Jamaican Bush Tea: The Bitter Herb, the Better Body
The first time I took a sip of a loose-leaf-brewed Jasmine white tea was like falling in love. I remember every detail: being 20 and idealistic, thinking I could conquer the world but needing refuge from the whale of a task, attempting to penetrate Moby Dick with nothing but my intellect. I remember the pearl color of the stained ceramic cup, the floral aroma filling the room, the light flavors dancing on my tongue. When I finally took a drink there was no going back.
In that moment, I had become a part of the tradition and history of herbal brewing and, according to the 3rd century medical text by Hua Tuo Master Hua’s Classic of the Central Viscera, has origins in Shang dynasty China. While we may see this delicious experience as merely an alternative to coffee or as a relaxing hobby in the age of the suburban dynasty, there is a long standing medicinal history tied to tea brewing. Fun fact: Chinese Pu’erh tea was not allowed into the United States for some time because of its use as a medical remedy. This is not exclusive to China as such herbal brews exist within cultures around the world. I was particularly fascinated by the stories I heard of the Jamaican “bush tea” and its rumored ability to fight HIV and AIDS. What I found was a much deeper belief in the potency of the herbal drink.
Origins of Jamaican Bush Tea
This “bush tea” is actually made from a very bitter herb known as cerasee that is quite revered in many tropical countries. Scientifically known as momordica charantia, cerasee originates in Africa and the Middle East but can be found all over the world today. The belief amongst the older generation is that this bitter breakfast drink serves as a blood cleanser and can even help manage diabetes. There haven’t been many official studies on the tea itself, but I doubt you could convince locals that it lacks powerful health benefits. The herb contains nutrients like iron, vitamins A and C, phosphorus, and alkaloids thus as little as weekly consumption is believed to prevent colds, headaches, influenza, jaundice, and stomach aches.
Often coerced, even kids reluctantly drink the bitter beverage. As expected, they ask that the tea be sweetened with brown sugar, honey or condensed milk to make it palatable. If sweeteners are not quite your cup of tea, there are a number of herbal combinations and additions that are used to make “bush tea” into something you would, dare I say, enjoy. Read on to discover some of the locals’ favorite flavor combinations that add palatable flavors to the cerasee that makes us bush tea.
A favorite of many is lemon grass, also known as fever grass as it’s used to treat, not surprisingly, fevers. Wild lemon grass is very accessible as it grows in rural Jamaica and it adds a delightful hint of lemon flavor to the brew.
Sometimes ginger root, also cultivated on the island, is added to decongest mucous and soothe digestive discomfort. Ginger has been shown to destroy ovarian cancer cells and slows the loss of brain cells, making it effective against Alzheimer’s disease.
Another very popular herbal enhancement is the mint leaf. The addition of mint is used to combat nausea, headache, vomiting, and any general “bad feelings.” Even though most enjoy mint cerasee tea in the morning, it’s given to young children at bedtime since it aids in relaxing the muscles. It is easily grown and cared for since it requires no special handling nor fertilizer.
Locals looking to relieve ailments like menstrual cramps, headaches, rheumatism, nausea, and vomiting, turn to the kola nut. Also known as the bizzy nut, it is grated, boiled, then sweetened to make it ready for consumption. Due to the caffeine in the kola nut, bizzy tea is believed to also aid in weight loss.
The leaves of the lime tree are just as green as the fruit it bears thus by adding the leaves, the tea is given a distinct green appearance. These leaves also carry the flavor of lime, making for a pleasant addition to cerasee. In addition to color and flavor, it is believed the lime leaf also maintains the benefits that the fruit has and is used for high blood pressure, peptic ulcers, colds, asthma, and may also be used as a sedative.
One could find cerasee and other “bush teas” in health food and grocery stores packed in bags like any other branded tea and is less bitter for general consumption. This might be the perfect addition to your shopping list if you’re looking to bring a piece of Jamaica, and its herbal remedies, home with you.