By Susan Cunningham
Thailand has never been a nation of tea drinkers. So much for stereotypes about Asia. There have been a few exceptions. Chinese immigrants and their children always drank tea–and not only tea brewed from the leaves of the familiar Camellia sinensis bush. They also drank tea made from chrysanthemums, ginger and ginseng, to name just a few alternatives. Some hill tribe people not long out of China were recreational tea drinkers as well.
But for the vast majority of Thais, living in farming or fishing villages, plain water from the rain jar was the only refreshment at meals and work breaks. For serious relaxation, there was homemade rice whiskey. Those age-old practices have only changed in the past twenty or thirty years as the habits and advertisements from the city have seeped through the countryside.
In Bangkok,the upper class and the emerging middle class were the first to acquire the leisure habit of tea-drinking, probably from their Chinese immigrant neighbors. They moved on in the 20th century to coffee, fruit juices and soft drinks. When electricity, refrigeration and ice finally reached rural areas, all these exotic beverages quickly followed.Tea hasn’t fared well amid the torrent.
Unknown to city folk, Thai villagers through the ages actually knew a great deal about teas–of the non-Camellia sinensis variety.They could identify scores of wild plants, knew when to gather them and how to make tea from the leaves, roots, bark, flowers and fruit. Always, the village experts ascribed therapeutic properties to these herbal teas. Most country folk therefore thought of tea as medicine. Probably most still do.
Few Thais from the cities or with a bit of higher education knew or cared about such folklore. In 1980, when the precursor of the Thai Holistic Health Foundation was started, its mission was widely regarded as outlandish or amusing, recalls co-founder Rosana Tositrakul, now the foundation’s secretary-general. At that time, young educated workers traveled to poor and remote villages and asked the locals which plants they used to treat illness.By the end of the decade, the foundation was running workshops to disseminate information.
Nowadays, the foundation also helps to wean farmers away from using pesticides.And pharmacists and nutritionists at Mahidol University are trying to isolate the active properties in medicinal plants and verify therapeutic claims. In Thailand and throughout the world, it’s still early days for the scientific study of herbal remedies. There is yet virtually no scientific backing for the sweeping claims you’ll find on packets of herbal tea in Thailand.
Sales of herbal teas now total about 150 million baht (about US$3.5 million) per year, according to Rosana, and have been growing about 15 percent annually. The foundation encourages Thais to drink herbal teas regularly, even when they aren’t sick, as a preventive measure.In many cases, the herb had long been a part of daily life as an ingredient in food.Then there are cases like lemongrass, which is now popular as an ice tea. Thais customarily used lemongrass to flavor many dishes and believed it was good for digestion. But as a tea form, it’s a newcomer, likely with Vietnamese origins.
As result of all these activities, it’s now easier to find herbal teas in city organic food shops. Usually they come in simply labeled sachets. Among the few homegrown brands is Friends of Nature. Far from the village markets, you may even run across packages of dried roselle petals and dried bael fruit in large supermarkets.
Roselle and bael fruit are probably the best-known of the traditional teas. Roselle is a type of hibiscus (specifically, Hibiscus sabdariffa) and makes the most tasty Thai tea.If you find the petals, dissolve a couple of handfuls in a liter of water and boil for 20 minutes. Boiling longer creates a deeper purple-red and more concentrated taste.Hot and straight, with a twist oflime, roselle might pass forCelestial Seasonings’ Red Zinger. Thais prefer to add sugar and salt, then they chill it. In taste tests, it could be mistaken for grape juice.
Northeastern Thais traditionally prescribed roselle tea for kidney and urinary problems. It’s also taken to calm fevers and relieve coughs. Elsewhere in the world, roselle is believed to have other healing properties.Conventional Western scientific studies have found that it can lower blood pressure.
Those on meditation retreats in Thai temples may have encountered bael-fruit tea with their dawn breakfasts. It is free of both caffeine and tannic acid. Depending on how much it is diluted, bael-fruit tea is light or dark brown and smells slightly acrid. There’s barely any taste at all. The tea is usually made from a tan powder, which has been ground from the dried fruit skin, and sugar is already added. In its dried, sliced form, bael fruit resembles dried and sliced green bell peppers. Follow the roselle steps to reconstitute it.
Thai herbalists say that bael-fruit tea can counteract diarrhea and flatulence, aid digestion, quench thirst and perk up the appetite. According to the ancient Ayurvedic medicine system of India, bael fruit has other healing properties. It is these that have brought it to the attention of Western-style scientists. Indian scientists have found that bael-fruit tea has antioxidant properties. This means it has the potential to protect the body against cancer. (And thus resembles green tea, which is made from freshly picked and processed Camellia sinensis leaves. In the past few decades, green tea has been the food most ballyhooed in the West for its antioxidant powers.)
Bael-fruit tea also has a distinction in that Thais traditionally consumed it in a non-therapeutic capacity. In most monasteries in Thailand, monks are forbidden to eat after midday. Nowadays, warm soybean milk is the customary beverage that staves off their evening hunger pangs. But in less prosperous times, the faithful served the monks bael-fruit tea in the evening for that purpose.
Roselle and bael fruit aside, it’s hard to distinguish most Thai herbal teas by taste or fragrance. Most are mild and flowery.Like herbal remedies from other tropical countries, a large share of Thai teas promise to cure or prevent disorders of the kidneys and urinary tract. No doubt this is because kidney problems are very common in hot countries, where people often don’t drink enough water over long periods of time.
The most popular of Thai teas in this category, tai tea, actually means “kidney” tea in Thai. It’s made from the Orthosiphon arisatus leaf. Some Westerners know it as Java tea because the same weed grows on the main island of Indonesia and is used in herbal teas there. Rama Hospital in Bangkok is testing traditional claims that drinking kidney tea dissolves kidney stones and aids urination. Meanwhile, foreign scientists have found evidence that it decreases high blood pressure.
As a mild laxative, Thai doctors sometimes recommend a tea made from the candle bush, known to Thais as chum haet tea. This is one of only five traditional Thai herbal medicines–and the only tea–that has won the government endorsement necessary to be prescribed by public hospitals and clinics.
Not winning such official endorsement, but gaining popularity for people trying to quit smoking cigarettes is yaa dok khao tea. That translates as “white flower medicine” tea, an odd name for a homely weed known to botanists as Vernomia cinerea Less. Some people think this tea has a metabolic affect, others that it coats the mouth and throat so that cigarette smoke tastes bad. In Thai herbal lore, yaa dok khao tea is also believed to relieve … ๑
This story appeared in Sawasdee, the inflight magazine of Thai Airways early in the millennium, back when regional inflights paid real money. Since then, both roselle and bael tea have become very trendy and associated with healthy consuming. There are now many online vendors, Thai and otherwise, selling the dried stuff. Almost always, I originate the idea for a story. In this instance, an editor did. I had to learn about herbal teas in a hurry.