In the Middle East ‘you are what you eat’ is not a fly-on-the-wall TV programme, but rather a maxim embedded within the culinary culture. Many of the things that are routinely found in pantries across the region double as remedies.
We didn’t have room in the book of Veggiestan for all of the food lore that I wanted to include, and so will be posting them here in dribs and drabs….
Asafoetida: this is the sort of thing that gives medicine a bad name. Whilst it is famously used in cooking to great effect in Indian food as a substitute for garlic and onion, it is less appetising as a remedy. However, as traveller Charles Doughty noted in his book Travels in Arabia Deserta it is a ‘drug which the Arabs have in sovereign estimation’. It is a resin which is ground into a powder or used whole (wherein it needs to be exposed to heat to do any good). It has a slightly anaesthetising effect, and thus can be used for tooth ache and sore throats, but it is also good at treating headaches, stress and menstrual pain. Boil a little resin (if possible) or a teaspoon of powder in a cupful of water and sip at it slowly, pinching your nose to escape the smell….
Cumin: like the similarly flavoured caraway and anise, this is good for the digestion. But it’s also handy on the oral hygiene front, helping sore gums, lightly disinfecting the mouth and throat, and fighting halitosis. For gums and ulcers, mix equal amounts of rock salt and ground cumin seeds and rub over the affected area (yes, it stings – don’t be a sissy). Add a little hot water to the mix, stir and swill it around your mouth as a gargle or breath sweetener.
Dill: both the seeds and the herb are good for the digestive system, especially flatulence. But to me its star quality is its reputed effect on hiccoughs: either eat a dill-pickled cucumber or sip at a decoction of dillweed and apparently you’ll be sorted in seconds. Many Middle Eastern shops sell arak made from dill – in this context not alcohol, but rather distilled dill weed – which is added to a small glass of water and drunk twice a day. But you can easily make you own dill tea by pouring boiling water on the seeds or the weed and letting it steep for five minutes.
Mint: famously good for the digestive system – mint tea after a meal works wonders. But let me try and tell you something you didn’t know… One good thing about it is that mice hate it. Growing mint near the ingresses and egresses of your house will keep the little blighters out. It is also very good for the skin: if you pound it to a pulp and mix it with yoghurt it makes a soothing face mask – some of my visiting customers from the Gulf recommend it as a cure for acne. Add some coarse salt and it then becomes a very effective foot scrub. As someone with a nasty, expensive spa habit, I tried the latter out and thoroughly endorse it.
Parsley: used everywhere to freshen the breath after a night drinking or too much garlic, parsley has a host of other attributes which are worth bragging about. It is full of vitamins A + C, and potassium. And it generally seems to be good for, er, things below the waist (although pregnant ladies should beware – it was used historically to procure abortion). It is especially touted as a tonic for the kidneys: juice it and consume thrice daily. Pounding a few sprigs of parsley and warming them through will give you a (pretty, green) poultice which you can apply as a zit zapper.