Thursday, September 17, 2009

Herbal tea in Chile, including the formerly-dreaded boldo and a guest appearance by the language police

Seeing as how in the last post I talked about the great festivities that are nearly upon us here in Chile, and the excessive consumption of alchohol associated with said party, it seems worthwhile to give a small platform to that most watery and insipid after-dinner refreshment or afternoon cure-all, the aguita de hierbas. Tea in Chile is tea, from the plant that makes tea. Anything else is not "té de hierbas" (which would be a bad translation) but rather an aguita (or agua) de hierbas. Careful on those direct translations, they'll get you every time (details to follow, of course).

Bueno (well). So here in Chile, you will often be offered an herbal tea after dinner or in the afternoon. On many occasions I have been offered a snip of this or that in a cup, or perhaps even the urban version a selection of teabags containing herbs. For me, for years, the most dreaded of all of these snips or bags was boldo.

Boldo is a tree that's native to Chile, a slow-growing sclerophyllous (that means thick-leaved) tree that has a delicious green almost menthol-like smell (but nowhere near as strong as eucalyptus). It's native to Chile and wherever you are, you can guaranteee that one of the aguitas de hierbas that you will be offered is boldo. For years, I tried to be game, tried to like boldo "tea" because it seemed an offense to not like what seems to be Chileans' favorite.

I'll be honest here, I didn't like it because I detected a strong flavor reminiscent of the smell of unclean litterbox, and though I do miss having a cat, that is one feature of not having a cat that I do not miss.

F, a Chilean friend of mine who moved to the south of Chile to be a professor (and knows more about sea creatures than most living humans, and that's no lie) was telling me one day that he couldn't even fathom what it is people don't like about boldo, but that Americans always think it's unappealing. I didn't have the heart to tell him about the litterbox, but he might read here, in which case he probably knows by now. Hi, F!

And you know, I hate to be predictable, so I had tried and tried boldo "tea", and suffered through many a scrunched-up face as I gulped the tea down. So I was pretty surprised when I bought a variety pack of herbal tea the other day, with menta (mint) and manzanilla (chamomile) and boldo (yeah, boldo) and tried the boldo just one last time and found it to be litterbox free. It was fragrant, green, and not entirely vile. I'm still not singing the praises of boldo loudly and with vigor, but I guess it just goes to show you that tastes can change, that boldo isn't disgusting, and that sometimes it's better to hold your opinion than broadcast it. I must remind myself of that sometime.

And if you were wondering, South America has a long tradition of drinking tisanes, or herbal teas. The ones we see the most here are:

menta (mint)
manzanilla (chamomile)
boldo (boldo)
rosa mosqueta (rosehip)
llantén (plantain leaf?)
melissa (lemon balm)
cedrón (lemon verbena)
poleo pennyroyal
anise (fennel seed)

There may be some more, but these are the ones I've had thrust upon me or offered to me in recent years. I must admit that I had to do a little research to find out what some of those teas were, and I should probably write another post with their alleged medicinal qualities, but mainly I was shocked that poleo is pennyroyal, since that is an herb that is known to cause what we talked about in this post, which let's just say is frowned upon here in Chile.

But I like learning new things, and also exploring new websites like, which seems to be a good resource on Chilean plants, sells seeds and apparently they can also take you on tours. Where you will, wait, wait, you're going to like this:

Go plant-watching.



Okay class, let's review. The main difference between see and watch? Right, it's about the mobility of the item (going to go see a movie being a broad exception). So unless these rooted examples of national heritage and plant kingdom splendor uproot themselves and take a walk around the block, this is (you guessed it), another bad translation. Perhaps plant tours or plant sighting, even plant-peeping, if you want to get cute about it. But plant-watching? I don't care if you'd use the word avistar in Spanish and for whales that's watching. Plants? not the same as whales.

And now we can find out if has the time and energy of the Chilean government, which, when brought face-to-face with the truth that shattered meat is, indeed hard to come by, actually changed their website,

I feel so powerful. It must be all the boldo.


lydia said...

Hmm..neat post.

I don't think I have ever been offered an an "aguita de hierbas" before. I mean, the term is vaguely familiar because i think i've seen it on menus. Or maybe I'm wrong, perhaps when I've been sick.

Either way I probably wouldn't have found it to be a real trend or anything. This always happens when I read blogposts... I find out about super "chilean" things that have probably gone right over my head.

Oh and hey, just a (disgusting) longshot... but did you ever question where that boldo plant was growing before they picked it? Cuz I dunno about your previous cats but mine have always loved doing their business in potted plants!

Eileen said...

I know I hang out with more hippies, sensitive new age guys and grandmotherly types than is normal, but believe me, there's a giant market in herbal teas. I'm sure you pass by the bundles of herbs n things as the feria too.

As for the litterbox issue, I'm happy to say that boldo is a big tree, does not germinate easily, and is not kept as a houseplant. I think it's all part of the plant's volatile oils and my sensitive nose! But yes, kitties do love to appropriate flowerpots!

Katie said...

Eucalyptus trees are quite common here in Necochea and the surrounding area. At times when I walk past these trees I find the fragrance pleasant and menthol-like, and other times it smells like a colony of feral cats took up residence. So, I can understand your love/hate relationship with boldo.

The herbal tea custom in Chile sounds similar to mate here. I wanted to like it, but it just doesn't do it for me. I'll keep trying it every once in a while though because as you pointed out, tastes change. Besides, not drinking mate seems like an affront to Argentine culture.

And score one for the team that you got the Chilean government to change their website! Impressive.

Margaret said...

Great post... you forgot about ¡¡agua perra"!! (which is simply hot water!) I went to lunch with a group from work the other day and some chose coffee (café café, luckily no Nescafe), several chose aguita, and one asked for agua perra...
Lydia- I can't believe you've never come across "aguita" before! It's huge--and not just with hippies and abuelitas! It's a staple of the Chilean diet! What do they drink at your suegros' house?
Eileen-I've never picked up on cat pee in boldo (not my favorite hot drink either) but I definitely DO associate it with eucalyptus, so if the 2 plants are related, it makes sense the the smell is too!
By the way, the chileflora site is great and I actually use it quite a bit!

Bystander said...

Boldo is a Good Thing. In Spain you bought it in a pharmacy, here you buy it in the supermarket or market. it can carry you through Christmas excess or eating after ten p..m in Madrid for a week - no problem.
Anise seed is not as powerful a digestive but has a nice de-bloating effect. "Agua de anís", a jug of liquid made up of a tea made of anise and added water, was always standard by the hospital bedside in Perú. Cold herbal water was popular there in general in the summer and herbal tea in the winter. A squeeze of lemon was often added.
"Avistar" would be more spotting than watching, I think.

lydia said...

margaret and eileen,
i mean...its probable i´ve had it and been offered... just that nobody ever really made a big deal of it, or something i noticed as a trend.

of course i have seen all the aternative shops and people selling the stuff, but outside of stores not so much! i´ll keep my eyes out. but at my suegras, host family, everywhere else i´m usually just offered tea. i suppose people might just say ¨tea¨and then give me a premade bag of camomile or something ( the way, i thought was ÂPPLE VANILLA flavor for like 5 months!) cuz i am at least familiar with those flavors

the only time i have actually taken note of the herbal tea being made a fuss over is when i´m sick, and my boyfriends family tries to shove *romero* in my tea... and i swear theyve either got the wrong plant or there is no difference between romero and your common minnesotan pine tree cuz that stuff they shove in my tea tastes like pine needles and sap :)

Eileen said...

@katie, really? I thought I was crazy? It's not a super eucalyptusy smell, but there's something reminicent of it. And hey, I really like mate! Maybe I should live in Argentina. Or maybe I should have some mate tomorrow morning. A better idea, even!

Margaret, I wasn't sure if I should include agua pera or not (is it pera, not perra, I hope?) I mean, how do you describe a cup full of nothing, other than by calling it pre-tea?

Bystander, I might be Peruvian! I often make herbal tea with the idea of drinking it cold later! And agua de anis is really nice. I just make it with the anis I have as a spice from some anise-pepper biscuits I made.

And as always, thanks for commenting!

Eileen said...

omg the pineneedles and sap made me laugh Lydia! For those of you reading along at home, her boyfriend and his family put rosemary in her tea. I never noticed that it was particularly potent, but it's funny to think that they think that's a strong curative. Of course, that's a whole nother post on what Chileans think will cure you, or make you sick. Anyone got their nutmeg necklace ready for the spring? I know I'll get mine going soon.

Annje said...

I've never been crazy about the aguita de hierbas... I'm not that much of a tea-girl, and boldo does have a pretty strong smell. It's interesting that many of those flavors are also offered as "bajativos" in restaurants--(would that be called a night-cap in English? that doesn't seem like quite the same concept...). Manzanilla, menta, anis... I am surprised they don't have a Boldo-infused alcohol... maybe there is a market there

The aguita de romero is hilarious. Fresh rosemary is really strong, I can see why it would be reminiscent of pine--yuck!

Clare said...

I have always liked boldo and I agree that it can help with menstrual cramps... of course, perhaps just drinking that much hot water would do it without the boldo.