Wednesday, July 12, 2006
The Cow Tongue Flower Chronicles
A note before I begin: This is going to be long and rambling. There are a lot of asides (mostly about my big fat immigrant family), and the payoff isn't that good. Stick with me, though -- in this case the journey is the destination. Now then.
Ever since I was a little kid, I've been getting canker sores. I used to get them frequently then; now, one will spring up once every few years, usually stress-related. They hurt bad. And ever since I was a little kid, my dad has been suggesting the same cure, and for all those years, I've blown him off. Until now.
A few months ago, I was under a lot of stress, mostly from work, but also from a bunch of personal goings-on. It manifested itself physically -- I was waking up with backaches and headaches, and I was getting canker sores. Like, one would go away, and within weeks, another would pop up. It was a downward spiral, because on top of everything else, the pain was keeping me from sleeping at night, causing all the troubles to be even worse. I was so desperate that, after years of ignoring Saeed's (Dad and I are on a first-name basis) advice, I thought I might give it a shot.
Saeed's magical wonder-cure was a tea made from this plant whose name in Persian translates directly to 'cow tongue flower' (gole gav zaboon for those of you from the motherland). The reason I had ignored him was this: when I was a kid, my mom made this weird concoction a few times, and it stank up the house in a way I can recall to this day. My parents tried to convince me that the taste was fine, but the smell was so bad it was traumatizing.
I pushed through that scent memory, though, and asked them for more information. Apparently, my grandma, Saeed's mom, swore by the stuff for all sorts of things -- heightened energy being one of them, and permanent canker sore cure being another. Saeed relayed that it would not get rid of one you currently have, but after taking it for a few days, you will never get canker sores again. Ever. This sounded like a bunch of old country hooey to me, but I was at the end of my rope, so I was game.
At a family gathering, I picked up the conversation with Saeed. He told me, first of all, that I should not buy cow tongue flower (I learned later that the English name is 'borage') teabags, but rather that I have to get the actual loose petals, or else it won't work. My mom contributed to the conversation, telling me her favored way of making it -- she added a few slices of fresh apple to the pot and some sugar, as well as limoo omani to improve the taste.
A note on limoo omani: These are dried limes. You buy them in bags, and each one is a hard-as-stone shriveled brown-black ball, about the size of a walnut. They are used liberally in Iranian cuisine (they often bring the sour to that whole sour/sweet combo), and I find them utterly disgusting. When I was a kid, my mom would sit me down on the kitchen floor, with a big round tray full of the pathetic things. She would break them in half with a meat mallet, and then hand them off to me. My job was to poke through them with my pudgy fingers and take out the seeds. What happens to a lemon when it dries? The membranes turn into this oily thinner-than-paper fragile flaky mess that will crumble and get everywhere if you so much as look at it wrong. So not only did they smell horrible, but I got this blackish flaky business stuck all over my hands. Apparently the seeds are bitter and unpalatable, which is why I had this task. Here's a tip: the WHOLE LEMON is bitter and unpalatable. But I digress.
So, Violet suggested apples and limoo omani. I wince at the thought, and something from my childhood becomes very clear -- the reason the stuff smelled so vile was not the borage, but the nasty limoo omani. To improve taste? Really?
At this point, my aunt and uncle get in on the conversation. I like talking to my family about this kind of stuff, because it makes me feel like I'm actually connected to their culture. But sometimes it turns on me. My uncle is a dentist (the old-school, masochistic, no-novocaine-unless-you're-crying variety), and his wife is a dental hygienist. She hears this bit about canker sores, and rather than being sympathetic, says something to the effect of, "Aren't those herpes?" Note that this was not a private conversation in the corner of the room. We were sitting in the living room, there were distant relatives present who I don't really know, and we were within everyone's earshot. Her eyes bug out in terror, and she keeps repeating it, loudly and somewhat manically: "Yeah, Tannaz, you have herpes." "Tannaz has herpes!" "Herpes! Herpes!"
For once, Uncle Dentist comes to the rescue. "Aphthous ulcer!" he yells. He duly corrected her, giving me reprieve from my short stint as an outed herpetic, but at the same time, here I am sitting at a pretty somber family function, and my oral health has become the keynote topic. Oh joy.
So, now that I had the information, I had to get the goods. The Iranian market closest to me is Elat Market, in the Pico-Robertson area. I drove up on a Sunday, eager to get my borage. I didn't know what I was getting into. What I had forgotten to give significance to was that this particular Sunday was the day before Norouz, the Persian New Year, so Elat Market was barbarism central. I had basically stepped inside of a moshpit, but instead of steel-toed punk-rockers, there were 70-year-old Iranian ladies with their skirts hiked up just below their sagging bras, who would smack you with their purse if you so much as eyed the pomegranate they're about to snatch up. It was dog-eat-dog, and I was frightened.
Nonetheless, I made my way through wall-to-wall shopping carts to the tea aisle, and started searching. While there was plenty of variety, including cow tongue flower teabags, the loose petals were nowhere to be found. Asking someone was not an option -- it was just too insane -- so I just crept out the door, tail between my legs. I kept walking on Pico though, and ended up at another smaller Persian shop which, thankfully, was pretty empty. After a cursory look through the tea aisle, I went to the counter to ask the man there. He got off the phone to address me, then led me to the back of the store, where he pulled a giant bag of small deep purple flowers from the freezer.
He brought it back to the counter, and asked me how much I wanted. A conversation ensued between me, him, and the resident old man, who had been sitting in a plastic patio chair by the counter reading a Persian newspaper. I told him why I was getting it, the old man basically told me it sounded like a bunch of old country hooey.
Undeterred, I brought my stash home and got to working. Of course, I omitted the limoo omani, but per Saeed's instructions, I pinched off about a tablespoon of the borage petals, and placed them, unwashed, in a small pot with some apple slices and some water, brought the whole thing to a boil, then lowered the heat and let it steep for about 10 minutes. It actually smelled pleasant. Similar to tea, but unique. I didn't even add sugar, because it didn't need it. It became this murky purple liquid that would not be out of place in a witch's cauldron. I drank, it tasted fine, I went through the ritual again the next 2 nights.
The result: The only thing I noticed was that on the second day, my morning coffee that usually just wakes me up, gave me the shivers. Interesting. I have not gotten a canker sore since then, but then again, the stress situation has gone away too. So, I'm not totally convinced. I wonder if Windex would work.