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.


  1. Ew ew ew. The smell of Violet's cow tongue flower concoction is nastiness defined. Once she made me drink some, too. Probably for canker sores. I couldn't get more than a sip down. It tasted as bad as it smelled, and I even like limoo omani. I must say, your pudge fingers are rather perfect for digging for the limoo seeds. Thank you for not gracing us with a photo of the canker sores, Herpy.

  2. Also, you could easily write a book about our big fat Persian family. You write at least as well as Fritzy Dumbass.

  3. I totally feel you on the canker sore thing. I always get it in the same place. Pass along soe of the cow tongue flower please. =)

  4. You sound like a disgrace to your family, fat or not. Why don't you grow up and use your writing skills in a more positive way instead of making fun of your family and your heritage.

  5. wow anonymous, way to have zero sense of humor whatsoever. you have it all wrong; i have deep respect for my family and its traditions (poke around the blog a bit more and you'll see quite a few examples). there is a lot that falls through the culture gap though, and what better way to deal with it than laughing?

    besides, didn't your mother ever teach you about treating others with kindness and respect? tsk, tsk -- disgraceful, really.

  6. Culture gap? dealing with stuff by making fun of your family and culture? I have seen a lot of spoiled kids like you who think making fun of family and culture is the way to deal with things in US just because you feel like an outsider, but you are WRONG and you'll realize this when you grow up. You don't know me, but I have lots of sense of humor, but this type of disgrace is not what I call fun.

  7. I was told by an Iranian friend's mom while we were walking through Tehran Bazaaar recently that you have to brew it with catnip to keep it from turning an ugly brown color.



  8. I disagree, i think it smells quite nice! : ) and love the taste, especialy with nabat (sugar crystals), i find it helpful when you cant go to sleep at night. :)

  9. Wonderful story...loved it. brought back momories for me as you described it.
    I drink lots of fruity teas (tea bags) I recently started drinking golgavzaboon at night.
    I brew a few leaves of that with some rose flower. it comes out really pleasent. I have heard it is good for your nurves. a good night sleep after this drink.

  10. Tannaz Jan, you are quite a storyteller and I'm glad I found your blog. Thanks for the link.
    I love gol gav zaboon!
    Best Wishes,


  11. This stuff really works! I thought the same way and dismissed my mother's advice, but this purple flower really makes my headaches go away and helps me go to sleep. From my experience, it is the best, healthiest alternative to marijuana, Excedrin, and Ambien. It can also give you a burst of unfound energy. Be careful how you use it. Brewing it longer makes it stronger. Also, the apples and dry lemon is not neccessary. You can just mix it with your favorite tea to avoid the smell. They also don't taste bad alone - better than any medication or marijuana smell! Oh and using a french press makes it all easier.

  12. danial.farid@gmail.com11/01/2012 6:06 AM

    The flower is called ox-tongue.

  13. ^^^Two points for being a pedantic prick. A cow and an ox are the same species.

  14. Wow, you are an incredible writer! You should write for a living or write a book, you definitely have a talent for writing. On a different note, i didn't think you were disgracing your culture at all as someone previously thought.

  15. Thank you and thank you, Susan!

    And yeah, somehow this post managed to rustle up all manner of internet ire. Obviously (or maybe not so obviously!), though, I meant no disrespect. Thanks for seeing that!

  16. Where can you purchase
    this cow flower tea?

    1. Hey Sam! You can look for borage tea online, or gole gavzaban at Persian markets. Here's one online:

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