A decade ago I read Andrew Weil's book Spontaneous Healing and it resonated with me having grown up exposed to other cultural systems of wellness that aren't 'alternative' here, a better word might be - parallel. Although we went to an allopathic doctor, we also frequently took over the counter Chinese medicines, tried local folk remedies and most of all were aware of and practised what Dr Weil was championing then - food as medicine.
On a daily basis we were reminded not to eat certain combinations of food (pineapple and milk was a big no) and not to eat certain things if we were not well (no shrimp with fevers and no peanuts with coughs). Who knows how true these rules were- but it certainly cultivated a mindfulness about food that's become ingrained. There were Chinese soups and even desserts that were complex botanic brews and a part of everyday life. Indian Curries were no less a multitude of botanic ingredients rich in medicinal properties. These 'tonic' foods are as Dr Weil describes a way to strengthen or invigorate the healing system. This process orientated form of wellness management he regretted was not evident or disappearing in the west.
One particular form of tonics that we were not forced to partake in although occasionally encouraged to try was tonic drinks. They were a tough sell because they were invariably wickedly bitter. They are still very much in evidence here and in fact gaining a new popularity - its not unusual to see little refrigerators full of an assortment of these drinks, much like the smoothie section in a NYC corner deli, and the traditional herbal tea shops with their large dispensing vats still do a brisk business.
I've been trying quite a few these drinks and there's definitely an acquired taste issue. Some I marginally like, some I outright dislike - those would be bitter and there are some weird 'woody' and 'peel' type flavors that I just don't love. I recently learned that there's some nuanced vocabulary to describe these drinks - there's 'foo' which is outright bitter (no can do) and there's 'kum' which is bitter-ish, like the bitterness of a strong overbrewed tea - that, I can handle. There's one I love- Roselle and Hawthorn and another that my cousin made at home called 'Jook Jeh' with red sugar cane and Rhoeo Discolor leaves -it was a beautiful purple color with a sweet grassy taste- perhaps a little too sweet. I made it at home without the rock sugar, added a few leaves of Black face General or Strobilanthes Crispus from the garden and a little honey- good.
At the night market I've been seeing these bundles of red leaved Alternanthera Sessilis ( Hong Tian Wu ). It's to make the blood move, the stall vendor tells me. Sold. Although like most herbal tonic drinks the primary feature is usually that they are 'cooling' - hence the term 'leong char' or 'cooling tea'. So into the pot it went with some red sugar cane and some Tradescantia Zebrina from the garden for my next home experiment. It was a particularly beautiful color - much like the color of the source material as pictured above, but the taste was a little spinachy, a little sugar might have helped but I'd just read the piece in NYTimes about how posionous sugar is that I am now working on the principle of two out of three ain't bad- it was nice and cold and it was pretty to look at.
So now I have a few homemade tonic drinks that I rotate, Roselle, a ginger and mint green tea and this red sugar cane with 'herbs'. They have become cold drink alternatives that I freeze and keep the fridge well stocked with that feels like I've gained some ground in the pushback against cans and plastic bottles and sugary chemical concotions and in the increased use of local and backyard plant material. The NYTimes had a piece a while back called Making Tea From Plants Grown in the Backyard which was not entirely positive, complaining that often the flavor was just plain not good or not there. If you're thinking of not just getting food from your backyard but also the occasional drink, the herbal decoctions described here might provide some clues on a different direction - it's not just about the leaves or a 'tea'- its a liqour made from a broader assortment of leaves, flowers, stems, fruits, nuts, seeds and roots.
Trend guru Li Edelkoort's horticultural magazine Bloom recently looked at color from nature as a source of inspiration. Color from flowers and plants was also part of her trend presentation for Summer 2012 called Earth Matters. If you're not quite ready to fling yourself into growing a dye garden filled with woad, indigo and madder and do it yourself dyeing there's a small area of natural coloring that might be a closer reach - coloring your food with plant material.
There's the easy ones like turmeric and the not so well known ones like Perilla which the Japanese use to color vinegar and there's the blue pea flower pictured above that is used locally here to make a sweet glutinous rice cake an unusual food color - blue. There's also drinks, my recent discoveries include Roselle and another local recipe made from stewed sugar cane and the leaves of Rhoeo Discolor that turns out a pale purple. Beet juice, chive vinegar, spinach pastas, anything with berries- there's quite a few recipes to try.
Apart from turmeric and saffron which colors up strong, most natural plant dyes tend to impart a softer shade - materials are more likely to be tinged, imbued, tinted, or stained with color. See how the brilliant pea flower just lends the rice about half its vibrancy. And therein lies the rise of popularity of synthetic dyes which have the capability to create vivid, brilliant, saturated hues cheaply and with much less effort. But they aren't so cheap in the big picture when we see the toxic and carciogenic effects of these chemical processes exert their toll on the people who work in these industries.
If we are to move in the direction of non toxic natural plant color dyes then what we must begin to do is adjust our color tastes. Li Edelkoort is encouraging creatives, designers and product developers to re discover the tinctorial arts of plant coloring and use their skills to seduce consumers into more subtle vegetal shades.
Try some food coloring experiments this summer when the garden provides material and opportunity to create mindfulness of how color really works, naturally. Colors as we see them in the garden are not something we can easily re create without the use of harmful chemical agents. Capturing nature, might be harming it. Colors safe enough to eat is a related concept with the prevalence of it in everyday food and drinks - its principal target and victim being children. Can we rearrange our heads to make responsible consumption, delicious? We really should.