The kitchen in my childhood home was part cuisine facility and part apothecary. Most nights the delightful scent of my mother’s cooking filled the space, but it was also a treasure trove of Arab wonder. In between the Palestinian sage for tea, the bags of spices and za’atar, and the olive oil from the homeland, my mum also stored an arsenal of home remedies.
The idea of miraculous discovery in simple objects to cure all ills is a common one in many cultures. I grew up in a cultural and religious household where the supernatural and faith in unseen forces were embedded in daily life. Magic, jinn and evil eye were threads of everybody’s existence, and all could be culprits in misfortune. I was also exposed to and enjoyed a world of spices and concoctions that worked to heal illness or troubles in the way of a traditional apothecary. The same could be said for every part of the world, even Anglo-Celtic cultures – the Irish, like so many others, have their share of superstition.
I grew up in a cultural and religious household where the supernatural and faith in unseen forces were embedded in daily life.
Nothing my mother offered replaced medical advice, of course, but it was natural to consult her when I was feeling anxious or unwell. I still catch myself doing it, though nowadays mum’s immediate response tends to be “Cut down on the sugar” before she hands me something sweet.
But mum is the sort of medicine woman in my mind, and I know that many of my friends with a similar background can relate to this. She is a traditional Arab woman, part of an ancestral line of strong women with alchemical tendencies.
Her solutions extended to both mental and physical complaints. For fear or anxiety, she would recite Quran while placing a hand on my head. Or there was the silver metal cup with Quranic inscriptions around the inside, which was particularly useful if you’ve experienced shock.
Long before it became a special ingredient in artisanal ice cream and desserts, a bottle of orange blossom or rosewater was always on hand to treat gas or wind – actually, good for digestion overall. There was molasses and tahini for a sore throat or a cough; olive oil for constipation, an unsettled tummy or a sore throat (literally, consume a spoonful). Olive oil is also considered a viable method to soften the skin and the scalp. My grandmother used to apply it to her hair and scalp, mum recently informed me.
But the star of the show was zayt al-baraka, which is essentially black cumin oil but which she translated as ‘oil of abundance’. It’s not an exclusively Arab remedy, as you are likely to find it in a Pakistani grocer as well as an Arabic one.
Zayt al-baraka is considered by many an elixir of life – it treats everything, and like essential oils, can be taken internally or externally. The star ingredient is black cumin or Nigella seeds. The purer the mix, the more expensive it is. Mixed with honey, a jar might set you back around 50 bucks.
Zayt al-baraka is considered by many an elixir of life – it treats everything, and like essential oils, can be taken internally or externally.
I remember it as a sludgy black substance that was harsh on the tongue. It did not taste good – bitter like liquid punishment. But mum would dutifully bring it out whenever we had a cold or an upset tummy and dispense a tablespoon. To this day, she always has a bottle on hand and swears by it.
I tend towards the cynical (or maybe just lazy) when it comes to remedies as an adult – it is, after all, a time when some questionable wellness solutions make it difficult to decipher fact from fiction.
However, these remedies are not farfetched faery dust solutions and the west didn’t invent wellness remedies. Everything I was offered have some therapeutic benefits and are good for your health, and moreover, they are now commonly promoted as such.
Tahini, for example, is packed with vitamins and minerals. Olive oil is now a ubiquitous ingredient in soaps and hair products, and science backs up its efficacy as a skin hydrator and hair tamer. Tahini and honey is touted as a quick fix to a sore throat. Rose and orange blossom water, which have a rich Arabic history, are widely considered to be beneficial to digestion. Rose water in particular, distilled from the petals of the Damascus Rose (Rosa Damascena), is frequently recommended by health and wellbeing websites for various ailments, including bloating and other digestion issues because of its anti-inflammatory properties.
And that black cumin elixir? It’s now a popular supplement, with hundreds of studies scientifically backing up its effectiveness as a remedy to numerous ailments.
While there are dangers in thinking simple home remedies are cure-alls, they are not simply culturally significant; in some cases, they do work, and most of the time they have some health benefits.
As a kid, I often sniffed at my mother’s remedies even as I found comfort in their magic. But while my perspectives on wellness solutions in general remain fluid, I have newfound appreciation for that cache of home remedies.
As with many things, the west is catching up to what many cultures have historically known is beneficial – in nature, there are ingredients to our wellbeing. At a time when information on complementary medicine is abundant, it’s good to see its origins recognised.
This article provides general information only and does not recommend or endorse any particular treatment. It is not intended to replace the advice provided by your own doctor or medical or health professional.
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