to the divine (hence its use as a ritual paste) in fact it is one of the most holy elements to Hindu practitioners or followers of the Vedas and sometimes applied before prayers.

In Buddhism it is also mentioned in some of the sutras (or sutta, depending on which flavor of Buddhism you follow), specifically the Pali Canon mentions it. There is even a legend that as the Buddha died, sandalwood powder fell from the heavens. Sandalwood is thought to be of the lotus (padma) group for the Amitabha Buddha, and is considered one of the three main incenses that are integral to Buddhist practice in general. Sandalwood is thought to focus the mind, and keep one alert during meditation, as well as transform “desires.” It is the most popular for offering incense to oneself in Buddhism.

In the Sufi tradition of Islam sandalwood paste is applied to the grave of a saint by devotees, a mark of respect and of devotion – mostly practiced by people in Southern India where Tamil culture has an influence. In Chinese and Japanese local custom it is also a common incense used in worship and other ceremonies. In Zoroastrianism (in which fire is very sacred) the priests, Mobads, that keep the fire offer it sandalwood – but it is not used in home offerings to the sacred lamps kept in the home. Sandalwood purchased in a fire temple is often more expensive than elsewhere since it is a common form of income for the temple and the Mobads.

Why and How it Works

Some of the chemicals you can find in sandalwoods are santalin (which provides the red color for dying), santene (a terpine that is also in pine needles), tannic acid (same stuff you get in wine!) and santalols. The main chemical that is important in sandalwood for medicinal use is santalol.

Alpha-santalol-stickModel

Alpha-Santalol in its chemical format

Beta-Santalol in its chemical format

Beta-Santalol in the same

Which is broken into two different chemicals α-santalol and β-santalol. Alpha seems to be the most common chemical, but seems like the beta version is the most medicinally useful. It is pretty hard to find medicinal journals that speak of trials and uses of santalol in medical tests but there is a mention in a medical journal of pharmacy ….from 1911. Though it is useful since it points out that sandalwood oil is not very pleasant in taste (though I, personally, would not suggest taking this internally). There is a lot of anecdotal evidence that there are antiseptic, anti-inflammatory, antispasmodic, astringent, slight sedative, and good for the respiratory system, hair, and skin. The German government has approved sandalwood oil as a treatment for urinary tract infections, so there is at least some scientific evidence that it is effective for treating infections, but other than that official scientific studies are very scarce. The most interesting point of the German studies is that the oil needs to be coated so that the oils are not released until it hits the small intestine – or it could cause irritation. For this reason I again – do not advise taking this internally.

There seems to be some evidence of its anti-inflammatory action again no firm scientific trials but there is a ton of folk medicine and word of mouth evidence to back this up. Same with the antispasmodic but, again not nearly enough evidence scientifically to completely back these claims, but 4,000 years of history must have something to it. I have found that its use helps with pain, and spasms – especially when massaged into a painful area (with a carrier oil, this tends to need to be diluted). I have not tried it personally as a sedative, though I find the scent quite soothing. It’s antiseptic properties make it a fantastic addition to deodorant since it helps to kill any bacteria that would be lurking around in your armpits. Its skin properties help with scar treatments (like lavender does) and helps soften and soothe, and helps sooth skin inflammation as well as things like eczema. Its astringent nature as well as its antiseptic, make it also great for treating acne. It also helps soften hair, and moisturize it, so it is great to apply to hair  on your head (like rosemary, though it is not as light as rosemary) or hair on your face (if you’re a guy 🙂 ).

Floral scents like lavender or geranium blend well with sandalwood, as well as clove, bergamot, vetiver, and black pepper.

Sustainability & True Species

Like all things that are expensive – saffron, cinnamon and frankincense are good examples – sandalwood oils can be adulterated or diluted at the cheap end of the spectrum. And the actual stuff is expensive – like Lemon Balm oil level which makes frankincense look cheap! I found that it is actually one of the most highly adulterated oils for sale on the market. That means if you see a 9-13$ bottle – you are probably getting mostly jojoba oil or some other carrier oil – or not even a drop of real sandalwood oil. Real sandalwood oil (Santalum album) is in the 100$+ range, which is really prohibitive for some pockets. So you can purchase the cheaper stuff, and this is the cheapest one I trust using on my skin. If you want to go “whole hog” I would go with this site or this one (which also has powdered sandalwood) since they are sustainably and ethically harvested. As you can see the cheapest one is actually a blend of species, since they are all technically all sandalwood but not the “top” species (though they are all good species in the blend as we will discuss further down).

This is another one of those “you get what you pay for” type things. Like the cinnamon I mentioned – if it is cheap, it probably is cassia. Once you have had true cinnamon, there is nothing like the real thing! But what is the right species of sandalwood? Well you could make a blanket statement like all trees of the Santalum genus are real sandalwoods. Which would mostly…mostly be true.

My husband will be pleased with this. Mostly.

My husband will be pleased with this image. Mostly…

But there are a few main species used for sandalwood that you should be familiar with and are the most commonly used.

Indian Sandalwood – (Santalum album)

Santalum album

Other Common Names – White Sandalwood, East Indian Sandalwood, Chandana, or Chandam

First up is the king of all sandalwood species (or would it be queen?) either way Santalum album is the one that is most commonly used, and is sadly the most threatened of species due to poaching and illegal logging. Also this is the wood that sandalwood is named from since Chandam is the Sanskrit word that led to the modern English word. This species is currently the most vulnerable to extinction in the wild, which you may have heard of due to the exploits of Veerappan, a well known sandalwood smuggler. Often used in religious carvings, and as a powder (then made into a paste) is smeared on devotees or made into incense. It is also used for folk medicine and was used to treat: common colds, bronchitis, skin disorders, heart ailments, general weakness, fever, infection of the urinary tract, inflammation of the mouth and pharynx, liver and gallbladder complaints and other maladies. It is known to be effective (from folk medicine history and some medical trials) in treating analgeisc (specifically calming to nerves), antidepressant, antifungal, antispasmodic, antiviral, astringent (good for acne and skin), sedative and a fantastic scent to add to perfumes, soaps, and deodorants.

Coast Sandalwood – (Santalum ellipticum)

Santalum ellipticum

Santalum ellipticum

Other Common Names – ʻIliahialoʻe, or Hawaiian Sandalwood

Hawai’ians used the heartwood (‘la’au ‘ala) for its oils, and was often exported to China during the years 1790-1840 for production of carved objects, chests, and joss sticks (incense). The natives used the wood to make the decks of their double hulled canoes (wa’a kaulua) and the heartwood was used to make perfumes and sometimes added to kapa cloth possibly for its fragrance. The leaves and bark were used after burning to ash to treat dandruff and head lice. Shavings of the wood in combination with other plants were used to treat some sexually transmitted diseases.

Australian Sandalwood – (Santalum spicatum)

image by http://www.gilbertdashorstart.com/

Santalum spicatum

This is a species that comes from Western Australia, and its export is a major part of their economy. Its oil was first distilled in 1875, and was produced here and there for a few decades until the 1990’s when it experienced a resurgence which increased (and is still increasing) since it is often used in the perfume industry, very popular with aromatherapists, and in chewing tobacco. This is a much less threatened species, and is almost equal in medicinal properties to Santalum album without the worry of using an extremely endangered species. So if you are unable to afford or can not find ethically sourced Santalum album, this is a good (and less costly) alternative. Testing shows pretty strongly, so far, that it has a lot of great antimicrobial properties, as well as all the stuff listed for Santalum album (since they are so closely related their chemical makeup is very similar and makes it a fantastic stand-in for the more expensive sandalwood).

Other Santalum species you may see are: S. acuminatum, S. austrocaledonicum, S. boninense, S. fernandezianum, S. freycinetianum, S. haleakalae, S. lanceolatum, S. macgregorii, S. murrayanum, S. obtusifolium, S. paniculatum, S. yasi. These species you may see pop up in the occasional commercial preparation, but are not commonly used nor are their medicinal properties well known.

The Fakes

These species, while useful in their own rights are not sandalwoods and are occasionally used as an adulterant in real sandalwood oils or preparations. These should be avoided if you are looking for a real sandalwood.

  •  Adenanthera pavonina sometimes called Red Sandalwood, but this is not sandalwood. Its seeds while toxic when eaten raw are safe to eat when cooked and have been used to treat inflammation in folk medicine.
  • Amyris balsamifera – known as Balsam Torchwood this is a common species accepted by a lot of perfumers and aromatherapy blends.
  • Baphia nitida called African Sandalwood Camwood or Barwood, its bark and heartwood make a red dye, it is known as Osun in Yoruba and is a part of a brand of Nigerian black soap called Dudu Osun.
  • Eremophila mitchelli also called False Sandalwood, Sandalbox and Rosewood Belvory as well as other common names. While native to Australia it is considered an invasive species in some areas of Australia and is illegal to plant.
  • Myoporum platycarpum sometimes called Sugarwood, False Sandalwood as well, which is another native of Australia but is mostly toxic and just the sap is edible, but can not be produced by wounding the tree.
  • Myoporum sandwicense another False Sandalwood, or Bastard Sandalwood, Naio in the native Hawai’ian. It was used in making canoes, fishing net spacers and torches for night fishing. It is a very oily wood and was part of the woods exported to China for Joss stick production.
  • Osyris lanceolata known as African Sandalwood as well, but is generally in Southern parts of Africa, it is over logged despite government protection. Its wood is used for utensils and firewood, and in some communities it is used to preserve milk in gourds for long periods of time.
  • Osyris tenuifolia or Osyris lanceolata known as East African Sandalwood or again as False Sandalwood. Not much information is available on this species.

Recipes

Easy Sandalwood Lotion

  • 2 oz Coconut Oil
  • 10-20 drops of Sandalwood oil (or 1/2 teaspoon of Sandalwood powder)

Take the coconut oil, and whip 2 oz of solid at room temperature coconut oil in a stand mixer with a whisk attachment, and adding 10-20 drops of the essential oils. You can also use a bit (half a teaspoon to a teapoon depending on how thick or honey-like you want your lotion. Raw honey is good wound healing and for your skin too.

You can also just add a drop or two of Sandalwood essential oil to your regular routine, or just massage a little into problem areas with a carrier oil (Sweet Almond oil is a good alternative if coconut oil makes you break out).

Saffron & Sandalwood Lotion

  • 1/4 cup Whole almonds
  • 1/4 cup Strained Yogurt (or Plain Greek yogurt)
  • 2 teaspoons Lime or Lemon juice
  • pinch of Ground turmeric
  • 1/2 teaspoon Sandalwood
  • pinch of Saffron

First make your strained yogurt, if you don’t know how to do this go here and follow the instructions. Then soak the almonds in a bowl of water overnight, peel the skins off the next morning and grind into a fine paste in a food processor or strong blender. Add in the strained yogurt, lime (or lemon) juice, turmeric, sandalwood, and the saffron threads. Blend again in the food processor or blender until smooth and creamy. This cream can be stored in a clean container in the fridge for about a week, and you should apply it after washing your face at night. Smooth it all over your skin and massage in gently, in the morning wash your face again.

Both of these lotions are good for fighting acne, skin rashes, eczema, sunburns, helps reduce age spots and brighten dull skin. It even does a lot if you massage it into scars, helping to soften them and reduce their visibility, you can even add in a bit of lavender too to help with the redness of scarring if you are treating that. Really it does your skin good and will help just about anything to do with skin 🙂 there is some evidence even that it may help with Rosacea, though it may irritate some skin types that have Rosacea so make sure to do a test patch before you attempt to treat it with sandalwood oil.

Sandalwood Steaming

  • 2-5 drops Sandalwood oil
  • Bowl of hot water, must be steaming
  • Towel

Place a few drops into the bowl of hot water, place towel over your head and allow the steam to bathe the face. This another way to treat skin issues, or to treat very dry skin, or chapped skin.

ProChestColdTip: If you have a chest cold or respiratory issues, or even laryngitis, you can do this with some eucalyptus since there is some evidence that sandalwood can act as an expectorant and has antiviral properties.

ProStressTip: This can also be really good for stress, as the smell is very soothing, and has a mild sedative action, but I would suggest using meditation while inhaling the scent of just the sandalwood oil to reduce stress and bring relaxation.

Woodsy Beard Oil

  • 25 milliliters Carrier oil (this can be straight or a blend, 100 drops = about 5 ml)
  • 2 milliliters (about 50 drops) Sandalwood oil
  • 1 milliliter Cedarwood oil
  • 2 milliliters Pine oil

Mix well and store in a dark bottle, apply a few drops to hands and massage into beard. Comb through with beard brush or beard comb. Trust me guys your ladies will love this

The carrier oil can be anything you like, jojoba is good, vitamin E is great, argan oil is all the rage these days. Grapeseed, hemp, coconut, sweet almond, olive and apricot are all ok as well – it is really up to you on this and what works best with your face and hair and you can combine them and do half and half, or whatever combo you prefer most. Since you will be putting this on your face it will condition and soften your skin (especially with sandalwood oil) and condition and soften your beard hairs. This will make about an ounce, and you can either use a bottle with a dropper or you can use a bottle that has a built in dropper like on most essential oil bottles. You can even re-use some essential oil bottles for this.

ProScentsTip: You can also substitute the pine or cedarwood for lime and rosemary respectively, for a more citrusy smelling oil. You can also check out this site which has some great links for bottles, measuring equipment (if you don’t have anything to measure milliliters with) and some other recipes.

Muscle Spasm Massage Oil

  • 1 ounce Carrier oil
  • 10-20 drops Sandalwood oil (or 1/2 teaspoon Sandalwood powder)
  • 10 drops Wintergreen
  • 10 drops Cardamom

Mix well it is best to use an oil that is liquid at room temperature, if you use coconut oil that is not, you may want to whip this in a stand mixer to make it easier to apply. This is a great oil to massage into painful muscle spasms, or for general muscle pain (especially back pain!). The sandalwood and cardamom will help release the muscles and relax them, and the wintergreen will provide warming (which always helps muscles release) as well as providing a natural aspirin component to alleviate pain further.

Sleeping Sandalwood & Lavender

  • 1-2 drops Lavender oil
  • 1-2 drops Sandalwood oil

Massage into temples and inhale the lovely scents deeply. This is a combination that I find many swear by, and I do like the combination. It isn’t as powerful as hops, but it will definitely send you off to a sweet smelling dreamland.

ProMigraineTip: Since lavender and sandalwood oil are antispasmodics as well as good for treating pain, these are also great to massage into the temples if you are suffering a migraine.

If you suffer from dandruff you can also use sandalwood oil to treat it, and you can use the Best Shampoo Ever Recipe I posted previously as a base for it. Also sandalwood as I mentioned is great as a deodorant, you can add the oils to the Best Deodorant recipes I posted (any of them in the post will work) or you can use sandalwood paste to make your own. Simply take your sandalwood powder, mix with small amounts of water until it forms a paste and apply with the hands to the armpits.

Remember, everyone’s body is different and has different chemistry so always do your own experiments and see what works best for you. Always check sites like WebMD for interactions with any medications you might be taking, and remember check for ethically sourced, and sustainably harvested sandalwood oil. You will pay a little more, but it is worth supporting people who want to make sure this tree is around for future generations. And as always, if you have any doubts whatsoever – ask a professional!


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Cardamom, Holiday Love Potion #9

Happy New Year Everyone!!! What a great year 2015 will be! The best yet!

Finally, winter is officially here, and that means – winter colds (bleh!) & holiday stress (double bleh!). Everyone seems to be getting sick, and this is that time of year when I keep ginger, cinnamon, cloves and cardamom close at hand. Then you get weather changes, and that means horrible migraines. So I tend to hole up, and hibernate, in winter. I venture out even less, since my poor immune system can’t take the cold, and the direct assault of microbial evil, plus all the people out for holiday shopping is overwhelming to my senses as well as a moving people shaped mass of infection. Of course prevention tea helps stave off most anything winter can throw at you – colds, flu and virus-y type things. But did you know that if you add cardamom to your food and drink, or if you drink chai tea (or even chai coffee) that there are a lot of elements in it that helps to stave off colds as well as ease pain, lessen stress, and many other things? That is right, that chai latte you are craving could have those calories written off as medicinal!

So, start taking notes because cardamom is a great way to fight holiday stress & anxiety, winter colds, and even migraines from stress (or winter weather if you are like me). You can also seem like an awesome host, since it is another relaxing warm drink to serve, and it is lovely to experience the aroma of the spices as you chat and warm yourself by the fire. It’s sensual smell has led it to be used in many love potions and perfumes to lure the opposite sex. So, since every King of Spices needs it’s Queen, I bring you…Cardamom!

Lean green fighting pod machines.

Lean, green, anxiety fighting pod-machines!

Now if you know more than the average bear about cardamom, you will know there are actually more than one sort. So to keep this post below epic proportions, I will only be covering Green Cardamom or Elettaria cardamomum, and not Black Cardamom, that will be for another time :). The genus name of green cardamom, elettaria is derived from the Tamil words for “cardamom seeds.” Though this word could be much older, and the term cardamom we now use, could be derived from Dravidian, which is basically the grandparent language of Tamil. The Greeks called the pod kardamomon, which is another contender for the likely root word for this sweet little pod, though the exact etymological roots of the English term is not fully known. A lot of Westerners are not familiar with the taste of cardamom, or have even seen it before. I have been quite amused recently serving people cardamom coffee, mostly to see if they notice the difference and if they enjoy the additional flavor. It is sometimes difficult explaining what is in it, since almost none have even heard of cardamom, and then showing them what cardamom looks like. You get some suspicious glances at first, but the lovely smell from the jar, and the taste of the coffee seems to win most people over fairly quickly.

The History and Uses of Cardamom

As you can see it looks a lot like ginger and turmeric, we are just aren't concerned with the roots this time!

As you can see it looks a lot like ginger and turmeric, we are just aren’t concerned with the roots this time!

Thankfully chai tea (or if you want to get really technical masala chai, but I will refer to it as just chai) has made it’s way into popular Western culture, and cardamom should taste familiar now to most palates that have had chai flavored things. Cardamom is the dominant flavor in most traditionally made masala chai, but in the States it may be more cassia you are tasting with little to no cardamom, so you may have missed out on the best sort of chai if you only are purchasing pre-packaged or commercially made preparations. That is why I highly suggest you make your own chai at home, it is fun, super easy and you can put in as many or as varied a mix of spices as you want. Chai is fun to make and there is a great recipe here, and I will add another to the mix further down. Plus chai with cardamom is good for alleviating stress, and easing holiday anxiety – or any anxiety really!

It also has beautiful flowers, that just happen to be edible (you can plant the seeds from your pods and find out how nice they are)

It also has beautiful flowers, that just happen to be edible (you can plant the seeds from your store bought pods. Almost all grow, and it will possibly bloom, I suggest indoor planting or hot house unless you live in a tropical climate)

Cardamom has been known in India since before history, at least 3000 years of human history we know it has been used, and as soon as people were writing medical texts cardamom was mentioned. Since cardamom is native to India it was easy for it to spread to most of Asia, it quickly became well known to most of the cultures it came into contact with. In India a medical text was compiled between 2 BC and 2 AD called the Charaka Samhita, which mentions cardamom as part of some medicinal preparations, also a Sanskrit text from 4 BC discusses using cardamom, “ela” in the language, as part of formal political gifts between two groups. Cardamom was sometimes offered in some Hindu traditions to the recently deceased to appease them, and can be part of some tarpanas. In traditional medicine of India, Ayurveda, an 11th century medical text called the Manasollasa (Book of Splendor) it names cardamom as one of the ingredients in panchasugandha-thambula or “five-fragrance betel chew”. This five-fragrance chew contained cloves, cardamom and other spices wrapped in betel leaves, sometimes with areca nut sometimes called the betel-nut, which was then chewed to aid with digestion and relieve wind. This is still being done today to ease the stomach and promote digestion, if you include the areca nut is included this is a strong stimulant which could explain the tradition of adding cardamom to the mix.

Cardamom spread from India and the East, then to the West. Making it’s way to Egypt, and into some of its famous medical writings. We have gone over the Eber’s Papyrus before, and of course it name drops cardamom as a great fix for “wind” (or “farty pants”, in the parlance of our times) and digestion. It was also used in Egyptian religious ceremonies, cosmetics, and embalming, as well as food and medicine. The Babylonians and Assyrians also knew well and prized highly the health benefits of cardamom, and they were early traders across the land routes and possibly water routes via the Persian Gulf as early as the Bronze Age. A king of Babylon, Marduk-apla-iddina II, was known to have grown it in his royal garden, and many Assyrian doctors wrote about the uses of cardamom. Since it was used in many perfumes by many cultures it eventually grew to have a reputation of being a powerful aphrodisiac, and was frequently used in love potions.

Not that sort… I wish though! Why yes I WILL go to the dance with you Adrian Paul! *swoons*

Greeks also loved cardamom, and it was so highly prized that it was in itself a symbol of luxury, and was used in social rituals and gatherings. Cardamom is mentioned by a lot of names that should now be very familiar to you, Dioscorides and Hippocrates both agreed this is great for the stomach and digestion, and eases cramps. Alexander the Great, sent many plants home to his tutor, Aristotle, while he was out doing his conquering thing and it is likely that is how his successor, and possible father of botany, Theophrastus wrote about this plant that he may have obtained from Aristotle. While it was used medicinally it did not catch on in the same way it did in India, it was more prized for its scent and was often used in incense and perfumes. Its delicate flavor and scent is what led it to it more often being used in perfumes, and could be the reason for it being unofficially dubbed the “Queen of Spices.” The Romans were just as as fond as the Greeks cardamom to make perfume and other cosmetics, but still Galen wrote about it, agreeing with other medicinal writers of the time that it is a great way to treat stomach disorders, cramping and “wind.” In the 2nd century AD it was listed as a taxable luxury good in Alexandria. Sadly with the collapse of the Roman Empire, cardamom trade routes collapsed it seems, and this lovely pod disappears from history for a short while in the West.

Cardamom maintained its favor in the Arab world and further East, it was incorporated in recipes from the court of the Sultan of Mandu, dating from about 1500’s, and has a number of sherbets and rice dishes flavored with cardamom. You still find a lot of foods, not just dessert type foods, in Indian and Arabic cuisine that contain cardamom. If you have never had the joy of eating Indian sweets (or mithai), I don’t think you can say you have truly lived. I am also a huge fan of food from the Middle and Near East, and especially Indian food – who am I kidding I love all foods! Their savory and sweet dishes all will probably have some cardamom in them. Cardamom is, in my opinion, best in desserts, and it is so popular a dessert flavor that there is a popular brand of cardamom syrup, and you frequently find cardamom extract in dessert aisles.

I can't read Arabic but I am sure that it pretty much says "this stuff is delicious"

I can’t read Arabic but I am sure that it pretty much says “this stuff is delicious, shut up and put it in your face hole”

Cardamom makes it’s comeback in the West during the Middle Ages, when trade from the Crusades re-introduced Europeans to civilization (thank goodness for that, especially the part about bathing regularly). Later as trade between lands Holy and further East increased, the spice became more common and more often used in European cooking. In the Scandinavian countries they continue this tradition, and there are lots of types of cardamom breads, Which I will include some recipes for further down. It was mostly Venetian traders that supplied cardamom, since they had access to the spice routes. Or to put it more bluntly, they had all of the trade routes coming via the sea from Africa and the Levant so locked down they had a near monopoly on most items from the East. (It was such a stereotype for Venetians to be rich it even comes up in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice). They controlled and were pretty much the only point of entry for most luxuries that were arriving from anything East of Greece, and everything had to disperse out from there. They had this trade locked down from the 8th to about the 15th century, when the Ottoman Turks rolled up, and pretty much took over.

They also cornered the poofy hat fashion niche.

They also cornered the poofy hat fashion niche.

If you are paying attention to the dates, you can now see why Columbus was sent by Spain to find a different route to the spice laden East, they were trying to skip the middle men of Venice and the Arab traders that controlled the waters of the Gulfs and Indian Ocean. As more Europeans got out on the sea, a few started to dominate. A surprising country that wielded a lot of power despite its size is Portugal. Many Portuguese merchants made it all over the world, one of them, Duarte Barbosa, in his travels during the 16th century wrote about wild cardamom growing along the Malabar coast, but it was already cultivated when another Portuguese explorer came by a mere 40 years later – testament to is value and value as a trade commodity. But despite its availability, then and today, Cardamom is sadly way under used in US and a lot of Europe. But oddly enough, it is a part of traditional Christmas cookies made this time of year in the Netherlands and Sweden, so again, what better time to talk about this great spice? 

Aaaaaaaaand maybe suggest bringing back Krampus, or at least totally metal cards with him on them. That guy is Ozzy Osborne (pre-“The Osbornes”) metal.

Cardamom in the Levant and Middle East was heartily embraced and took on a whole new set of uses and a new parts in rituals. In most countries that have had an influence from Arab culture, or Islam, it is traditional to add cardamom to coffee, in fact, it really isn’t Turkish coffee without the addition of cardamom, it also could be known as Arabic, or Saudi coffee, or a plethora of other terms. So lets just agree that Turkish coffee will refer to coffee with cardamom and possibly other spices prepared by boiling. I will use Turkish coffee to refer to this to avoid being overly confusing, since there are loads of regional variations (and different names in each region) that makes this really, really complicated to discuss). In some areas it is traditional to pile on the cardamom to show the level of generosity of the host, and respect for their guest, since it is such an expensive spice. It can be so heavily added in some styles of coffee that even the powerful taste of coffee itself plays second fiddle to the flavor of cardamom.

There are literally 100’s of regional variations of making coffee in every single part of the world, couple that with an almost insane level of variation on terms in each region for their own spices, roasts and levels of sweetness, and this post could take years. But since this is all about cardamom, and not coffee (another post in the future!), I am only going to cover just Turkish coffee, since most versions of this contain cardamom in traditional preparations. Coffee in many of these regions also tends to be so strong it is drunk in small amounts, from beautiful coffee pots, and there are all sorts of gestures (as with some tea drinking) that go along with the coffee ceremony.

I hate to admit that until recently I had no idea that the pairing of cardamom and coffee was why I loved Turkish coffee sooooooo much, but what is even more awesome is I found that cardamom, and this was known to those Turkish coffee drinkers, tones down the effects of the caffeine (that means you can have 6 cups of good, strong coffee and not fear that your body may vibrate itself to its atomic parts, I tried it in the name of science and I only felt a little more “amped” like I had only had a cup or two) making the coffee you drink a lot more healthy and beneficial for you. If you take your coffee with milk, it can also reduce the extra mucus that dairy products tend to cause as well, so you can have a splash to give you another way to get Vitamin D. Since it reduces stress as well, it may be a good idea to throw cardamom in the coffee you take on your morning drive to help combat the stress of commuting, and combat the dreaded Monday yawns.

This could be the answer for a happy morning commute!

Now knowing that it can over power coffee you would hardly be surprised at how much in flavor is packed in this little pod. It also easy to keep when stored in unbroken pod form, it can last for ages since the seeds (unbroken) inside the pods are what hold all the precious oils and flavors. I actually keep and re-use a lot of glass jars, my favorite are amber yeast jars for storing spices like this since they are usually airtight, and help prevent damage from sunlight (that is why good beer comes in amber bottles, yeast hates direct sunlight). Cardamom can last even longer if sealed, then put in the freezer. So stock up if its on sale! Because cardamom pods keep extremely well once dried, and retain almost all of their flavor and oils until crushed it made it a very easily stored, and therefore traded, spice. It was so hardy it became quickly a far traveling spice, it was strong enough to make it all the way to Scandinavian countries and still carry its sweet flavor to their palates. Its easy storage is also why it is one of the oldest traded spices (excluding resins), but because it has to be hand harvested like tea – ranks as one of the top 3 most expensive spices, only beaten by saffron and vanilla (more spices we will discuss later). While it is an expensive spice it is not out of reach, and you can buy bags of whole pods at most markets for reasonable prices (much less cost, and easier to find than good quality saffron). You can even find some in a few of the larger chain stores, but I would much rather give my cash to Mom & Pop stores, and local places. Shop local y’all! Like saffron the expense is countered by you not having to use much to get a lot of flavor, 1-3 pods is a lot of flavor for a dish. Heed this warning though, the pre-ground powder loses its potency and flavor faster than most spices. I strongly advise against buying pre-ground cardamom unless you are using it all that day, or you have no other available options. Though if you have pre-ground cardamom it is easy to throw it into coffee beans that are ground, or you are grinding!

Cardamom is also available as essential oil, remember to buy a good quality one if you are going to ingest it, and I advise caution and not to ingest more than 2 maybe 3 drops (that is for adults only) since over use can quickly lead to overdose and that has symptoms opposite to calming the stomach (and definitely some time in the bathroom), but as far as testing has shown this is “mostly harmless” and shouldn’t have overly adverse effects (nothing is ever 100% safe to consume vast quantities of so remember common sense and moderation). Also if you have, or are prone to gall stones, avoid cardamom in excessive amounts it can irritate them.

What is in Cardamom that Works?

Well one of the main components is 1.8cineole which is also known as eucalyptol, which may sound familiar as it is in eucalyptus, lavender and camphor (another future post). Which is something we know to be an anti-inflammatory and there are scientific studies that are showing this is a promising chemical for medicinal use. Also the second highest component in cardamom is a-terpinyl acetate, which has a lot of studies that show it to be an effective antimicrobial, and is the reason that cardamom is such a good addition to any cold, or illness fighting food or drink. Another one that should hopefully be familiar by now is linalool, which has shown a lot of promise in lab research as a stress reliever, and mild sedative. Hence it being such a great addition to drinks to relieve stress, mild anxiety, and can help ease the pain of tension headaches, and all of these mean it is great for migraines.

Α and β-pinene are also present in cardamom, and α as having anti-inflammatory properties, as well as having an almost antibiotic effect, which makes it great for fighting pain and illness. Β-pinene more aromatic, and should be familiar since they are both prevalent in pine. Now this is probably the most important chemical in cardamom for the sufferers of pain – myrcene. This little chemical is a well known pain reliever, and is why hops are effective pain relievers and the not so legal in Texas, but very legal elsewhere, cannabis. Cardamom contains a lot of this chemical and it is fairly safe to ingest in sensible daily amounts with no adverse side effects. Another, hopefully familiar one is limonene, which is why cardamom is so great for settling the stomach, and may actually help people with IBS or acid reflux – if you have these look into it, it may be your answer. It is also a sedative and helps to reduce stress since it helps to stimulate adenosine receptors and the production of adenosine – which is a key chemical in the body goign to sleep as well as an anti-inflammatory. Terpinolene which helps preserve foods, and other things, since it is an anti-fungal and anti-bacterial. And many others we have discussed before like (but not limited to) – citronellol, nerol, and geraniol. So as you can see, it was no exaggeration saying that cardamom was a heavy hitter packed into a tiny pod.

Cardamom Recipes

Right, so, since its the holidays fudge is everywhere, or at least it is here. And while most of us know only the chocolate kind, carrot fudge is a World War II treat that was able to be easily made with rations, and has a long history in India as Gajar Halwa. Which as one of my friends (who is Indian) said Gajar Halwa is a great way to take something healthy and turn it into something that is the complete opposite of what it started out as.

Carrot Fudge (Gajar Halwa) (adapted from myheartbeets)

  • 2½ cups Carrots, grated
  • 1 can Coconut Cream (or full fat coconut milk or even condensed milk)
  • 2 tablespoons Coconut oil (butter or ghee could be substituted)
  • 2 tablespoons Honey
  • 1 teaspoon of ground Cardamom seeds
  • Optional: chopped dates, golden raisins, chopped prunes, and optional garnish of crushed pistachios or toasted almond slivers

Melt coconut oil in a saucepan, add grated carrots and cook until softening (about 10 minutes) add coconut cream and simmer on low heat stirring to keep it from burning. After about 20 minutes add the cardamom, mix thoroughly, and then add in honey (leave out if you used condensed milk), mixing well until all liquids evaporate and mixture thickens. Serve in bowls with optional garnishes, or throw in dried fruits for some extra depth, but best is to spread it thickly in a greased or wax paper lined pan. You can press a whole nut or formations of dried fruit into regular intervals while the mix is still hot, and then slice into squares for gifting. Because this has cardamom in it, it is also good to serve after a large holiday meal (especially one where people are sure to overindulge). It is also good for the host(ess), since it helps reduce stress and can help take some of the edge of the exhausting nature of this season.

Vetebröd (Swedish Sweet Yeast Bread slightly altered from here)

  • 2 1/2 cups Milk
  • 1 1/2 cups Butter, melted
  • 1 cup Sugar (or honey)
  • 1 teaspoon Salt
  • 2 teaspoons Cardamom seeds, ground
  • 1 tablespoon yeast
  • 9 cups Flour
  • 7-9 tablespoons Gluten
  • 1 egg and 2 tablespoons water for egg wash
  • Cardamom sugar (see below) or slivered toasted almonds for topping

Prepare your Basic Cardamom Bread Dough using the first 7 ingredients listed above (this takes about 1 1/2 hours).

After punching down dough following its first rise, remove from bowl and knead lightly on floured counter until smooth and shiny. Divide dough into two halves.

Divide each half of the dough into three equal portions. Roll each portion into a long, thin “snake” (about 18 inches long). Braid three of the “snakes” together, folding and pinching outer edges under to form a loaf shape. Repeat for second set of three dough “snakes.” (Alternative: Do not divide dough into 2 halves, but separate entire mass into three equal portions. Roll the three portions into “snakes,” braid together, then join and pinch ends together to form a single braided bread wreath).

Place the two braided loaves (or the single braided wreath) on a greased baking sheet, cover with a towel, and let rise until doubled, about 45 minutes. Preheat oven to 375º.

When loaves (or wreath) have doubled, brush with egg wash and sprinkle with [cardamom or orange sugar] or almonds. Place in the middle of a preheated oven and bake for 25 minutes, or until done.

Yield: 2 braided loaves or 1 braided wreath, about 20 servings.

To make cardamom sugar, take 1-2 pods cardamom and in food processor grind well with sugar and use to sprinkle over bread, or toast almond slivers in the oven to top. To make an orange sugar take a tablespoon of orange zest and quickly grind a few times in food processor and use to sprinkle over bread.

Speculaas or Dutch Windmill Cookies (slightly altered from here)

  • 1/2 cup (1 stick or 113 g) cold unsalted butter
  • 1/4 cup + 2 tablespoons (75 g) white granulated sugar
  • 3/4 cup (165 g) packed dark brown sugar
  • 1/4 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 2 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 3/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
  • 3/4 teaspoon ground cloves
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground white pepper
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground cardamom
  • 1 1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
  • 1 large egg
  • 1 3/4 cup (235 g) all purpose flour

Prep a cookie sheet with parchment paper or a silicon baking sheet. Then:

Cut the butter into 1/2 inch cubes. Place in the bowl of a standing mixer fitted with a paddle attachment. Add the sugars, baking soda, salt, and spices. Cream butter and dry ingredients together on medium speed for 30 seconds or until the batter is uniform in color. Scrape down the sides with a large spatula and add the vanilla extract and egg and beat on medium speed until incorporated (about 30 more seconds). Scrape down the sides again and add the flour. Beat on medium speed until incorporated (about 30 more seconds)

If you are lucky enough to have all the traditional implements follow the quoted text if not skip down past that.

Split the cookie dough in half. If you using the springerle rolling pin, roll the dough out until 1/2 inch thick with a plain rolling pin. Liberally dust the springerle pin with flour then roll over the dough, pressing firmly to make a 1/4 inch thick cookie dough, with imprint. Cut the dough along the springerle grid lines with a sharp knife or pizza cutter and place on the baking sheet. If using a traditional speculaas cookie mold, roll the dough until 1/2 thick with a plain rolling pin. Lightly spray the mold with cooking oil, then liberally dust with all purpose flour (knocking out any loose flour once you’ve dusted it). Press the dough into the mold, remove excess dough of the back of the mold and then carefully unmold it onto the baking sheet.

If you don’t have all that fancy stuff, or some awesome family heirloom shortbread mold, use a cookie cutter and you can cut them into any shape you want. You can also roll it into a log and cut it into evenly spaced discs, roll each into a ball and press with the bottom of a glass if you have one with a nice design, or the old standby used for peanut butter cookies of pressing a fork into an X shape works as well. If you have one a cookie “gun” or a cookie stamp would work a treat to make these (I recently acquired a cookie stamp and am making these cookies again just to try it out). You want to roll things fairly thick so the unbaked cookies are at least 1/4 of an inch thick.

Chill for about an hour, but for at least 30 minutes. Then heat your oven to 375°F and bake for 9 to 11 minutes, you want to remove them when they just start to brown at the edges, do not let them brown all the way. Cookies as a rule should err on the side of underdone, instead of overdone. You can always bake them a tad longer, you can’t un-bake them. Also you should always allow them to cool in or on whatever they baked in for at least 10 minutes before transferring to a cooling rack. These cookies are no different, but taste oh so delicious.

It isn’t Christmas really without these next cookies, and they are a Southern favorite. Sadly less and less people are familiar with them, but these are one of my favorite cookies to whip up as gifts during the holidays and this has a cardamom addition for some exotic flare.

Cardamom Molasses Cookies

  • 1 cup packed brown sugar
  • 3/4 cup coconut oil (seriously just trust me use this and nothing else, you could use shortening or butter but it doesn’t come out the same)
  • 1/4 cup molasses (find the darkest least processed you can find, you want as much dark rich flavor as possible)
  • 1 egg
  • 2 1/4 cup all purpose flour
  • 2 teaspoons baking soda
  • 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1 teaspoon ginger
  • 1 teaspoon cardamom
  • 1/2 teaspoon cloves
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • optional: 1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
  • garnish: 1-2 tablespoons sugar

Cream coconut oil, brown sugar, egg, and molasses in a stand mixer or in a bowl with an electric beater. Stir in spices, then add in flour in batches, salt and baking soda. Mix well until fully combined, dough should be slightly dry, but forms easily into balls like peanut butter cookie dough. It is easiest to use a 1-2 ounce ice cream scoop to portion out the dough but you want to have about a tablespoon of dough for each cookie. Roll each by hand into a ball then dip top half in sugar. Place sugar side up on baking tray with parchment paper, with 2 inches at least between each ball. Bake for 12-15 minutes, let cool for 10 and then move to cooling rack. These are a delicious and aromatic cookie, that will become your favorite once you make it.

Cardamom Coffee

  • 1 cup Coffee beans, whole (pre-ground if you have no other option)
  • 1-2 Cardamom pods
  • Optional – cinnamon sticks, orange peel, carob nibs, cloves, saffron, and caraway seeds, fresh vanilla
  • Coffee Grinder
  • French Press (preferred but not required)

It is technically more “traditional” to use a lighter roast, or roast your own beans. Even I don’t have time for all that jazz. So find a roast level you like, and use that. Most grinders hold about a cup of coffee beans, add in your cardamom pods, and grind you don’t want a fine grind but fairly chunky. Follow your normal routine for brewing coffee in a french press, if you never have check out this guide. You can add in other things to your grind like the optional spices, or you can just do plain cardamom and coffee. All of them taste amazing. Guests will be wowed that you blended your own special grind and you will forever be known as the hostess with the most-est.

Some cardamom, cinnamon and orange peel spiced coffee, in my beautiful Christmas present from my fantastic MIL <3 I couldn't help but brag a wee bit!

Some cardamom, cinnamon and orange peel spiced coffee, in my beautiful Christmas present from my fantastic MIL ❤ I couldn’t help but brag a wee bit!

Warning: I have put 3 cardamom pods in about half a cup of coffee and ground it, and it is some pretty strong knockout juice. So please do not drink loads of cardamom and drive!

Cardamom Tea

  • 2-3 pods, slightly crushed
  • 8 ounces of Hot water (not boiling)

Steep for 10-15 minutes, and drink. You may need some honey to help this out since it can be quite strong tasting. This is good for pain, or extremely stressful days. If you are having stomach issues, increase to about a teaspoon of crushed seeds and steep for the same amount of time. This should help with cramping and abdominal pain that comes with medications, IBS, lactose in tolerance and so on.

ProCompressTip: You can steep for 20 minutes, and then soak a towel in this and apply directly to the forehead, or head where migraine hurts most. Or even to cramped muscles to help ease spasms and pain.

 Cardamom Tincture

  • 1 part Cardamom seeds, slightly crushed
  • 2 parts Vodka (or other clear alcohol)
  • Mason jar or airtight jar

Put crushed seeds in a jar, cover with alcohol. Allow to sit, giving a shake once a day or so for about 4-6 weeks. Strain and bottle and store out of sunlight. This is a great cure for stomach cramping, and intestinal distress. It is also good to take after a heavy meal to prevent those issues in advance. A few 1-10 ml (10-60 drops) in honey or in a tea, or under the tongue. This can also be a good way to help yourself sleep on a restless night, or when a migraine or pain is keeping you awake.

It is great paired with Tulsi and lavender in a tea too!

Mike Tyson Level Knock Out Tea

  • 1-2 pods of Cardamom, with seeds removed (more if you like the taste adjust to your liking)
  • 1 tablespoon of Tulsi
  • 1 teaspoon dried Lavender flowers
  • Optional: 1 teaspoon of dried Chamomile flowers

You could reduce the Tulsi to a teaspoon but, I say go big or go home. Plus this tea pretty much ensures that within a half hour you will be counting sheep in dreamland. Steep in water for about 10-15 minutes, add honey if you need some sweet, strain and drink! This is a great tea also if you are up stressing about something, since it will put your mind at ease and bring healthy restful sleep. Seriously you have no other options but to sleep when cardamom is in the mix.

Cardamom Massage Oil

  • 30 drops Cardamom essential oil
  • 1 ounce good oil (jojoba, almond, olive, etc)

Mix well and store in and store in a dark bottle, massage into spasms, or temples, neck and shoulders for migraines. This is also good for a generally allover body massage to alleviate stress and anxiety. Give it a go, you will love the smell and the relaxation.

Cardamom Epsom Salt Bath

  • 5 cups (40 oz) Epsom Salts
  • 5-20 drops Cardamom essential oils
  • Optional: any other oils you would like to add, just remember to reduce your cardamom oil by the number of drops of your other oils.

Mix well, and store in an airtight container, add a cup to a hot bath and soak for 20-30 minutes. You can always use the cardamom tea, and throw in some epsom salts too if you are unable to get your hands on the oil.

Ok, now I have to get out my soapbox.

*gets on soapbox*

Before I get into this second chai recipe, because who can have too many chai recipes? I want to explain something that seems to have as much fear and superstition surrounding its use and adoption, as the gas stove did when it was first introduced (for more on the gas stove see the footnotes). So I would like to clear up some things about Microwaves from things I have heard.

  • Microwaves “change” the molecular structure of water. Wrong. If it did – it wouldn’t be water, secondly this has been pretty solidly debunked by pretty much everyone out there, and their doge, not the least including Snopes. The day some 9 yr old’s science project overturns major accepted views in physics and chemistry, you aren’t going to read about it in some email forward from one of your crazier relatives. Critical thinking people, lets use some.
  • Microwaves give you “radiation and therefore cancer.” Wrong. Microwaves are not going to give you radiation poisoning like if you walked into a nuclear reactor in full meltdown. You are getting more radiation flying in an airplane, or eating a banana – than you do using a microwave. Think about that. Please stop spreading this rumor it is old and tired, and that horse died at least 50 years ago. Stop. Beating it. Microwaves use electromagnetic waves to excite the food’s water molecules, cooking it from the inside basically by steam. That is why it doesn’t brown, or do well with breads like an electric or gas oven that uses heat conduction and convection to cook food. A microwave is not radiating food, or giving anything radiation that will kill you to stand in front of one (except if you are heating a hotpocket, then yes, it may actually be part of killing you, but 90% of that was the hotpocket). Electromagnetic waves also power your computer/car speakers, and many other things, so unless you also shun speakers and pretty much every other electronic device, your argument about microwaves being some “radiation cancer machine,” sounds really rather silly. But if you don’t believe me, here is the FDA on microwaves explaining why they are safe, and American Cancer Society on why microwaves won’t give you cancer, or the bad sort of radiation.

I get that not everyone aced chemistry and physics, but pretty much all the myths and fear surrounding the microwave are just another sad case of history repeating itself. We fear what we do not fully understand, and invisible waves that heats things up does seem pretty magical. So in the hopes that people will better understand, please read this explanation on how microwaves work. Or if you need a more quick and friendly explanation check out this video from the Smithsonian, they are people who know stuff.

*gets off soapbox*

Failure (and Idiot) Proof Chai Tea

  • ¹/3 cup of water
  • 2/3 cup of Milk
  • 1 teaspoon – 1 tablespoon Black Tea
  • 1-3 Star Anise pods, whole
  • 2-4 Green Cardamom pods, crushed
  • 2-5 Peppercorns, crushed
  • 1 stick True Cinnamon, whole
  • 3-6 Cloves, crushed
  • 1 inch (thumb sized) piece of Fresh Ginger, crushed, or a heaping teaspoon of candied
  • Optional: teaspoon of Turmeric paste or powder, or fresh vanilla include seeds and pod itself.

Crush the spices except for the star anise and cinnamon you add those whole, and the ginger if you are using fresh. You don’t want to grind this to a powder just make sure things are slightly broken and the ginger is flat-ish, you want it broken up but not completely ground to a paste – though you can grind it to a paste if you really, really want to. I didn’t have fresh ginger this time since I just made ginger ale the day before, so I am using some candied ginger I got as a gift, which I love the jar it came in and will be storing my home-made candied ginger in it once I am done! Since I actually remembered for once to take pictures as I am making it, there are now pictures to follow along 🙂 and I am going to try to be really good this year about taking more pictures of things so hopefully I remember to!

Spices in my cute little molina

Spices in my cute little molina

Throw everything except the milk into a pot, exclude the candied ginger if you are using it, I find that using a spoon to scrape out the spices the easiest way since lifting my stone mortar is difficult with my strength issues. Bring the water tea and spice mix up to a simmer and allow it to go for 3-4 minutes, or until it becomes fragrant with smell of the tea and the spices.

Candied ginger and my plain black tea (I am out of fresh since I just made ginger ale)

My candied ginger that was a gift! It is my trusty backup, and my plain black tea, you can use Earl Grey, or lipton (ugh!) if you have to, if you can’t find plain black tea.

Turn off heat and leave the pot on the burner to get that last bit of heat out while you heat your milk.

My little pot full of tea and spices!

That’s right let that stuff sit and marinate.

Milk, besides sugar, is one of the most evil things to cook with. I say evil because they will turn on you faster than an evil step-sister in a Brother’s Grimm fairy tale. If you look away for a second, or have to tend to some urgent situation, while making chai with milk on the stove, you could end up with some really horrible chai curds and whey. Not pleasant, or drinkable.

So the best way around this is to heat the water with the tea and spices on the stove, and then heat your milk (30 seconds to a minute) in the microwave. Microwaves since they excite water molecules only, will heat the milk (or other liquids) without bringing it to a visible boil (another reason it has such mistrust, how can it make something boiling hot without it looking like its boiling?! And scalding is, I believe, the number one way most people hurt themselves with microwaves). So it is extremely difficult to destroy, or curdle, your milk with this method, and it is heated to a precisely so that the chai is drinkable sooner rather than later.

Strained and ready to go!

Strained and ready to go! Yum!

You can even heat the milk right in the mug you are using, then strain the tea mixture into the heated milk, stir to fully combine and add the candied ginger if you are using it. I also find that I overall get a better colored chai, and if I want to try to squeeze a second brewing out of my tea and spices it isn’t all gross with milk. Waste not, want not. Right?

Cardamom is also a mild laxative, and as we have discussed previously everybody poops, but sometimes we have difficulty pooping. Cardamom is a good addition to a senna or other herbal laxative recipe, as well as fennel, since both will help ease the cramping that can come with taking over the counter laxatives or herbal ones.

Cardamom & Senna Tea To Make You Go

  • 100 grams (3.5 ounces) of senna pods (half as much if you use leaves)
  • 16 ounces Boiling water
  • 5-6 Cardamom pods, crushed
  • Optional: Honey, fennel, or ginger can be added to help things along.

Steep for 3-5 minutes in a covered tea pot, and drink about 8 ounces, if you need a stronger tea let steep for longer. But the longer you steep it the stronger this will be when it comes to cramping, and while the cardamom does help it will not eliminate the cramping entirely. This will also make you sleepy, and senna works best overnight, so drink this before bed.

Remember, everyone is different and every body’s chemistry is different so do your own tests, see what your body works best with. Do the smart thing and check for interactions with other things you are taking on places like WebMD. And as always if you are in doubt in the slightest, ask a professional!

ProCardamomConversionTip: 12 seeds = 1 pod; 10 pods = 1 ½ teaspoons of Cardamom powder

For more information on the fear of adoption of gas stoves, as well as the history of cooking implements and eating as well check out Consider the Fork.

If you are interested in a quick history of Venice, and some of their food go here.

If you are a coffee addict aficionado, like me, you should check out all of these variations by making them at home since they are fun to make, can be made with inexpensive means and little addition to your kitchen unless you want to, and more fun to drink especially if you follow the tradition of using it to socialize with friends and family. We all need more socializing with good people, it lifts the spirits and it is something we have lost in our rush-about modern culture. Also, the habit of hospitality (at least in the US) has been lost, and we should definitely bring that back! If you are afraid to try grinding or roasting it on your own, seek out a local Arabic market, and ask people in the store and the owners what they do, what they use and what they like. I find that when I do this I get fantastic advice, recipes, sometimes a delicious sample with them, and often a new friend. I have yet to meet a person that does not appreciate someone trying to learn about, understand and enjoy something of their culture’s traditions.

There were so many recipes I wanted to include but just ran out of steam and space. So here is a little link storm of things if you are looking to have some more cardamom in your diet. These may sound out of your comfort zone at first but trust me, good things are in your future if you make one of these.

Cardamom Link Storm


8 Comments

Devil’s Claw

Lots of things happening, and I have had a severe downturn with spasms in my face making things very difficult when it comes to eating and, well, functioning overall since it feels like my head is trapped in this perpetual vice. But I am still getting around and cramming as much life into my better than bad days as I can!

Nobody.

You are right Sweet Brown, nobody.

Like Fishfuddle, this has a scary sounding name, but unlike it Devil’s Claw is much less hazardous while just as helpful. Devil’s Claw, or for you people that like Latin names, Harpagophytum procumbenswhich is found through much of Africa and has been known there for ages and used to treat a wide range of illnesses, fever, malaria, stomach issues, constipation, but mostly used to treat various inflammatory pain issues. It was well known for treating diseases like rheumatoid arthritis, and it is its anti-inflammatory abilities that make this a great herb to use to treat a lot of pain issues.

Devil's claw, it would almost look harmless if you didn't know those light parts will dry hard and spiky.

Devil’s claw, it would almost look harmless if you didn’t know those light parts will dry hard and spiky.

The parts of the plants used are the large roots, but this herb gets its name from it’s seed case. Which looks like a wicked painful thing to step on.

Dem spikes.

It is also known by other names like grapple plant and wood spider. Which I think accurately describe this vicious looking spiked pod. It is a craftily designed shape though, which David Attenborough explains in his informative dulcet tones.

Africa was lucky enough to have this plant readily available and it was used in Africa for centuries. Then, later on in history, there was an uprising against the German colonialism and it is a pretty horrible story to read, but it allowed the interaction (according to myth) between a local healer and a soldier/farmer, a guy named G. H. Mehnert. It seems that this is a constructed legend that has possibly been debunked. What we do know for sure is that it did make its way to Germany, and then had a boom in interest during the 1970’s in Europe. It was quickly noted that it treated inflammatory diseases, and it grew in popularity, sometimes to where demand could not be met with supply in some areas.

It has started to gain more interest as it is studied more, and has had promising results in treating back pain as well as rheumatoid arthritis and other arthritis like disorders. Of course there isn’t enough evidence to say 100% this is the best thing to do but it looks like this could be a new promising direction for new anti-inflammatories and treatment for back pain and even possibly migraines. The active chemicals that seems to be the source of the plants ability are harpagoside (an iridoid glycoside – which chemicals common in medicinal plants), procumbide (also iridoid glycoside) and plant sterols (which are basically plant steroids – think similar to cortisone). These have all been studied and results are, again not 100%, but looks good. The current theories are that like some NSAIDS the chemicals in Devil’s claw block the uptake of the chemicals the body releases to start inflammation, so that means it would behave similar to a COX-2 inhibitor. There is a caution though that comes with this, it has been found in some people to aggravate stomachs, and could cause irritation with ulcers. Also it can thin blood so if you are on blood thinners, or are doing anything were blood thinning could be dangerous, make sure you consult or notify your doctors, which ever applies best.

As I said earlier it is the tubers produced by this plant that has the medicinal properties, and you can actually find quite a few pre-made preparations in teas, pills, extracts and other forms. If you go this route, make sure you are following the directions on the box, or if you are taking extracts no more than 500 mgs of a 5% extract 3 times a day.

If you have the raw herb it is best to use this as a tea,which is a great way to deal with pain and inflammation that is chronic, you can drink this once a day and it is a fairly powerful anti-inflammatory, and mild pain reliever.

Devil’s Claw Tea for Pain & Inflammation

  • 2 – 9 grams of Dried roots, chopped roughly
  • 8 oz Boiling water

Steep for at least 8 minutes, maybe 10, and drink once a day. If you are using a pre-made tea, please always follow the directions on the packet.

Tea for Stomach Issues

  • 1 teaspoon of Dried roots, chopped
  • 16 oz Boiling water

Steep for 20 minutes and drink, can be used to alleviate constipation but does also calm stomachs if you have never had, or currently have an ulcer avoid this, or at least consult your doctor first.

Devil’s Claw Tincture

  • Mason jar
  • Devil’s claw root, chopped, enough to fill 3/4 of the jar
  • Grain alcohol, enough to fill the rest of the jar

Cover the dried root with the alcohol, allow to sit in dark undisturbed place for 4-6 weeks. Shaking every day (or when you remember). Strain and bottle in dark bottles, dose is 15-20 drops in water, spoonful of honey, or tea.

If you purchase an extract or a powder, remember to check the percentage of harpagosides, and know the amounts you are taking. If you need an example on how to make your own capsules there is a tutorial at the end of this post about turmeric, another great anti-inflammatory.

There is also an indication that Devil’s claw can help with atherosclerosis, which is something that can happen if you have had a lot of cortisone. So this may be something good to start looking into if you relieve a lot of cortisone injections to help manage your pain.

Remember though everyone’s body is different, do your own research and experiments. Educate yourself no one will do it for you. Check for interactions with medications on places like WebMD, and always remember if you are ever in doubt about anything at all, ask a professional!


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Hot or Cold for CRPS (RSD)?

If you ever played sports, you know that if you get an injury ice is the first thing you reach for. Which for most sports injuries ice right after you are hurt is one of the best ways to prevent swelling getting out of hand and reduce a bit of the pain. RICE should in some form be known to you. There are different forms depending on the injury as outlined here, but it is a good general guide to follow if you have an injury from sports or just over working the muscles or a trip or fall…unless you have CRPS.

If you have CRPS (formerly RSD) you may have some issues with hot or cold. I have issues sensing hot and cold as well as extreme sensitivity to cold. Winter is now my least favorite month. The minute I get cold my whole body tenses automatically and it takes extreme mental effort to force relaxation. At first cold really didn’t affect me much but as my CRPS progressed I became more and more cold sensitive, and now heat is my refuge from pain.

This is why I live in Texas, only 2 seasons hot, and not AS hot.

This is why I live in Texas, only 2 seasons hot, and not as hot.

Each person is unique in how their CRPS progresses and behaves, and this is very true with temperatures. “Cold” CRPS can occur, it is more rare in about 30% of recorded cases and as the name indicates the affected area is colder than normal. If you have “warm” or “hot” CRPS, which is the sort I seem to have, and is unfortunately more acute, and is characterized by a warm area or increased body temperature. I am apparently snuggle-y warm and a favorite of small children and cats because of this. People who have “hot” CRPS are in general advised to avoid cold and that is why you see this as the most prominent admonitions on sites like here, and here. From what I have found from my own experience this holds true. I tend to avoid cold and when I am hurting the first thing I think of is how I can make that area warm.

Some good warming suggestions that I have found that ease the pain are:

  • Warm/Hot baths or showers – you shouldn’t be scalding yourself but warmth can help loosen stiff or spasmed muscles, but no more than 20 minutes. More and it can cause issues.
  • Baths with Epsom Salts – I have a ton of these listed, pick on that fits your needs and like above no more than 20 minutes at a time.
  • Heating pads – also includes rice, clay, microwaveable gel, and other heating pack type things. I love these and they sometimes are huge in alleviating pain. They also do great in helping with my migraine pain. Only downside is if you get up you have to shoo your cat or dog away from them. Those scamps!
  • Warming oilsclove, ginger, eucalyptus, capsacin, wintergreen, peppermint, and lots of other oils have warming properties. These draw blood to the area and make the area feel more warm which again helps muscles to relax and ease pain. Make or buy them and apply, always be careful to avoid the eyes and sensitive areas.
  • Exercisenot only is it good for you, but it gets the blood pumping to extremities and helps warm the more extreme areas (which is why you sometimes feel more stiff when you wake up and more limber after moving around).

It is good to limit heat exposure since applying heat and the removing it can shock the body with the temperature change and be just as bad as applying a cold pack. Remember if you have “cold” CRPS treatment will be different, and if you do not have CRPS make sure to use the appropriate RICE technique. If you are not sure about what to use, you should always ask a professional! 


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Fishfuddle Befuddles Pain

Oh life, you always throw a spanner into the best laid plans. Between migraines coming back (getting topped up again with botox soon so they will be hopefully be gone for a month or two again) and cramming as much life into the days I don’t hurt, due to birthday’s and other social events, I just have not found the time to sit and write as much as I want to. But you must always make time for the things you love 🙂 and I love writing!

Piscidia piscipula, or sometimes known as fishfuddle, or the Florida fishpoison tree, is a tree that is native to Florida, Texas, Caribbean, Central and South America. This is as you can tell from the name, not a remedy to be trifled with, and I am strongly recommending you talk to your doctor(s) before embarking on using this remedy. I actually had some internal turmoil over whether or not I should write about this since it is very much use at your own risk sort of thing, and you should be very careful with this remedy. It is not something you shouldn’t just start up willy-nilly, even though it is a great medication, in small amounts, for pain especially nerve pains. But like I always say, you should always respect all things you put in your body, herbal medicine, or otherwise. Remember that if it is strong enough to good, then it can be strong enough to do bad. Always be mindful in all things you ingest, over the counter pills, essential oils, anything in the wrong amounts or used improperly can be dangerous, and even water can poison you.

Jamaican Dogwood in all of its glory!

Jamaican dogwood in all of its glory!

Now that I have gotten the stern warnings out of the way, this is a powerful analgesic and sedative, and as a bonus has anti-inflammatory properties as well. Its Latin name roughly translates to “little fish killer,” usually in places it grows the indigenous people use the shrub to create a strong fish sedative and poison which can be added to small ponds or swamps. Thus allowing easy collecting of fish for small family groups. Its poison isn’t long lasting and therefore not detrimental to the environment since it breaks down if exposed to sunlight for more than 6 days. It has been successfully used in some cases to remove invasive species from lakes, and may be a way to prevent destructive species invasion of aquatic environments. It is also a powerful insecticide, which if you are fighting the ravages of caterpillars. Which I don’t mind a few having a snack, always plant some extra for nature, but decimation is an act of war! And a solution containing a bit of Jamaican dogwood tincture is a very effective way to prevent them from eating all your plants. Other than obliterating your garden with fire.

Take that you greedy caterpillars!

While it can be detrimental to the finned water friends, since it affects their gills, it can be a powerful pain reliever, especially in the case of nerve pain, as well as sedative for humans. It is really not well studied since it fell out of fashion after the 1800’s, mostly due to the dominance of opiates and then mass produced pain medications. Also there was some bad PR it got due to the claims of possible carcinogenic chemicals (but not enough studies to back it up, just like the same bad PR safrole), and it makes this remedy is a bit more difficult to write about. There have been studies in the early days of Western medicine that do confirm its ability to alleviate pain and ease tense muscles, but not years of studies that would give definitive and detailed information and results. The chemical interactions that lead it to being good for treating human pain, as well as being a sedative, anti-spasmodic, and anti-inflammatory, are unstudied by modern science to a degree that we could not truly pinpoint what chemical is is causing what. One of the known chemicals in Jamaican dogwood is rotenone, which is deadly to fish since it affects their gills, but is not as poisonous to warmblooded animals, though in large amounts Jamaican dogwood can still be toxic to humans. Traditional uses that went beyond fish hunting were generally for the sedation and pain relieving side of the plant. Though later alternative medicinal practices used this plant to treat migraines, and other painful conditions, with patients that could not tolerate opium, or opiates. It has also been used by many cultures to treat moon time issues, and ease painful cramps since it relaxes muscles as well as easing pain.

Generally the bark of the roots is what is used and you can buy this online, try to buy locally if at all possible from a reputable dealer that harvests in a sustainable manner. If you live in one of the areas that Jamaican dogwood grows naturally in, you should have a go at harvesting it yourself. There is a really good article to use here, she goes into identification and how to harvest as well as drying and her own recipe for a tincture. There is also a lot of commercial preparations, such as extracts that can be used as well. If you opt to go the extracts route make sure you know the strength of the extract you are purchasing and it is always best to start with the smallest amount and work up taking tiny steps. Some people experience an adverse reaction to this remedy and it is best to make sure your stomach is not upset by it before you take larger amounts. Another option is to use the bark of the root to make a tea.

Jamaican Dogwood Tea

  • ¼-½ teaspoon Dried Jamaican dogwood root bark
  • 8 oz of water

Add the root bark to the water, and boil for 10 to 15 minutes. Start small here and you can eventually increase to 1 teaspoon all the way up to 2, though this should be done with caution and only after stepping up a 1/4 teaspoon at a time. This is great for all sorts of pain – nerve, joint, lady type, migraines, etc. It also is a pretty strong sedative, even more so than valerian, and is a great way to make sure you get your z’s. It also helps to ease painful cramping and spasms. It also helps to relieve anxiety and stress in the smaller doses and if you are quite anxious this may be a good way to deal with some of the worse days.

Jamaican Dogwood Tincture

  • 1 part Dried Jamaican dogwood root bark
  • 5 parts Grain alcohol
  • Mason jar or other seal-able glass jar

Make sure you have enough room at the top of the jar when you put all the root bark and grain alcohol into your jar. Make sure the root bark is covered and seal. Make sure you shake it every so often, and leave it to sit for 4-6 weeks. On the site I linked previously she suggests blending the bark, which if you don’t have something as powerful as a Vitamix you can use pruning sheers or other strong cutting implements to chop it into little pieces to increase surface area. 5 drops in honey, tea or directly under the tongue, and increase as needed. No more than 30 drops, in my opinion, some sites though recommend 2 droppers, which is about 2.5 ml, and equates to about the same amount. Again, this is good for migraines, spasms, sleeping issues, all that good stuff.

 Jamaican Dogwood Bug Spray

  • 5-10 drops Jamaican dogwood tincture
  • Spray bottle
  • Enough water to fill the spray bottle

Add everything to the spray bottle, and shake well before use. Spray on plants, and make sure you rinse anything you eat from them very well before consuming them. This really should only be used in extreme circumstances of bug, or caterpillar invasion, you should always plant extra for the animals.

If you purchase a powdered version or if you are using extract you can always make these into a pill form and if you need instruction on how to do so there is a good one at the end of this post on turmeric, which just so happens to work really well as a companion to dogwood in a pain pill preparation. Hops and valerian are also good companions for Jamaican dogwood. Depending on the percentage of concentration of the extract you may need to use less, but the dose for powdered Jamaican dogwood is about 1-5 grains (65 mg – 324 mg), I would definitely not suggest using more than that.

Remember educate yourself before taking this drug, and do not start a treatment without consulting a physician. Always check places like WebMD to make sure it won’t interact with your medications or any conditions. In this case, even if you don’t have any doubts about this remedy you need to ask a professional before starting it.


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Birch, The Watchful & Giving Tree

Sorry to everyone out there, this took so long to post since my left arm is slowing me down a bit, and there are spasms in my hand and face that are starting to make doing a lot of things painful. But what better inspiration to talk about something that is a good pain reliever for aches and pains!

Everyone knows birch, the tall silvery trees that seem to stand out so starkly against the forest background. It has many species and all are a part of the genus Betula. I always love paintings that include birch trees, and birch is the state tree of New Hampshire. Birch in Sanskrit is bhurga and translates basically to “tree whose bark was used for writing on,” and may be the root word for the Anglo-Saxon word for birch – beorgan which means “to protect” or “shelter.” In Czech the month of March is Březen and is derived from bříza which means birch, since birch trees tend to flower in that month there.

Source National Geographic

No matter what you call it though, it is always slender, silvery, and beautiful birch.

The birch, no matter where it grows, seems to draw notice from humans. Be it for functional use, mythology, or their own aesthetic beauty, every culture that has them in their region holds it in high honor and has a wide range of uses functional and spiritual, almost universally. The slash like markings on the tree are often a feature of mythology, though sometimes they look less like slashes, and more like eyes, hence one of its epitaphs – “The Watchful Tree.”

Mythology & Historical Use of the Birch

The common English name birch, is a very old word, and has evolved from the Old English birce or bierce. The genus Betula is from Latin, but is a lone-word (from influences of the languages of the Gauls) bethe (Old Irish), bedw (Welsh). Birch bark was used like paper in India and was what the Vedas were written on, as well as many other things since birch paper is sort of like papyrus, strong and does not start to rot. Even some Native American tribes that in general did not have written languages, recorded important events in pictorial form on birch bark.

Wikipedia

A birch bark inscription excavated from Novgorod, circa 1240–1260.

I grew up reading the Narnia books, and one of my favorite scenes is where Lucy goes to a Dryad party. I loved the description of all the Dryads and how they were pale, slender, graceful and limber. I was always envious of her being able since the spirits of the trees all seemed so beautiful and so individual. One of the trees she sees is birch, and this is how C.S. Lewis describes her –

“[s]he looked at a silver birch: it would have a soft, showery voice and would look like a slender girl, with hair blown all about her face, and fond of dancing.”

"Birch Dryad of Narnia" by Matthew Davidson

I just really liked this drawing, she looks most like what I thought the birch dryad would look like.

Birch is a common tree to find in mythology and due to species of it existing all over the world, birch is in most traditional crafts, knowledge and medicine. It’s history spans the ages, and the world, and pretty much everywhere it grows it is a valued and respected tree.

In C.S. Lewis’s homeland of the British Isles, the birch tree held a sacred place in the mythology of the land. Beth is the first consonant of the Ogham alphabet, and is represented by the birch. In proto-German (which would be one of the invading languages of the Isles) the letter berkanan means birch which is also what it represents in the Scandinavian cultures. There is a legend that a birch tree halted a fire that would have destroyed the Swedish town of Umea, and the city is unofficially known as the “City of the Birches.”

Interestingly, if you are a Game of Thrones fan, the God Trees used in the stories are extremely similar to the Warden Trees used on burial mounds in Scandanavian cultures. Warden trees, or Vörðr, were planted on top of burial mounds as protection, or some think it is also as a representation of Yggdrasil, and they were often birch. One birch warden tree was still alive and being offered libations of beer until 1874 when it was finally cut down. The Warden Tree’s job was to keep people who would disturb the dead away, sometimes through physical force, spooky manifestations, or just a simple weird feeling that makes you not want to stay. In some cultures the tree houses a spirit that protects the area bringing vengeance and misfortune to any who dare upset it. Like most spirit dwellings you could save yourself from their ire by providing the required sacrifices. Which would keep the spirits happy, and engaged in their job of hanging out to protect things – sorta like a spirit security guard. The word wraith is derived linguistically from the warden trees, and this is why burial mounds are generally believed to have wraiths or why Tolkien wrote about barrow-wights inhabiting mound tombs.

In Russia, the birch is considered the national tree, and some of the Siberian Shaman traditions hold birch to be sacred. Some of the plains cultures of Asia and Eastern Europe would place deceased shamans in birch trees, since they were the way point between this world and the spirit world. Allowing that deceased shaman to travel to the spirit world where they could continue to help, heal, and guide their people. It is possible that the birch held such a high spiritual value since fly agaric mushrooms are often found growing around their roots. Reindeer eat them, and people noticed would then act very strange. They would be “tripping balls” to use the parlance of our times. Eventually one brave soul wanted in on that action, and for some strange reason they jumped to the conclusion that the best way to get to whatever was making the reindeer act weird, would be to drink the deer pee. My current suspicion is that it was probably some distant relative of Bear Grills. Fortunately, later some bright spark decided that pee drinking was a) gross and b) unnecessary since you could skip the reindeer middleman and just eat the mushrooms themselves.

You would probably see a lot more than spirits eating these anyway.

These mushrooms were a key part of most “vision” rituals as they are a powerful hallucinogenic. Other cultures used the birch as the center pole for their Siberian plains tents, called yurts. The tree represented the way point between the worlds and shamans would sometimes climb them, or have initiates climb them, since the climb symbolically represents the traveling to the spirit world.

Freya and Frigg were tied to the tree, since they are both goddesses associated with love, and fertility like the birch. Eoster, the debated goddess since she is only referenced by Bede, is associated wtih birch and is the root of our modern word for Easter and is most likely the “pagan” ritual that was then co-opted by the converted Christians unwilling to give up their old ways. Many people are familiar with Loki due to the recent comic book movies, but Loki was a real Norse God who got up to many shenanigans, frequently involving his incredibly strong, but usually quite daft, brother Thor. One of the most famous is the story of how Loki caused Baldur to be killed with his trickery. Loki was chained for his evil ways, and is the reason that he was said to be “fortunate in his deceit” in a Rune Poem – since he was chained and not killed.

Birch has the greenest leaves of any shrub;
Loki was fortunate in his deceit.

Because it is one of the first trees to bud and show leaves in spring, as well as it being a pioneer species (that means it tends to go where no tree has gone before, or were before and aren’t now), has led to it being a symbol of life, growth, and fertility. It is often used in “spring cleaning” rituals to keep evil out of the house. It was this use that is probably the reason it was also used in the Beating of the Bounds rituals in the British Isles, as it would drive out any lingering bad luck from the previous year.  Birch was also used as the disciplinary rod of choice since it was thought to deliver punishment as well as driving the evil out of the child that was misbehaving.

There is also the belief that striking cattle with birch twigs would make them more fertile. This is similar to the tradition of bringing birch saplings into barns and houses to promote fruitfulness, and sometimes the striking with birch twigs was used on people, for the same fertility reasons. Other regions, a birch twig given from a girl to a guy she likes, is a sign of encouragement. There is even an old form of marriage ritual is called a “Besom Wedding,” that was recognized as a legally binding ceremony up until the 1800’s. The couple jumped over a birch broom, and they were considered wed.

Birch was considered a protective force, and branches were placed over doorways, or lent against barns to protect them from evil. Birch was also a common tree to use for a Maypole for May Day celebrations. Also birch twigs or boughs were put over cradles to protect babies, as well as making their toys, and sometimes even the cradle itself, of birch to protect the baby from unseen forces and evil spirits. In the highlands of Scotland, a cross was made of birch twigs for ceremonies for St Brigid, and a straw, or stick, effigy representing the child placed in a cradle, as part of a ritual for protection. Then a rod was placed next to the effigy, sometimes made of birch (sometimes other woods but usually birch), which was known as Bride’s (Brigid) birch or wand, and this ritual would protect the baby, until the next celebration of St. Brigid. Some other cultures just made children’s beds of birch twigs for the same sort of Brigid rituals. Though birch twig beds in more often for fertility rights, and feature in a lot of  love poetry and stories where lovers meet on the bed of birch, or under birches.

Birch has always been known for its flexibility, there is a Native American legend from the Blackfoot Confederacy tribes telling how the birch despite intense wind bent, but never broke. Infuriating the creator, who then slashed the bark of the birch with his hunting knife for its disobedience. The Ojibwe people (better known as Chippewa) tell the story that the marks come from the Thunderbird throwing lightening at the tree after Waynaboozhoo (the hero of the story) steals fire in the form of a rabbit from the Thunderbird. This is has also led to the belief among the Ojibwe that the birch is immune to lightening strikes, and is the best place to shelter during a lightening storm. The Odawa people tell the story of the helpful birch, which is the manifestation of an extremely helpful warrior that lost his life in battle. He was gifted with the ability to help people in a good way, and after his death, the birch tree grew from his grave and continued to help the people.

Birch is an extremely helpful tree, and is probably why it is featured around the world in mythology as well as local crafts. Birch can do many many things, its bark as we mentioned was used as paper, and makes great paper pulp, but it was also used as clothing. Birch hats have been found in burials, and birch bark was used as leg coverings in Scandinavian cultures to keep out the damp. The twigs were used as kindling, to make besoms (a type of broom), and the shavings were great for smoking meats. The shavings or sawdust was good for creating dyes, as well as tanning leather. Its outer bark due to its lack of decay and waterproofing oils was used to make baskets and containers, as well as roofing, and canoes. With the bark removed, birch is the choice of wood for the Yule log, and is a great firewood, but needs preservative treatment if it is to be used for woodworking (things like furniture, flooring or utensils). The “Spruce Goose” is actually made mostly of birch, despite its name. The oil in the wood makes it combustible and burns similar to a candle, and that oil is collected and used to tan leather (which results in Russian leather). You can also extract it and cook it down into Birch Tar, which has been used as one of the oldest types of super glue (Ancient Greek pots have been found fixed with it). The sap can be brewed into a delicious alcoholic beverage, and is also a great home-made soda. (I haven’t made my own birch beer yet, but I plan to, and I generally buy as much as I can when I am able to find it, because it is awesome. Like spicy root beer awesome.)

Seriously, it is so good that every time I find some Birch Beer this dance happens

Birch as Medicine

After all those uses, birch is also a great medicinal tree. If you are ever lost in the woods and you break an arm or a leg you can use the outer birch bark, after it is soaked in some water, to make a cast to keep the limb immobile. It will also deliver pain relief if the inner bark is included and can be used as a topical pain “patch” for injuries if you are out in the wild. For a long time sweet birch (Betula lenta, or sometimes called black birch) was used to commercially produce wintergreen and was sometimes used for commercial production of a type of wintergreen oil (since it is much safer to ingest), so if you buy wintergreen oil, again be sure you know you are getting the real wintergreen. Like wintergreen, it is a good topical analgesic and birch does carry methyl salicylate, again like wintergreen, and is why it is sometimes sold as such. Birch is good for treating joint pain, back pain, the usual daily aches and pains, and headaches. The salicylate is held in the inner bark and is basically aspirin, and it is the reason it was used in most cultures as a treatment for rheumatoid arthritis, arthritic pain in general, as well as “moon time” cramps.

Birch also contains a lot of vitamin C, and we already know how important vitamins are for your body to work and reduce your pain. Birch has betulinic acid in it as well which is a known anti-inflammatory, and has promise as an anti-malarial and anti-retroviral, but not enough research has been done yet. There is also a lot of mentions that it is being studied for treating tumors, since it could inhibit or reduce growth, but this has been mostly focused on for melanoma treatment. Betulinic acid also is very astringent and works well for skin complaints, like eczema and psoriasis, even insect bits. It is also antiseptic so it is good for wounds and preventing infection topically. Other uses of birch, specifically betulinic acid from birch, include helping with lymphatic diseases, urinary infections, respiratory infections (like tuberculosis), and due to its diuretic nature it helps with edema and gout. Birch bark also has a mild sedative action, and is a great addition with rosemary in the bath to relieve pain as well as relax the body and mind.

There are loads of species of birch, and they all generally have the same properties, but I suggest only using the above mentioned black birch, or if you are in Europe or Asia silver birch (Betula pendula). You can use other species, but make sure you do your research before using any species of birch, and again always use any thing you put in and on your body in moderation.

Birch Recipes

Leaves are safer to use in teas than bark, since just like wintergreen you need to treat this with respect. So small doses and use common sense, and make sure you speak with your doctor to make sure this won’t interact with anything you are already taking. That doesn’t mean you can’t use the bark or small twigs, they are safe to use and a small twig green from the tree is a safe teething option for children since it provides relief from the pain and tastes quite nice (obviously they would need to be supervised while doing this, just sayin’). There are a lot of pre-made options here too, you can buy capsules of birch bark, oils, and so forth, make sure before using any of them you are researching which species is used in the preparation.

Birch Tea for Pain

  • 5-7 whole leaves of Birch (1-2 teaspoons if dried and crumbled)
  • 8 oz Boiling water

You will need to collect the leaves in spring, and you want new leaves that have just come out on the tree. You can use them fresh, or dry them in a dehydrator or in the sun, you may want to put a net, muslin, or cheesecloth over them if you dry them out side. They are ready to use dry when they snap under pressure and then crumble easily. Steep in a covered teacup for 4-8 minutes, the longer you steep the stronger the tea. This is good for pain, pretty much anything you would take an aspirin for, but it is also good if you are suffering from water retention, or have edema since it is a diuretic. Also this is a good rinse for your hair, and it smells nice.

ProTwigTip: You can also make this with young twigs or bark, you need the cambium (that’s the layer between the bark and the wood) to be green. That is the part that carries salicylate in the woody parts of the tree. You can use a teaspoon of twigs or bark (just make sure you include the cambium), and steep it just like the leaves. This will be stronger though, and again you should treat all of these with respect and use common sense. Don’t take more than 3 cups a day.

Birch Twigs for Pain

  • Birch twigs, fresh off the tree (preferably)

You can also chew the twigs for headache relief, pain from braces, and these are great for teething babies (used with supervision of course) since chewing the twig will release the salicylate and bring pain relief. All you have to do is just break a twig off a branch, give it a wash, and chew it.

Birch Leaf Bath for Pain & Inflammation

  • 2 handfuls of fresh or dried Birch leaves
  • 4-5 large sprigs of Rosemary
  • 1-2 tablespoons of Lavender flowers

Draw a warm bath, and throw everything in and have a good soak, but for no longer than 20 minutes. This will help with muscle and joint pain, and its anti-spasmodic properties will relax spasms, and help relax the body to bring on sleep if needed.

ProTwigBathTip: Twigs are obviously pokey if you use them in a bath, and bark as well, so they aren’t great for the bath. If you don’t want to spend the time cleaning the tub afterwards or if you need to make a stronger bath, this is also another good option to use the infusion instead. To make the infusion use 2 large handfuls of twigs or birch (or leaves), and cover with enough boiling water to submerge them, allow to steep for at minimum 10 minutes up to an hour. Pour liquid into a warm bath, and soak for 20 minutes.

Epsom Birch Bath Salts

  • 40 ounces (5 cups) Epsom salts
  • 10 drops Birch Essential Oil
  • optional: any other oils, like rosemary and lavender above, or even chamomile could be added to this to help with whatever sort of pain you have.

Mix well, no lumps, and store in an airtight container. Add a cupful to a bath and enjoy a relaxing soak that will bring pain relief and sooth painful joints and spasms. You do need to be very careful using the essential oil of birch, but diluted this much you should have no issues, but it is best to do a test patch before doing this bath if you haven’t been exposed to birch before. Make sure you also know what species the oil is made of as well.

Birch Tincture

  • 1 part birch bark
  • 2 parts alcohol (vodka, grain alcohol)

Add everything to a seal-able jar, mason jars are usually best, and store in an undisturbed place for about a month. Make sure to shake once every day or so. Never take more than ½ a teaspoon, and you should start with a ¼. No more than 3 times a day. This can be added to teas, honey, juice, or under the tongue. Birch, I think, tastes very nice and isn’t offensive to the palate to where it would need to have the taste masked.

There are birch essential oils out there, but make sure you are using one you know is sourced and distilled reliably. Buy local if you can. Both oils and tinctures are difficult to use on the go so you can always make a quick salve or a beeswax salve for on the go applications. These are also good for skin issues like eczema or psoriasis.

Birch Salve

  • 1/3 c Oil (any good quality oil)
  • 1/3 oz Beeswax, granulated or grated
  • 10-15 drops Birch Oil or 20-30 of Birch Tincture

You can always add other things to this, but birch smells quite nice on its own. It goes well with floral scents like lavender or jasmine if you don’t care for the smell. In a double boiler, heat the oil and slowly add in the beeswax stirring until it is completely melted and mixed. Remove from heat and stir in birch oil or tincture, pour into containers with lids and allow to cool.

Birch Quickie Salve

  • 2 ounces Coconut oil (solid at room temp)
  • 10-15 drops Birch Oil or Tincture

Using a mixer, whip oil and add in the oil a drop at a time while whipping. Whip until fluffy with a texture similar to a whipped lotion. Store in a container with a lid, and this is also great for skin issues as well as for pain, joint pain, and muscle spasms.

There are a lot of birch beer, and birch wine recipes floating around. Many countries that use birch use the sap fresh or fermented, so you can always use an old family recipe if you have one floating around. If you don’t, you should make your own. I plan to make some myself in the near future but locating birch syrup is difficult. If you live in an area where birch grow you can tap your own sap (instructions here). You can drink the birch sap right from the tree, and is supposed to be quite good this way.

Birch Beer (Birch Soda) from GroupRecipes

  • 5 gallon crock
  • 4 quarts finely cut sweet birch twigs
  • 1 gallon honey
  • 4 gallons birch sap
  • 1 cake soft yeast (or a packet of yeast)
  • 1 slice toasted rye bread

Measure 4 quarts of finely cut twigs of sweet birch into the bottom of a 5-gallon crock.
In a large kettle, boil together the honey and birch sap for 10 minutes.
Pour over chopped twigs.
When cool, strain to remove the twigs.
Return to the crock.
Spread cake of soft yeast on the slice of toasted rye bread.
Float on top of the beer in the crock.
Cover with a cloth.
Let ferment until the cloudiness just starts to settle, about a week but it depends somewhat on temperature.
Bottle the beer and cap tightly.
Store in a dark place and serve it cold after the weather gets hot.
It should stand in the bottles about 3 months before using.
If opened too soon, it will foam all over and pop worse than champagne.

Since birch isn’t frequent in my area, extract is my only option for birch beer and it does not have the same medicinal properties, but it sure does taste good. So don’t despair if you want to make birch beer but have no birches. I also have never made these wines, but the recipes looked interesting, I plan to (if possible) since it has a lot of fans that say it tastes like a good sweet wine. There are a lot of recipes floating around but the easiest I found is the one here, which I have copied here with some of my own additions to it.

Birch Wine

  • 8 pints sap
  • ½ lb Raisins
  • 2 lb sugar
  • 2 Lemons, juiced
  • ½ a packet of Red Star Champagne yeast
  • 6 ounces White Grape Juice Concentrate

You need freshly collected sap for this, bring to a boil and add the sugar and simmer for 10 minutes. Place the raisins in a fermentation bucket or carboy, pour in the boiling liquid and lemon juice. When it has cooled to 86 degrees or cooler add the yeast and seal with an airtight brew vent to prevent messy explosions. Allow to ferment for three days at minimum no more than 7, before straining, and transferring to a secondary fermenter also with a brew vent. Let stand for about a week and then bottle the wine and store in a cool place for at least a month. Though, I suggest 3 months for this since that seems to be the consensus on the older recipes, but one month should be plenty of time for it to develop an alcoholic zing to it.

Lastly, bark bread, and ersatz food has existed for ages and while making all your bread out of bark flour won’t taste so great a small addition to it will provide a good punch of vitamins to a hearty type of bread. This seems to be one of the tastier looking recipes, and this is one last thing I have not tried but am now excited to that I know about it.

Ingrid’s [Birch] Bark Bread from Julie’s Kitchen

  • 100 g or 3.5 oz yeast
  • 1 liter or 1 quart lukewarm water
  • 1 liter or 1 quart rye flour
  • 1.5 liters or 1.5 quarts white flour
  • 2 dl or 1/2 cup bark flour (Ingrid uses bark from her own pine forest) [Refer to this guide or this guide for harvesting birch bark, and drying it to make bark flour]

Blend the ingredients and knead the dough. Allow to rise for one hour. Roll out into smaller rounds. Baking time varies according to the size of the bread.
(I suggest for medium rounds which are the size of pita breads 10 minutes at 225 C or 437 F – sprinkle water over before baking)

Finally, you must remember that everyone is different and you need to start with small doses of this and increase slowly. Keep in mind that this should only be used internally in large amounts under supervision, it is not the same level of danger as wintergreen being ingested but you can quickly toe the line of safety if this is used unwisely. You always want to make sure anything you use is not going to interact badly with anything else you are taking, so check for interactions on sites like WebMD. Always do your own research, and if you are in doubt in any way whatsoever, ask a professional!

For more information on Irish trees and their legends, this is a fantastic resource.

For an interesting break down of a birch poem that was part of a collection Tolkien worked on go here, and for Robert Frost’s poem on birches go here, they are both very good.


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Peck of Pickled Peppers for Pain

Well, they don’t actually have to be pickled, but jalapeño relish is just about the best thing ever, especially on eggs! Chilies any way you have them are a great way to bring the heat, which is what they are known around the world for. It is hot in the summers here, and counter-intuitively this is the best time of year to eat and drink hot things. Hot foods help the body to cool in hot countries, that is why hot tea and coffee are always so popular in hot places. We love chilies here, year round in every grocery store in Texas chilies can be found. Dried, fresh, in powder, and even in the Mexican candy they always have calling to you at the check out. Here we are intimately acquainted with the chili, it is featured in a lot of Mexican, Tex-Mex, and Traditional Texas foods. They also have a medicinal value, which make them so much more than something that adds a real kick in the pants to your 5 alarm Texas chili. Chilies have capsaicin, which is the active chemical in all of the capsicum species, has always been popular, but recently gained a lot of popularity for its analgesic effects, as well as the soothing heat it produces.

Chilies many varieties

Just a few of the chili pepper varieties dried and fresh

Its popularity as a food and a medicine goes back to ancient history in the Americas, and then after the “discovery” of the Americas by Europe has made its way around the world via trade routes. Now chilies are internationally used, and I am sure most people could not even imagine Indian,  Chinese, or Thai food, or lots of cultures foods really, without chilies in them. Chilies were a large part of cooking and medicine, and were probably first cultivated in Bolivia and spread North and South from there. In most Middle American cultures,  the tribes dubbed the Aztecs by the Spaniards, and the other tribes that inhabited pretty much from much Mexico and right on down, depended on these chilies as a regular source of Vitamin C and A, and carotene. They were a vital part of cuisine providing vitamins that are part of the building blocks of a healthy human life, and we all know how important they are for pain. Chilies it is believed, were not used in the US South West native cultures until after European contact, but they did use wild chilies in some foods which are smaller and not as hot usually. So remember all foods that have chilies came into existence after America came in contact with Europe, though people will still find it hard to think of some cuisines without chilies. There was no paprika, no chilies, nothing until they landed on the Iberian peninsula in the 1490’s and by the 1500’s they had made it to the Middle East and through the Turks to Hungary.

The capsicum species is a member of Solanaceae which is the nightshade family, so they are relatives of tomatoes, believe it or not. Which also means that chilies, the fruit of the capsicum plant, are actually a type of berry, since its seeds are enclosed by a fleshy fruit. The species name comes from the Greek kapos – “to bite,” which is an appropriate name for a species that has such a powerful kick. Chile plants are all the same species, but come in many varieties, and they originally developed the capsaicin in their fleshy berries to prevent animals eating them that would destroy their seeds, which pass easily and whole through digestive tracts of birds but not other animals which would crush the seeds. The heat of the capsicum plants fruit is probably a defense mechanism, but it seems that since the intense heat also releases all sorts of brain chemicals in humans, which may be why we are drawn to these spicy fruits and they became cultivated. Some people seem to want to eat the absolute hottest possible, which to me seems silly but is basically like riding a roller coaster, a safe risk that allows us to experience the feelings and chemicals of extreme behavior. It was this drive that led to a lot of the hotter chili species we see now like Ghost Peppers, which are not naturally occurring and were grown and developed exclusively for their heat. That heat is what led to chili’s epitaph of peppers. When Europeans first encountered them the hottest thing they knew that could be applied to this spicy plant was “pepper,” and hence is why they are often referred to as chili peppers, and not chili berries. Chilies are native to only the Americas, and have been used since 7500 BCE but were completely unknown to other cultures as far a we can tell until the European contact with the Americas. This European contact is also where the corruption of the name began, the original word, chile, was a Spanish transliteration of a Nahuatl word chīlli.

Chile merchant from Codex Florentino

Chile merchant from Codex Florentino

It was later “Americanized” into chili, which you will see used internationally as well, like in chili powder. Though the chilli spelling is frequent in the UK and some of its previous colonial holdings, but all spellings are basically correct. With tons of modifiers like sweet peppers, new local names like paprika, and almost infinite local variations from there they have made themselves at home in most countries. Really most spellings are OK, and people will get what you are talking about which ever one you choose, in the States chili and chili peppers are interchangeable. Or even just peppers, but this tends to be reserved for the milder end of the spectrum, like with bell peppers.

Chilies in their native home of the Central and Southern America’s native cultures were eaten with pretty much every meal and they were believed to cure colds, strengthen the body, and even cure depression. And it is fascinating that as they spread to new cultures, meals began to be not considered meals without chilies, or a dish with chili. In some Zen monasteries chilies are the only spice to life and food and without them meals feel empty. Delicious kimchi is required at every meal in most Korean households, and I know most Ethiopian food would seem odd if it was served without the kick of heat from chili powder in Berbere. They were used as a spice in drinks made of cacao beans, the tepid, sacred, liquid drink was known as xocolātl in Nahuatl, which is the origin of our word for chocolate and was the proto-hot chocolate that evolved into what we know and enjoy today. Champurrado, or Mexican Hot Chocolate, a drink with I mentioned previously, is a great marriage of hot chocolate, spices, and of course chili, is a somewhat more direct successor to xocolātl, but more to modern tastes. Chilies were thought by some cultures to prevent or ward off witchcraft, and any person that abstained from chilies was immediately thought to be a witch.

Their pungency has been used as a weapon, as in pepper sprays, They were also used by high class Aztec families to punish boys who were extra naughty, they were held over a fire that had chilies on it burning, which as you can see is not very kind to the eyes. And you will definitely feel his pain if you ever chopped up a chili and didn’t wash your hands well enough before touching your eyes. Luckily for us girls, they were just threatened with the fire and the possibility of receiving the fate of the boys.

From the Codex Mendoza, a boy of 11 is held over a fire with chilies, and a girl is being shown it.

From the Codex Mendoza, a boy of 11 is held over a fire with chilies, and a girl is being shown it. Its good to be a girl sometimes

Since chilies were so revered and despite their heat so good for you, they became revered in all the places they traveled to. Columbus was introduced to chilies in the Caribbean when he landed there and was the first to append the name pepper to the fruit. It is speculated that the species that made it there made it in the digestive tracts of birds which were then exploited and cultivated by the native peoples.

Then the chili began to migrate north, and it found its way into what is now the Southwestern United States. The Nahuatl word for irritate or burning hot was tzilli, derived from the older Mayan word tzir, which then linguistically migrated north with chilies into the pueblo tribes (Hopi, Zuni, Laguna, Acoma, etc) the word was changed to tsil or tsi which then became a figure in rituals, as well as kachina doll. The “chili runner” dancer, dressed like the Tsil kachina below (in general some variations occur), was part of most of these areas rituals. The chili runner’s job in ritual performances was to goad men and boys into chasing them. Winners of the races got prizes, and if you lost well, expect to be force fed chilies or even have mud thrown at you. Notice his handy headdress of chilies and the ones he carries, keeping them handy for stuffing in the losers faces.

Tsil or Chili Runner Kachina, hes a bad motha…shut yo’ mouth. No really, or you will get a chili all up in your business.

Once they migrated around the world they were adopted into many cultures and were used to ward off evil, its potency was thought to be linked to its otherworldly or a supernatural element. In India, ashes from the cooking hearth, chilies and other things, like curry leaves, are waved over the head of a person to ward off bad luck, or evil spells. One form still seen today in the form of ristras that you see all over the Southwest. You hang them over or next to a doorway to ward off the evil eye, and keep bad spirits out of the house. Some cultures include a dried lemon as well to help in warding off bad luck.

Ristras a common sight in the Southwest, and when I spot them I always know that I have left the state of Texas and am now in the land of the adobe pueblos.

You may have noticed that most of the locations listed, or even ones you already know that like spicy hot foods are in hot countries. This is because it helps to activate the body’s natural cooling system. Chilies heat causes sweating, and increased circulation, thus they help to cool the body more. But some chilies cultivated for their heat have gotten so potent that the capsaicin in them will cause the bare skin to blister, so be very careful when handling chilies and it is generally wise to wear gloves. Wash your hands well after handling them, and rinse hands with vinegar (after soap and water) to remove any residual capsaicin. Capsaicin is what makes chilies hot, and was developed as a defense against animals eating them as I said before, and it needed to be powerful enough to stop the offending munching mammal before it gets too far. So, be mindful, it is not there just for fun, it is a seriously powerful chemical you should treat with respect. Capsaicin, carried in the oils of the plant, is not water soluble. So next time you eat something that has a hot chili in it do not reach for water! Capsaicin is lipid, or fat, soluble and it is best neutralized with a fatty liquid, like milk products which are the best, or with alcohol to dilute it (but you need a lot as to be prohibitive as a solution, as Alton mentions in the clip further down). So grab that glass of milk, next time you bite off more heat than you can take.

The heat a chili has is different depending on the species you use, there are many, many different types of chilies and each one has a different level of heat. Some people think the heat is in just the seeds, but the heat is actually contained in both the seeds and the membranes inside the chili fruit. Removing these can reduce the heat of a chili, and if you are heat sensitive will allow you to get more of the flavor. Chilies are very sweet once you get past the heat, and it is why they go so well with desserts and are even ingredients in ice creams here. The oils containing capsaicin are released upon breaking the seeds or membranes, but are also present on the skin of the chili so don’t think they are safe to handle even if they aren’t cut. When you see experienced cooks grabbing chilies at stores, we always use the plastic produce bags as makeshift gloves. Now you know why, and a lot of us learned the hard way.

Of course due to the heat variations depending on the plant environmental and human cultivation variation, and we humans love to quantify things, there eventually came a scientist who wanted to quantify how hot is HOT when it comes to chili peppers. So how the heat is measured based on the Scoville Scale, which is developed by Wilbur Scoville and a poor, unmentioned, lab assistant(s) used as a guinea pig. Wilbur would feed a pepper to his “helper” and then they would count the amount of sugar water sprayed on the tongue it took to neutralize the heat. Which I imagine to be very much like this clip from Good Eats (sorry about the quality, it was the only one I could find, but I do love AB so)

This then gives the pepper its rating on the Scoville scale, which can be noted as SHU for Scoville Heat Units and ranges from zero to over two million. As per wikipedia, here they are broken down by examples of chili varieties and the approximate range of their heat. Of course you must note that climate and soil has a lot to do with the heat of the chili as well.

Scoville Heat Units Examples
2,000,000-2,200,000 Trinidad Moruga ScorpionCarolina Reaper
855,000–1,463,700 Naga Viper pepperInfinity ChilliBhut Jolokia (ghost pepper)Trinidad Scorpion Butch T pepperBedfordshire Super Naga,
350,000–580,000 Red Savina habanero
100,000–350,000 Habanero chiliScotch bonnet pepperDatil pepperRocotoMadame Jeanette, Peruvian White HabaneroJamaican hot pepperFatalii
50,000–100,000 Byadgi chilliBird’s eye chiliMalagueta pepperChiltepin pepperPiri piriPequin pepperSiling Labuyo
30,000–50,000 Guntur chilliCayenne pepperAjí pepperTabasco pepperCapsicum chinense
10,000–23,000 Serrano pepperPeter pepperChile de árbolAleppo pepper
3,500–8,000 Espelette pepperJalapeño pepperChipotleGuajillo pepperHungarian wax pepperFresno pepper
1,000–2,500 Anaheim pepperPoblano pepperRocotillo pepperPeppadewPasilla pepperGochujang
100–900 PimentoPeperonciniBanana pepperCubanelle
No significant heat Bell pepperAji dulce

As you can see some of these chilies can get to levels that I would only describe as insanity. But these extra hot chilies are useful for defense and has allowed for stronger pepper sprays and repellents to be made. But it is also that heat that helped them spread so far in Europe, when they were discovered Europe was obsessed with black pepper. It was so precious and so expensive it was relegated only to the foods of the extremely rich and wealthy. But when chili peppers came on the scene, it was a whole new ball game. Black pepper was easily replaced by chilies who provided all of the heat but none of the cost. One of the court historians of the Spanish court, Pietro Martire de Anghiera wrote-

“Something may be said about the pepper gathered in the islands and on the continent – but it is not pepper, though it has the same strength and the flavor, and is just as much esteemed. The natives call it axi, it grows taller than a poppy – When it is used there is no need of Caucasian [black] pepper.”

Capsaicin, and the fruits of the capsicum plants also have their medicinal side, recognized in the past by the native tribes of the Americas, and now again in modern times. Recently some studies have shown that people that consume chilies more in general have lower rates of cardiovascular disease, but I am sure this is just the same sort of myth as the fad Mediterranean diet or the Red Wine diet, but who knows maybe science will prove this one? Also as I said before they are a great source of some of the big vitamins that humans need to live, like vitamin C & A but it also contains a lot of trace minerals and other vitamins depending on variety and soil it was grown in.

If you want to get the most out of your chilies it is best to eat them raw, chop them and throw them into a salsa, or on top of a burger, or anything really. My husband and I go to a wonderful Mexican restaurant near us, and we are friends with the owner and his wife, and she never leaves home without a small plastic bag with a few habanero peppers in it, so she can put them on her food when she eats out. Which you could imitate with a milder version, if you so desired. My husband loves bell peppers, and jalapeños frequently throws them into burgers, fresh salads, chopped or just sliced onto pizzas. They are a great way to liven up a meal and get some healthy vitamins, which they generally contain the following listed in USDA daily percentage amounts.

Pepper Vitamins & Nutrients

  • Vitamin A – 6%
  • Vitamin B6 – 39%
  • Beta-Carotene – 5%
  • Vitamin C – 173%
  • Iron – 8%
  • Magnesium – 6%
  • Potassium – 7%

So you can see why they were so quickly adopted into most cultures as a daily food, they contain so much vital vitamin C it would ensure that none of them suffered from the debilitating disease scurvy. Chilies also help produce mucus and saliva aiding in digestion, and while they may not be directly related to the seemingly endless stream from your nose when you consume a really hot one, they are a great way to relieve congestion. I remember taking a few shots of a hot sauce of habaneros and I can say they definitely made you forget about how sick you were feeling even if they didn’t fix you up. Also the high vitamin C content helps the body fight off and fend off colds, so it is doing double duty.

I previously mentioned here and in my post about cinnamon, champurrado. You seriously owe it to yourself to make this, it is a fantastic cold morning breakfast drink and keeps you going until lunch. Or a great quick meal in the evening on a cold night, to warm up and relax you before bed when you don’t want a heavy meal. Dried chilies do retain quite a bit of their nutrition, and can help to make you feel not so guilty about this treat.

Champurrado (Mexican Hot Chocolate)

  • 1/4 cup masa harina
  • 2 cups water
  • 2 cups whole milk (or milk substitute)
  • 1 round Mexican chocolate, coarsely chopped (Abuleita or Ibarra is great)
  • 2 cones (about 2 oz) piloncillo, chopped or grated
  • 2 quills Ceylon cinnamon, whole or ground
  • 1 whole star anise, optional
  • a pinch of ground Ancho, and Ceylon cinnamon ground, or quills for garnish

In a large pot, over medium high heat, mix the masa harina together with the water using a whisk, until it is thoroughly blended. If you want to start with the water already hot add a small amount of water to the masa harina before adding it to the hot liquid to avoid clumps. Add the rest of the ingredients, and whisk vigorously until chocolate and sugar are melted. As it is blended a froth forms, you want to keep this, some people skim this and set it aside and whip again. It is served with the froth on top, and you can purchase a traditional wooden whisk to do this, but you can also rotate the handle of a regular whisk between your hands to get a good froth going. Remove whole spices and ladle into mugs. Serve warm, with a pinch of Ancho (or more), or any dried and ground chili you like, and a sprinkle of cinnamon or a quill to stir with, and enjoy. For substitutions and more information see the original recipe listed here.

Another great way to get some chilies into your life is with salsa, salsa really just means sauce. But it has come to mean that junk that they pour out of jars in some restaurants that is bland and mostly just pureed tomatoes and onions. A really great salsa that you can make is one of my favorite, and most versatile salsas called Pico de Gallo. It can be made with just about anything fresh you have handy but I am going to list the simplest, and from what I have been told, the most traditional form.

Pico de Gallo (Fresh Salsa)

  • 2 medium Tomatoes, diced
  • ½ of a White Onion, finely diced
  • 1 handful fresh Cilantro, roughly chopped
  • 1-2 small Limes
  • 1-2 Jalapeños, seeded and diced
  • pinch of salt

You can always use different chilies in this than just jalapeños, any pepper will do.  Dried chilies don’t always work well in this (and are not traditional) but you can always experiment and see what you like. You can also use a red onion instead of white. Garlic, either chopped finely or smashed in a mortar and pestle is a good addition as well. Throw everything except for the limes in a bowl, halve and squeeze the juice of one lime into the mixture and mix well. If it seems too dry, add the second, really it is your preference on what “too dry” is. Also a lot of people don’t like cilantro, which I think is crazy, but many of my good friends loathe it. So you can just leave it out if you are one of the mutants …I mean peeeeeeople that cares not for cilantro.

ProSalsaTipYou can roast the chili peppers before hand to give a nice smoky taste, or even roast them and the tomatoes and give them a rough chop or smash into a pulp – it ceases to be pico de gallo at that point but oh well it tastes damn good and is still technically salsa. Remember though they lose a bit of their nutritional value when they are cooked and raw is best here for all of the ingredients. Some mashed garlic goes well in this and my favorite roasted salsa chili is the serrano.

ProPicoTip: You can add any meat you like to this, fish, chicken, beef, pork, and whatever catches your fancy. This can also go on pretty much everything, got some fish? Bake that fish, throw some pico on that bitch, now its fancy Fish with Pico de Gallo. Got some Steak? Add pico instead of marinara! Bam, bistec milanesa. Make it from Mango and chilies, and lime, and it is now dessert pico, great on vanilla ice cream. It is good on tortilla chips, on fajitas, mixed into your guacamole, on tacos, on Navajo fry bread, it is just plain GOOD.

Jalapeño Relish

  • 25 large Jalapeños, diced or cut into small strips
  • 1 large White onions, diced
  • 1-2 Carrots, diced or cut into small strips
  • 3 cups Vinegar (White or Apple Cider)
  • 3 cups Water
  • 2 tablespoons Salt
  • 2 tablespoons Sugar
  • Canning supplies

The jalapeños can be all green or you can throw in a few red ones for color. When you dice them need to be de-seeded, and you should always wear gloves doing stuff like this, seriously people it is important. If you want more heat, you can leave the seeds in this recipe. You want about an equal sized mound of jalapeños and onion, and half that for the carrots. Throw them all in a pan with everything else, you could 2 teaspoons of cumin to this or 2 of pickling spice, depending on what you like. Bring the mixture up to a boil, and then reduce heat to medium-low and simmer for 20 minutes. It is best to make this and let it sit for a bit, so wait to use it over night if you are feeding an army eggs in the morning and if not, can the relish. This goes on loads of things and is a sweet and spicy replacement for any where you would use pickle relish. Scrambled eggs with sharp cheddar cheese and jalapeño relish rivals biscuits and cream gravy as my favorite southern breakfast food.

ProCanningTip: If you have never canned anything check this out for a good how to.

Capsaicin is a great topical analgesic, and can relieve pain while providing a soothing heat. You can purchase a ready made cream, that can be applied for minor aches, pains, minor back ache, tired and sore muscles, or even sprains. There are also capsules, and other methods of delivery you can purchase over the counter. One that is as well known as the creams is dermal patches that you can purchase pre-made that work for pain as well. The theory on why capsaicin works so well for pain, and some neuropathy (nerve pain), is it floods the nerves by making them take up calcium, which prevents pain reporting. It also can deplete neurotransmitters with regular exposure preventing the chemicals that cause pain, or inflammation, to be released or taken up by the nerve cells. This renders them also unable to report pain, breaking the pain loop. It also contains an array of salicylates which tend to function like aspirin and may be why it is so good at relieving pain. It also promotes healing by drawing blood to injured areas, and is great for spasmed muscles and other circulatory issues. There have been quite a few clinical studies done to determine effectiveness, and there has been enough information to be very positive about its possibilities for natural pain relief, or possible new, less addictive or stomach destroying options than we have in man-made forms now.

There is a down side though, some people react very poorly to capsaicin in large amounts, and as I mentioned before could cause blisters or skin issues if too much is used on sensitive skin or if you have an allergy. I can not stress enough that it is important to respect the power of these plants. Do test patches and know your limits here, start on the low end of the scale and work your way up. I am pretty used to heat, but one evening I made a ton of chilies relleños one evening, and was literally cursing myself as I went for the vinegar afterwards for not first of all wearing gloves, and learned the hard way that shoving my bare hand in 10 poblanos was my skin’s limit. I didn’t blister but trust me when it is too hot, you know it pretty quickly. I already mentioned this salve in my honey post, but I am going to review it here with more information about the chilies and heat levels

 Capsicum Salve for Pain

  • 3 tablespoons Chilies (3-4 good sized jalapeños, 1 if you use poblanos or other larger peppers, no more than 3 habaneros), finely pureed or crushed
  • 1 cup Oil (jojoba, almond, olive, any good quality oil)
  • 1/2 ounce of Beeswax, granular or grated

To make this you will want to heat the oil in a double boiler, and add in the chili paste, or powder, and mix well until completely combined. Add in the beeswax slowly stirring to combine fully. You can pour this directly into a seal-able container, or you can whip it with a hand mixer (or stand mixer) so it is more like a creamed lotion for ease of application. Apply directly to painful areas, and if kept in the fridge it will store for about 2 weeks. This is great for joint pain, muscle pain, and neuralgia. Some people use it for warmth during migraines, and it certainly can help if you have an area hurting that is hard to put a heating pad on, like your temple or cheekbone area. This is basically like icy-hot, but without the icy. 🙂

ProHeatTip: You can use dried cayenne pepper powder, but I find that it is less effective than the fresh since the heat in processing as well as the age can have a negative effect on the potency and effectiveness of the end product. You should never go hotter than habanero, any chili will do to make this except for the ones rated with Bell or Aji peppers which have little to no heat, and that means less capsaicin. The stronger (hotter) the chili is the more effective for higher levels of pain this will tend to be, and including the seeds and all in the puree will make sure you get maximum heat from each pepper. Though you want to do test patches since exposure to large amounts of capsaicin could cause blistering and actual burns. So make sure you do tests to make sure you can stand the heat. It is smart to wear gloves when chopping hot chilies (bell peppers and the like don’t count) but as soon as you hit any level of Scoville heat, glove it up. If you make the salve recipe and find it is too hot you can melt it all down, and add more fats (oils) to it to help dilute the capsaicin. You want to add oil a tablespoon at a time and test it on your hand, until the level of pain has reduced to a hot or warm feeling (whatever you need). Based on the amount of tablespoons of oil added, add more beeswax and attempt to keep the ratios the same. If you are unsure you can always remove a small amount on a spoon and let it cool, if its the consistency you want, you’re done!

mmkay?

mmkay?

Capsaicin is not water soluble and sometimes if you don’t scrub your hands enough (and don’t forget rinse with vinegar) and you have residual amounts, and you will have an unpleasant experience if you touch sensitive areas, like your eyes or “other” parts, guys pay attention here. So be smart, wear gloves.

ProPlasterTip: You can smear this salve on some fabric and apply it to an area to create a DIY heat plaster.

Some people find that an infused oil works better for the relief without as much burn and it is extremely simple to make. It can also be added to other salves and preparations to bring its warming qualities to other things you make.

Capsaicin Infused Massage Oil for Pain

  • 1 cup Oil (any good quality oil will do, coconut or olive is best since they are probably the most easy to get)
  • 1-4 tablespoons Chili puree or powder
  • Jar
  • Sunny windowsill

Throw it all in the jar, and seal it tightly. Put it on a windowsill shaking it daily for 7-14 days, the longer the stronger here. Then strain, and store in a dark bottle. This is a great massage oil for bringing heat and circulation to painful or stiff areas, allowing the muscles to relax. It is also a great way to ease the pain of stiff joints or lower back pain, as well as topical nerve pains. You can add peppermint oil for a cooling effect and increase the effectiveness of it relieving muscle pain and spasms.

Capsaicin Tincture

  • 1-4 tablespoons Chili puree or powder
  • 1 cup Alcohol (vodka or grain alcohol)
  • Jar

Throw it all in the jar, and let it sit for a few weeks about 3-4, but give it a shake every day or so when you remember. Strain and store in a dark bottle as well. A drop or two on the skin and rubbed in can be a good local joint or muscle pain reliever. Also, if you have a cold, a drop or two under the tongue, or even in some lemon tea is a great way to get a stuffed nose flowing.

I have also heard of people putting a small sprinkle of chili powder in their socks to keep feet warm in winter even, which I am not sure I could get into trying that. But if you are going to be out for a long time in the cold, it is a sure way to make sure blood keeps going to those areas. You could use the oils or the salve to do the same as well, but seeing how we don’t have a lot of snow this isn’t something I have been able to test out.

Again, respect the chilies and they will be your friend. But if you are careless you will have instant regrets for your foolhardy ways, as the burn is a great teacher of limits. If you have allergies or are on medications, checking places like WebMD first is a good place to start for if this is the right remedy for you. Do those test patches, listen to your body and know your limits. This stuff is NOT a toy. Do your own research, and if you are in doubt in the slightest, ask a professional!