Monday, May 25, 2009

Scent Bags and Stuffed Dumplings

The annual Dragon Boat Festival is about to begin in China and that means it’s time to eat zongzi—filled dumplings of sticky rice which are wrapped in bamboo leaves and steamed. It’s a tasty tradition, like hot cross buns at Easter.

The opening sentence of this culture piece from Xinhua, China’s state-run news agency, is a bit puzzling, however:
The Dragon Boat Festival is just around the corner and while the making of zongzi has been around for years, some mums still follow the custom of embroidering scent bags for their kids and other family members.
OK, so scent bags, like zongzi, are a traditional part of the Dragon Boat Festival. But what’s the connection? We never find out. Instead, Xinhua tells us about the historical origins of scent bags (Princess Tongchang of the Tang Dynasty), what they’re stuffed with (angelica and Ageratum), and why they are worn:
The belief is that these small bags stuffed with various herbs can ward off disease and evil. Their pleasant fragrance helps refresh the mind, prevent colds, and improves the appetite.
I wonder how seriously contemporary Chinese people take the medical claims for scent bags. According to Zhang Qian, whose earlier piece in the Shanghai Daily appears to be the basis of the Xinhua story,
Herbal aromas like mint, ageratum and flagleaf can help stimulate the nerves when they travel through the nose to the brain. Other herbs like cang shu and bai zhi can help dispel pathogenic dampness which usually burdens the digestive system and thus improve appetites.
“Stimulate the nerves”? Sounds like Princess Tongchang meets the Professeur de Parfums. “Dispel pathogenic dampness”? Hmmm . . .

In medieval England people wore scent-filled pomanders as a defense against the plague—the reasoning was that evil vapors cause the plague, so good ones will prevent it. Rosemary was thought to be particularly effective and there are historical accounts of herbal price-gouging during epidemics. The sachets in your grandmother’s linen closet are direct descendents of pomanders, but their popularity has more to do with aesthetics than medicine.

Zhang Qian notes that

As well as being worn on the body, scent bags can also be used as decorations in rooms or in cars.

Now, there’s an idea: Hang a pair of herb-stuffed fuzzy dice from your rearview mirror—they’ll make your car smell better and clear the pathogenic dampness from your digestive system at the same time. Booyah!

1 comment:

Micah said...

One of the main ingredients (listed as flagleaf in your post, botanical name Acorus graminei) is used in TCM as a mind and nerve tonic.

It has been studied for possible use in Alzheimer's, as it protects the nerve and brain tissues from damage that can cause memory loss.

One of the studies, quoted on the Oxford Journal's website, states:

"These results demonstrated that AGR {Acorus graminei rhizome} ameliorated learning and memory deficits through their effects on the central nervous system, and neuroprotection was partly evaluated through the effect of AGR on the cholinergic system. Our studies suggest that AGR can possibly be used as treatment for Alzheimer's disease."

That's a more scientific a way of putting it than "stimulate the nerves" or "refresh the mind" but I think the basic meaning is quite similar.

In other studies, it was shown that the main compounds that achieve the nerve & brain effects are the aromatic compounds in the root.

Of course, that does not prove that smelling the bags has the same complete effect as shown in the clinical trials, but it's interesting enough to not be just dismissed out of hand, considering that just this kind of folk practice often leads to important medical discovery.