Mellow Marshmallow

When most of us think of marshmallows, we think of the doughy, puffy cylinders of white “WIN” that grace campfires and Graham crackers. It wouldn’t occur to us that there is a plant of the same name, and that it is loosely tied to that most artificial of all sweet snacks. And even stranger still, it was used as an herbal remedy for sore throats. Not what you think of with that sweet confection, eh?

How the dessert and the plant (Althea officinalis) came to share the same name is sketchy. One sound theory presents that a mucilage concoction from the plant – sweetened with honey – was the great-granddaddy of the dextrose-laden dessert o’ death. Evidence is flimsy on this, however.

I first heard of the plant in the only way a geek can – in a movie. My cousin insisted I give the comedy, Grandma’s Boy, a view. He swore by its campy genius; I merely swore. ¬†Watching it was pure torture on all required senses. Granted, there were some humorous moments, but they were few and torturously far between. Until an odd character came into the fray.

The protagonist’s boss – Mr. Cheezle – was the New Age-y sort, played to near-perfection by Kevin Nealon of Saturday Night Live fame. During the first (or was it second?) encounter with the character, at one point in the conversation, he offered a group some “marshmallow tea”. That furrowed my brow.

I didn’t think on it again until a friend’s lovely Latin-borne wife took a rather well-lit cell phone picture of a tea she brewed.

Two lovely leaves were steeped in a transparent cup, yielding a soft, yellow-green liquor. My palate? Whetted.

On a visit to the couple’s house, she kindly showed me the source of the steep. In her backyard. The marshmallow leaves she used weren’t from a vendor or dried source, they were fresh! All of my infusions up to that point were with dried herbs. I knew one could use a fresh source, but the rules for brewing would differ. She imparted two branches for me to experiment with. What deal with a deity my friend had to make to land her, I know not. But I was happy to reap the benefits – by way of plants, both illegal and/or exotic – by proxy.

The next night, I began playing with the leaves. From what I read, fresh herbs and roots required a full, continuous boil. They couldn’t just steep alone. To decoct them properly, one needed a lengthy cook. The friend’s photo showed two leaves in an 8oz cup. I used about 32oz of water and multiplied the number of leaves accordingly – eight…-ish. (I suck at math.)

My first attempted decoct was for ten minutes. The steam wafting from the cup smelled like cooked asparagus. The infusion colored beautifully to a green-gold liquor that shined in the light via a clear beer mug.  The surprise was the flavor. I found it tasted rather light, buttery, very similar to a chamomile-verbena cross but more vegetal.  The mellowness of it bothered me.

A second attempt at fifteen minutes led to a darker brew, but the taste was about the same – incredibly subtle. To my surprise, though, it took various sweeteners rather well. With a name like “marshmallow”, I shouldn’t have been surprised, though. Honey worked best of all.

To conclude, I liked it quite a bit. I’m a sucker for herbal infusions, even those with a medicinal lean. And while I can’t attest to its throat-relieving properties, it does act as a good relaxer. Sometimes after a tough day, that’s all one needs. I hope to explore it in dried form in the future to see how that measures up.

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Saturday, December 11th, 2010 Steep Stories 1 Comment

A Tropical Tisane Trip

A peculiar little leaf came to my attention on a search for another herb. I saw it mentioned in passing as a comparison. It and one other were used as taster notes. Sometimes I hate obscure taster notes – I try to avoid them – but in this case, it caught my intellectual fancy. The herbals in question were Hawaiian in origin. One was called Ko’oko’alau (a.k.a. genus Bidens), the other – and more pronounceable – was Mamaki (Pipturus albidus). The latter was mentioned as a close, islander cousin to stinging nettle.

I didn’t think I would be able to locate them locally, so I turned to online sources. It was almost impossible to find unblended products of either. And the solo options were in the neighborhood of $30 a pound. Why is everything in Hawaii so rapin’ expensive?! (Calming down…)

A difficult decision lay ahead of me; I had to give up on one of these herbs. Naturally, the unpronounceable one went by the wayside, and I focused my efforts on Mamaki. The search wouldn’t take long.

On a trip to Uwajimaya – think Asian Supermarket Disneyland – to browse the vast tea hall, I stopped by the customer service desk to inquire about Mamaki. At first, the just-shy-of-post-adolescent teller stared at me blankly. Before he could sputter out an “I dunno”, I saw my quarry on the shelf behind him. The label read “Hawaiian Chai” – a Mamaki/stevia blend.

Close enough, I thought.

Brewing would be a minor challenge. I wanted to know what Mamaki tasted like by itself, but I had to contend with the blended stevia as well. Having purchased the “sweet leaf” before, I knew what their consistency was like. Mamaki leaves – on the other hand – were larger, fanned-out and veiny. Perhaps a simple self-separation was in order.

The leaf apartheid worked. The stevia in the loose leaf jumble had settled to the bottom of the bag. Mamaki leaves took the top like large, green forest faery wings. I took out about 2 teaspoons of leaves and steeped them in boiling water for five minutes.

The infusion colored to a dirty amber, reminiscent of pond water. It didn’t look very thirst-quenching. Steam pluming from the cup was all nettle to the nose. That settled a bit on taste. Sure, it had the vegetal component of its spinachy cousin, yet somehow transcended its familial trappings into something gentler. I quite liked it, not in a “beaming-smile” sorta way, but a half-grimace did creep through. It even worked well when I put it with the stevia leaf.

This is why I love hunting down new herbs. Is it time consuming? Oh god, yes. But on those special occasions, one is rewarded with a flavor they would’ve never encountered without a gander. So far, my searches have turned up (mostly) successes. Mamaki got a pass.

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Wednesday, November 24th, 2010 Steep Stories 167 Comments

I work for tea money.


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