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A calabash of goodies

The bowl has almost moved along with the history of chocolate and has been a natural container.

Deepak Rikhye |

It was the Mayan Indians, an ancient people, whose descendants still live in Central America, who discovered the delights of cocoa in 600 AD.

The Mayan people now live in Southern Mexico where wild cocoa trees grow. The Aztecs, who were a PreColumbian Mesoamerican people of Central Mexico, from the 14th to 16th centuries, believed that cocoa seeds were the gift of Quetzalcoatl, the god of wisdom.

A calabash is a large serving bowl, usually made from a hardwood rather than a gourd. A calabash, or bowl, is often placed in the centre of a dining table. Hardwood trees from where a calabash can be made are available in Southern Mexico.

The bowl has almost moved along with the history of chocolate and has been a natural container, for the product, on many an occasion or festival, through the passage of time.

The humoral system, relating to body fluids, influenced medicine from the time of the early Greeks. In 1580, an Italian physician and botanist, Prospero Alpini, 1553-1617, wrote a treatise De Medicina Egyptiorum, which is possibly the first account of the coffee plant published in Europe in 1591.

There were interesting facts pertaining to two other "goodies" too – chocolate and tea. Alpini was the first European to observe the "the peculiar coffee plant" in North Africa.

The plant was destined to overturn the thoughts of the medical fraternity. He noted how Egyptians make a hot brew which they drink instead of wine; however it was sold as wine.

Physicians began connecting the consumption of coffee with health. But they were all at their wit's end to study the effects of not only coffee but also two other imported beverages, to wit, tea and chocolate.

Remember- these products arrived at a similar time during the mid 16th century. People who traversed towards Southern Mexico observed cocoa being used by local people as a part of their diets, people who visited China observed the popular consumption of tea by the Chinese and travelers to North Africa, who were inspired by Alpini's writings and observed the wonders of another beverage-coffee. As international trade developed through the 16th and 17th centuries, the demand for these products exploded.

The vital question that arose was how could physicians, centuries ago, rationalize the relevance of these products to the realms of health?

The concept of humors, or body fluids, went way back to Ancient Greece. Hippocrates believed the human body was composed of four humors or fluids: blood, phlegm, black bile, and yellow bile.

It was believed by the Greeks that every human had a balance of these fluids and any shortfall would result in illness. Physicians of those ancient times would treat illness with food and surgery was the last option. They were convinced that every food had its own link with the equilibrium of our body's fluids.

To regulate the balance of fluids the physicians would change the preparation of the food item in the treatment: by cooking it differently.

Mark Grant, a translator and historian, asserts that these theories interpreted that doctors also had to be good cooks. Doctors could prescribe specific foods to suit a patient's balance of fluids.

The theory of humors in medical science was integral to the treatment of illness in patients. A patient with high fever was treated with cold foods like salads and vegetables. Indigestion was treated with pepper or wine. Coffee and chocolate were somewhat contradictory and were regarded as dietary "chameleons" because they changed in quality and form.

Ken Albala, professor of history, and author of, Eating Right in the Renaissance, writes that, "Some people say that chocolate is fatty therefore it's hot and moist."

But others say if you don't add sugar, its better and astringent, and good for phlegmatic disorders." Tea is within a fascinating category. The Greeks did not have much to analyze about this product. A Chinese, Lu Yu(733-804) surpassed them and in China is respected as the Sage of Tea. He is best known for his monumental treatise, The Classic of Tea.

It is the first definitive work on cultivating, making and drinking tea.

When he began his involvement with tea, under Zou Fuzi, he applied his mind to the many qualities of tea and this included the all important subject-medicine. He formulated different prescriptions with tea as the base and his preparations treated many illnesses.

In his book he writes about "the stimulating effect of tea in the human body." He explains why it cleanses the human system if consumed in the morning. If the pain on arms and legs persist, he prescribes tea to be consumed in the evening, "when one has returned home from work."

But tea's significant contribution to the world was also green tea, which Lu Yu asserted was a brew with medicinal attributes.

He cautioned people to drink black tea without much milk and preferably no sugar because the strength of tea's qualities is preserved. In fact, green tea, he writes, must never be mixed with sugar.

Interestingly, green tea is a popular prescription for heart patients and the splendiferous qualities of tea will continue to glow as many tea companies, including the 150 year old Williamson Magor Group, will protect this charming product.