I brought a whopper of a cold home from Vietnam. This seems to be par for the course when we're traveling and cramming a lot of work into a relatively short space of time. It might also have had something to do with the fact that we arrived in Hoi An unprepared for cool weather and lots of rain. Lacking a rain coat - or any warm clothing, for that matter - I spent the better part of 5 days in a locally-purchased rain poncho that resembled a garbage bag with sleeves. (Dave assured me that if I wore the same in San Francisco it would quickly become must-have wet weather garb for the city's fashion divas. Ahem. Nice try, Dave.)
When my cold started to rear its ugly head I wished for something I was drinking quite a lot of exactly a year ago, while battling an even nastier cold while on assignment in Pampanga, Philippines. When a string of early mornings (as in 3am, for dawn mass) and non-stop days lay me low the kitchen angels at our host's home boiled up batch after batch of tea made with an herb growing wild outside the house. They called it 'oregano' (pictured below, and above - same name, two different leaves - two varieties, perhaps?). It eased my sore throat, cough, and general feeling of unwellness.
This 'oregano' is actually Indian borage (Plectranthus barbatus), a fuzzy, fleshy-leafed herb thought to be native to India that's also found in Australia, where it's known as five-in-one (thanks to once-prolific EatingAsia commenter RST for this link and others related to the herb). In India the tuberous roots are also used as a spice or prepared as a pickle.
And Indian borage is found in Vietnam, where it's known as hung chanh, tan la day, and thom long. We first noticed it at a Hue/Hoi An market in Saigon; the vendor told us that it's not for eating, but for boiling into tea when you have a sore throat or cough. According to the link above it also grows wild in Malaysia, where it's known as daun bangun-bangun. We've not seen it in the market here, yet.
The herb smells a bit like Italian or Greek oregano but, to my nose, even more like sage or thyme. In Pampanga I asked if the herb was used for cooking; the response was 'no'. Yet something called 'oregano' is perhaps part of a dried herb mix called sangkot-sangkot that's added to a Philippine stewed meat dish called apritada.
According to that link above Indian borage is added to fish or goat meat curries in Malaysia and on Java (thus one of its Indonesian names - daun kambing or 'goat leaf') and, according to my Vietnamese herb book, there '...young leaves are cut into small pieces to enhance fish or meat as a seasoning before cooking'. (A similarly fuzzy, fleshy, and odiferous leaf, the name of which escapes me at the moment, is cooked with dog in Vietnam to mitigate that meat's distinctive odor.)
Intriguingly, the herb is also used in cooking in Cuba and the Caribbean, where it goes by the name of 'Cuban oregano' or 'French oregano'. In this 2005 Miami Herald article chef and cookbook author Maricel Presilla writes that the plant made its way to Latin America during colonial times. Which begs the question - from where and via whom? From the Philippines with the Spanish? Or from southern India or Malaysia/Indonesia with the Portuguese? Or...? And how did the herb find its way to Vietnam?
Filipinos, Australians, Indians, Malaysians, Vietnamese - anyone familiar with this herb - do you cook with it? And if so, how do you use it?
But back to Hoi An. I searched for Indian borage tea in vain but I did find, bubbling away over a wood fire in a corner near the seafood section, a vat of che tuoi, or 'fresh tea'. The leaves used for this tea are indeed unfermented and, from the looks of it, pretty old.
Branches, berries, leaves - everything goes into the pot and the vendor, who's been pouring cups of che tuoi in the market for over thirty years, gives it all a good boil for a couple hours. This isn't meant as specifically a cold remedy but its slightly bitter, grassy flavor and warmth was most welcome on our misty Hoi An mornings.
My cold, by the way, is pretty much vanquished, and in just over ten days. That's a record for me; these things usually seem to hang on for weeks. I don't know whether to attribute my quick recovery to che tuoi, thoughts of oregano tea, the handfuls of vitamin C tablets I began swallowing at regular intervals as soon as my symptoms appeared .... or candied turmeric.
Candied turmeric is sold alongside candied ginger all over Hoi An's market. Before I even got sick a vendor told me it's good for a cough and sore throat. I bolted at least a half a bag at the first sign of a sore throat and then continued to snack on the astringent treat for a few more days.
What's your (non-Western pharmaceutical) cure for the common cold?