Herbalism is the way you approach health and the way you experience it in your own body, this includes your experience with plants and how they work and how they change the way you feel. It requires you to get really clear about what those sensations are, to use your taste buds and to train yourself to be aware of injured or sick parts of your body with greater clarity, your throat, your liver, your kidneys, your joints, and how those sensations are changing over time as you take herbs and make other lifestyle interventions. This way of knowing is referred to as organoleptic, knowing through the sense organs. Wine tasters are organoleptic experts, and so are herbalists. Herbalism requires you to be really honest with yourself and acknowledge your agency in the healing process, that your actions can influence how quickly and how well your body repairs itself.
I thought the first herbal formula I ever made was simply a complicated and delicious recipe. It was a Tanzanian chai (spiced tea blend) recipe that a friend’s mother brought back with her from the Peace Corps. When I was over at her house in the winter a saucepan of the chai would be on the wood stove cooking all day, spices simmering, and it smelled heavenly. I had a cup of it one day when I was sick with a cold and I had this visceral reaction to drinking the tea: my (at that time, chronically poor) digestion improved, with a lot of gas dispersing, my extremities (usually cold) warmed, my stuffed nose cleared and I could breathe a little easier, and I started sweating, at which point it felt like my whole body woke up and said: Get me some more of that. I drank so much of the tea that this woman sent me home with the recipe for my first herbal formula.
Let’s unpack this aromatic spice formula that’s full of herbs you can find in your kitchen:
Every herb in the formula is carminative, these are digestive herbs that dispel gas and reduce nausea: ginger, fennel, cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, peppercorns and cayenne.
circulatory stimulants like ginger, peppercorns, and cayenne increase blood flow, oxygenating the body, delivering nutrients to cells and removing waste from cells, all important actions in cold and sluggish bodies inactive in the winter.
diaphoretics promote sweating, release of toxins and open the periphery of the body, allowing heat to escape the body, as in a fever breaking, or allowing warmth into the body after prolonged cold has closed the pores: cayenne, ginger are both stimulating diaphoretics.
antispasmodic: cardamom is relaxing for both stomach cramps associated with indigestion and IBS and for spasmodic coughing and bronchitis.
expectorant: cardamom thins stuck mucus and its warming and drying properties make it useful in cases of congested colds and bronchitis, allowing mucus to be coughed up.
- fresh ginger, crushed with a knife, – 1 or 2 inches
- fennel seed,- ½ cup
- cardamom pods,- 5, crushed with a knife
- cinnamon stick – 1
- whole cloves – 5
- black peppercorns– 5
- cayenne powder- a dash or two
Boil a quart of water on the stove, add all spices and simmer for 20 minutes up to an hour on low heat, adding water if necessary. The longer you simmer the stronger your results, since I like strong herb tastes I brew it longer for myself than for herb newbies.
Now, chai just means tea, and the original recipe does include a teaspoon of black tea for every cup of water (probably 2 cups once you’ve reduced it) which I find I can’t tolerate when I come home and the house is chilly and I want to pile on sweaters and guzzle a gallon of this tea. If you’re like me and one cup of caffeine will have you zooming around the walls, feel free to leave it out, but if you’re going to include black tea do it once you’ve finished simmering the spices.
The other thing that is essential to chai is milk, and as I’m saving my discussion of dairy for another day, let’s just say here that the best dairy substitute you can use is full fat coconut milk, which doesn’t separate like soy and will still froth up when you heat it. Coconut, almond or other milk is added once you’ve finished simmering the spices, and then you bring the pot to a rolling boil until the milk froths. The froth indicates that it has blended correctly, the one thing Starbucks got right about their chai!
A spoonful of honey is a nice addition to make this tea a lovely experience for someone. We want to steer clear of too much sugar for optimum immune function, but a little honey can soothe and moisten a dry cough, and if adding some honey increases compliance, it’s better than a perfectly balanced cold formula that no one will drink twice because it tastes bad. Another note: this formula is very warming and drying, great if your cold is boggy with the drippiest nose, but if you have a dry sore throat, it might be too drying for you. Reduce the amount of pepper and add some more moistening herbs like cinnamon and licorice, wild cherry too. You can substitute any of the carminatives, diaphoretics and circulatory stimulants for spices you have available in your kitchen, anise seed, lemongrass, coriander, star anise, and lemon or orange peel make nice additions. I most often stick with this recipe. There is more fennel than anything else, as you might notice, half a cup is a lot of fennel, so you may want to cut that down and add more of your favorite ingredient.
I like to drink this tea in the winter when I feel a little run down, and filling the house with the smell of it cooking on the stove and anticipating a delicious cup of tea certainly help me get more enjoyment out of cold season!