Before there was Walgreen’s, Woolworth’s, or any other drugstore, there was the local apothecary. In Morocco, a land where time has stood still in many places for hundreds of years, what once was, still is. Your friendly neighborhood herborist is always nearby in Morocco, ready to put together some crushed this or ground that, wrap it up in a little brown package, and send you on your way to better health.
While much of Moroccan herbal medicine owes a lot of its tradition to Arabic medicine in general, there is a good bit of European-style approach to the practice, as well. For example, in cases of fever, there are certain natural ingredients such as rosewater that will ‘take’ the heat from you when applied to the forehead as a compress, similar to the medieval European concept of balancing the humors. In more remote areas, herborists add a little more mysticism to the mix.
“If you go to a [rural] healer with the complaint of headaches and not having as good a memory as you once did,’ explains Tramp Imperial Travel CEO and Morocco expert Richard Bunk, ‘you may not only get an herbal remedy to address your head pain, but also a bit of fox fur thrown in to help you restore your memory, to be ‘clever like a fox.’” Indeed, when walking through the medina of any Moroccan city, you will almost always spy a dried animal skin — or the dried animal, itself — hanging from the ceiling or doorframe. It’s effective advertising.
No matter your ailment, from dandruff to low sex drive, there’s a cure for it lying somewhere in each of the myriad herborist shops of Morocco. Eye strain? Mix Indian kohl with a little bit of indigo, sugar, and white and long pepper, and apply to the lower eyelid. Menstrual cramping? A tincture made of oregano and a spoonful of sugar will ease your suffering. Accidentally nick yourself shaving? Just pack some paprika into the cut to staunch the blood.
No matter your ailment, from dandruff to low sex drive, there’s a cure for it lying somewhere in each of the myriad herborist shops of Morocco.
While some healing secrets are guarded carefully, other natural remedies are as commonly known as they are ubiquitous, and there are many natural herbs, spices, and roots that are considered beneficial to one’s general health. Take nigella, for example. Also known as black cumin, the prophet Mohamed spoke of it in glowing terms: “This black cumin is healing for all diseases except death.” He was right. Nigella has been shown to possess anti-inflammatory and antibiotic qualities, stimulate the immune system, protect and heal the liver, regulate blood sugar, and benefit the heart by reducing blood lipids. It can be taken in any number of ways — steeped in hot water and drank as a tincture, for example — but the best manner in which to take it was the manner in which it was first discovered to be useful: flavoring food. It most often pops up in Southeastern Asian, Indian, and of course, North African dishes.
“This black cumin is healing for all diseases except death.” — Prophet Mohamed
Cures for respiratory ailments abound in Morocco, which makes sense, as there is no set of lungs on earth that aren’t vulnerable to infection now and then. Drinking a tincture of absinthe, known as ‘chiba’ in Morocco, can help reduce inflammation in the respiratory tract and prevent secondary bacterial infections during a cold. Saffron-based tea, or a few threads left to steep in hot water, is good for not only respiratory problems, but circulation issues, as well. Spicy foods are recommended, too, as cayenne peppers are effective in breaking down phlegm in the respiratory tract. For an especially bad cough, an herborist will often grind together an equal amount of nigella, mastic resin, and star anise, along with a big pinch each of saffron and oregano. The sick person will be given instructions to mix this blend with honey to take daily.
Another ailment to which we all fall victim at some point is the stomach flu, and all things related to it. Anyone dealing in natural medicine in Morocco knows that the simplest way to deal with indigestion, upset stomach, and bloating is to stir a spoonful of ground or crushed cumin into a glass of water and drink it down. Once again, cayenne earns its keep, as it acts as a natural deterrent to food poisoning. Carob and ginger are also regularly prescribed by healers for all kinds of stomach problems, and the most common remedy for diarrhea is to drink a spoonful each of oregano and sugar in a cup of hot water.
With all this knowledge and wisdom on how to correct sickness and minor injury to the human body, it’s more than a little ironic to discover that Moroccans, as a whole, are a robust and healthy people. Of course, this is due mainly to their diet: plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables, lean proteins like chicken and fish, whole grains, and healthy fats from olives and nuts. But perhaps there is a Moroccan secret to good health that also happens to be a sign of Moroccan hospitality: mint tea. It’s well known that green tea is a comforting and effective treatment for coughs and colds, and it’s also popular wisdom that spearmint is good for settling an upset stomach and nausea. However, the combination of the two provides an extra boost in the antioxidant and anti-inflammatory actions of both ingredients, making them the perfect combination for maintaining overall health.
“In general, Moroccans tend to be skeptical of modern pharmaceuticals,” says Bunk. In recent years, especially, he say, “there has been a strong desire — almost a movement — to go back to the traditional ways of health and medicine.” While this means that we can all benefit from the wisdom of the ages in the vein of natural healing, it also has deeper meaning. As Marrakechi herborist Kacim puts it, paraphrasing the Koran: “‘All the things of the earth were given to man to use’ . . . but, we still have to understand how. So we try.”
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