Mamaki

Damn You, Damiana

Damiana (or Turnera diffusa) is a shrub native to parts of Texas and just about every Spanish-speaking country south of that. Many Central and South American countries regarded it for its relaxing effects. However, it was Mexico that recognized it for another – less chaste – use. And no one had told my parents.

My mother and stepdad were on a cruise to Mexico. While in Cabo San Lucas, they came upon a vendor hocking an herbal “tea”. He explained that his herbal product had a list of purported health properties attached to it, including: Treatment for headaches, treatment for diabetes, and a tonic effect on the muscles and nervous system. Also in the fine print was another, more infamous use.

When they got back to the U.S., my mother proudly called me up to tell me what she picked up for me. She knew I had a thing for trying out new teas and tisanes, and – God bless her – her heart was in the right place. However…um…well, here’s how the conversation went:

Mom: “We picked up this tea for you in Cabo. It’s a cactus tea!”

Me: “That’s great!…Wait…it’s not ‘damiana’, is it?”

Mom: “That’s it.”

Me: “Mom…that’s an aphrodisiac.”

Mom: [long pause] “Oh…well, you don’t have to drink it for that.”

They stayed with my brother and I on a visit to drop off their wares. My mother let my stepdad do the “honors” of handing me said herb. His exact words were, “Here’s your boner tea. Enjoy.” Just like that.

A few months after that, a friend of mine also made a trip to Cabo. I had related the tale regarding the damiana to him, and – being the way he is – he texted me: “I picked you up some more damiana.”

I didn’t receive this second stash of sex tea until a tea party a few weeks back. I actually had the other bag of damiana with me in the hopes of giving it away. What use did I have for it? I wasn’t dating anyone. The moment I started unloading the bag of teas I had for said party, my friend handed me the damiana he bought for me.

It was from the same damn farmer my mother had purchased hers.

I guess there was no escaping the stuff. It wasn’t like I hadn’t tried damiana before. As I’ve related before, I had taste-tested it plenty of times over the course of years. I had blended it with gingko, lemon verbena, and other anti-inflammatory herbs for a “prostate” tea. (What? I’m a male in my 30s, I worry about this sorta thing.) While I didn’t remember liking it all that much by itself, I didn’t remember hating it either.  This stuff was straight from the source, wild-harvested even. I guess a second go-around was in order.

The appearance was strikingly similar to quite a few other green-leaning herbs. There were leaf bits ranging from green to brown along with stems and twigs. I likened it to tulsi, only (obviously) greener. What really surprised me was the sweet/mint aroma it possessed. The last time I whiffed this stuff, it did not possess that profile. I expected herbaceous, and I got…fruit sweetness with a hint of spearmint. Maybe this wasn’t going to be so bad after all; maybe there was something to this wild-harvesting thing.

I didn’t adhere to any particular brewing instructions for this. Damiana blends past only required about a five-minute steep time in boiling water – roughly a teaspoon of herb per cup. I went a little stronger with a heaping teaspoon in 8oz. of boiled water for five minutes.

The liquor brewed up green-gold, almost jade-like with an aroma that made an eyebrow cock. It smelled like weed. What was it with Spanish-speaking country herbs smelling like weed?! Yerba mate smelled like it, guayusa kinda smelled like it, mate de coca definitely smelled like it. This at least had a nettle-ish lean to differentiate it from the druggie rabble. That’s not to say it was a good scent; it was just very herbal – questionably so.

As for flavor, it opened up with a spinachy front that caused my tongue to curl. Not unpalatable, just alarming. Mamaki and nettle leaf had a similar affect on me. That transitioned to an uphill top note of citrus and something bittersweet. The finish was both grassy and silky at the same time.

What was really worth noting was the immediate side effect upon imbibing. This stuff went straight to my skull like a brusque Assam. A couple of sips in and my frontal lobe went, “WTF?! Is that caffeine or something else?! Help, I need an adult!” Or something to that effect. There was no way to test out any…er…aphrodisiac results, but if the “woosh!” to my brain was any indication, it did increase blood flow.

I can’t say this is an herbal I would have on a regular basis. Sure, it’s pleasant enough on its own, but not habit-forming in the slightest. It tastes like something someone would take for its apparent health benefits. Like St. John’s Wort…only randy. It was exactly as I remembered it, but there was something to be said for getting it directly from a farmer. The sweeter profile was testament to that.

If I am ever in a situation where it’s “services” are required, though, it’s good to know that I have plenty on hand for just such an emergency. Ladies, I’m single.

(As if that’s a surprise.)

Photo by Kenneth Lu

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Thursday, September 22nd, 2011 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 30 Comments

I work for tea money.

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