“As a lotus flower is born in water, grows in water and rises out of water to stand above it unsoiled, so I, born in the world, raised in the world having overcome the world, live unsoiled by the world
To keep the body in good health is a duty, for otherwise we shall not be able to trim the lamp of wisdom, and keep our mind strong and clear. Water surrounds the lotus flower, but does not wet its petals.”
The Buddha -- Hindu Prince Gautama Siddharta, the founder of Buddhism, 563-483 B.C

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Agarwood - Trầm Hương

I first heard about agarwood when i listened to David Crow, founder of Floracopeia, talked about 'The 10 Virtues of Incense'. Agarwood is the the aromatic resinous wood created by diseased Aquilaria and Gyrinops trees. In Việt Nam agarwood is called Trầm or Kỳ Nam, an ingredient used in high quality incense.

In reading about agarwood i was so intrigued and wanted to know how the fragrance was. So when i saw Floracopeia offered the agarwood chips, after some internal struggle because of the high price, i decided to get some. The wood chips came in a white satin pouch and they don't look that impressive.

I did not use it right away because it needs to be heated up for the aroma to be released. To heat the wood, i use a ceramic bowl filled with ash, and heat a small piece of incense charcoal. The piece of charcoal was put in the ash, a thin mica plate is then put on the charcoal, and finally a small wood chip is put on the hot mica plate. When i saw David Crow at the aromatherapy retreat he told me to use just a tiny bit of wood so the wood piece that i used was about 3/4 cm long and the width is about the same as a flat toothpick. If you look at the above picture, the piece that i used was about the size of the smallest wood chip at the bottom left corner.

As the wood heated up i became so excited to find out how the fragrance would be. After about five minutes i put my nose to the bowl rim and i started to notice a faint sweet smell. The fragrance gradually became more and more intense and i began to move my nose further away from the bowl and within an hour my living room was filled with the agarwood scent where the warm sweetness literally went into my nose and linger on my throat. This lasted a few hours and there was no smoke. I could not believe how a tiny little chip of wood could have such powerful fragrance and i realized that i could have used only half the amount. The burning of agarwood or aloeswood has been used in ceremonies of many cultures, religions, and the fragrance also has many therapeutic effects. It is supposed to help with meditation and i read that the Buddha even said “The aromatic fragrance of agar takes one to the stage of nirvana.” . Whether this is true or not i found the agarwood scent to be quite serene and calming. The fragrant is different from the agarwood incense. It's much thicker, sweeter, and more pleasant, imho, and the scent (no smoke) seems to rise straight up before it spreads out into the atmostphere. This is quite an amazing experience and i am glad to get hold of this precious wood.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Young sweet rice from Vòng village (Cốm Vòng)

I discovered this wonderfully delicious snack in 1994 when i went to Hà Nội for the first time and i have been hooked since. Again, like húng Láng, i've heard about it from my parents, grand-parents, and novels when i was growing up in the South and longed to try.

Cốm Vòng is only available around harvest time at the end of the year, meaning October, November. When in season it is usually sold by street vendors who carried it in two baskets connected by a long pole or in a basket on their side or on their head, or in a basket in the back of a bicycle. The steamed cốm is wrapped in fresh lotus leave. The best kind is called cốm (young sweet rice) lá me (tamarind leave). Why such a name? Simply because each tiny, flattened, light green young grain looks just like the tiny flat tamarind leave. When slowly chewed, the chewy cốm began to give out its sweetness and fragrance that reminded me of the beautiful rice paddies in the countryside. This special kind is hard to get and unless you know someone who cares about the quality. Most of the time the street vendor sold a lesser quality which is coarser and not as flavorful and wrapped in banana leave instead of lotus leave.

Eveytime i go back to Hà Nội around harvest time i always seek this delicate snack out and try to savor it as much as i could and also get some dry ones to bring back to the States so my mom could put it in the delicious chả cốm.

Sadly as the country become more industrialized, time consuming, hand-made delicacies like this are quickly disappearing. Vòng village is on the outskirt of Hà Nội so cốm Vòng also suffers the same fate as the fragrant húng Láng.

The herbs of Láng village

I've been back to Viet Name about 6,7 times since 1994 and everytime it seemed like the best cooked food i had was always at home of relatives or friends.

My mom has a cousin living in Hà Nội whom i called bác and his daughters are among the best cooks i've known ( besides my mom :-) ). Everytime i asked to have at least one dinner at his house.

The first time i had dinner at Bác L's house was in 1994. It was also the first time i went back to Việt Nam since leaving the country as a boat people in 1975. I was born in Saigon so it was also my first time in Hà Nội (will have a post on this city later). Bác L's house was quite small, there was no dinning room with table and chairs so we had the meal the 'traditional' way which basically sitting on chiếu which is like a Japanese tatami mat. The dishes were placed on a big round aluminum or copper tray and people would seat on the mat around the tray and all the food is shared. This style of seating could be problematic for those people with stiff joints or knee replacements.

Upon arrival i went into the tiny kitchen and asked if i could be of any help and immediately i was told to get back to the living room. Sometimes later one of my cousins (i called chị) brought over a tray full of food. She then put in front of me a bowl of bún măng ngan, one of my absolute favorite food, and i was immediately captured by it's intoxicating fragrant. Bún măng ngan is a noodle soup which contains broth made from chicken or pork bone, rice vemicelli (bún), dry and fresh bamboo (măng), and goose (ngan) meat which is similar but more gamy than duck. I can't help but asking what made the bún smell so good and i was told that the fragrant came from húng (herbs) Láng which were the herbs grown in the Láng village outside of Hà Nội. I've heard about the famous herbs from this village before when i was growing up in the South from my grand-parents and novels. Now i realize that the herbs really justified all the praises for them. The herbs, basil, cilantro, mint, rau răm ... could be grown anywhere but when grown in the village of Láng their aroma become much more pleasantly powerful despite the tiny leaves. It must be the soil, the water ... just like growng wine grape. Húng Láng is now on my list of amazing ingredients. Unfortunately as the country develops, the people of Láng no longer dedicate their land for growing herbs :-( ... the land, being so closed to the over-crowded Hà Nội became so valuable that the people began to build multi-level houses to rent out or make them into mini hotels. When i went back to Việt Nam in 1996, one of the taxi drivers that i frequently got the service from happened to be a foodie like me so we started talking about food and i told him about my love for húng Láng and immediately he told me that 'i have to take you to Láng to show you what is left of the herb gardens, there are only about 2 or 3 plots left and they would be gone the next time you return to Hà Nội'. He was right, the herbs of Láng is gone and i could no longer have that perfumed bowl of bún măng ngan again.

Even though i could no longer have herbs from Láng village, the herbs in Việt Nam is still much more fragrant than the same kinds grown here which has huge leaves but no flavor most of the time.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Aromatherapy with Floracopeia

When we breathe that perfume, we are breathing the breath of the living soil. ~ David Crow

I am having so much fun playing with the essential oils from Floracopeia. It's like creating therapeutic painting with beautiful scents :-)

I went to a 5 days aromatherapy certification retreat early September (9/7-9/11) and met so many wonderful people. I flew to to Sacramento from Long Beach and shared the drive with my two new friends Pamela and Sara to the retreat. The scenic drive was quite beautiful and many times it reminded of the drive to my favorite Yosemite National Park. We made a short stop at downtown Nevada City and i had a wonderful custom order crepe (with organic bacon, cheese, garlic, pesto, kale) from the roadside tent stand. We arrived at retreat center at around 4:30pm and checked into our rooms. I shared a big room with 4 bunk beds, 1 twin, 1 full bed with only one roommate, Lisa, who was so nice and we got along great! :-)

The intensive and interesting lectures were given by the eloquent David Crow (i love his book "In Search of the Medicine Buddha") and the knowledgeable Jade Shutes. Everyday we started with the optional Yoga exercise at 7am until 8am when breakfast was served. Then the lectures began until 1pm to break for lunch then lecture continued at 2pm until 6pm break for dinner, then lecture again from 7pm to almost 10pm! There was so much material that at time it seemed quite overwhelming to me but i savor every moment of it. I love the hand-on sessions which we got to created aromatic massage oil and spritzer. Jade created for each of us a natural version of Vics, and an inhaler. Jade's lecture on blending was great! I found David's slide presentation of the plants where the essential oils came from quite excellent. I particularly love the smelling of the oils where each of us got a perfumed strip dipped in oil and learn how to appreciate the aroma. David's meditative approach to savoring the scent was quite profound, imho. I also love the idea of incorporating concept of Ayurveda into aromatherapy.

We did have some breaks during the lectures so i got to walk to the nice 'shady creek' one afternoon and one time before breakfast to have a few meditative minutes with my roomate Lisa.

I also went to visit the organic garden where some of the vegetables we ate came from.

The beautiful retreat center Shady Creek was about 30 minute north of the charming little town of Nevada City ( i can see myself living here :-) ). The main lecture hall was beautifully built with a wooden dome shape and skylight at the top.

We had all of our meals outside and the weather was perfect.

The delicious vegetarian food was mostly if not all organic which get a big thumb up from me! The salad bar was full of colors and the beautiful home-grown heirloom tomato was so meaty, juicy, and sweet. I am not a raw tomato fan yet i kept loading my plate with the delicious chunks. There were about 8 different kinds of dressings ranging from the regular range to tahini, rasberry, avocado ... and even wild dulse from the Atlantic. The cooked food was also hearty, flavorful and so were the wonderful cookies, scones, croissants, and a wide variety of organic herbal teas.

The retreat was truly a fantastic introduction to the world of aromatherapy for me. The Floracopeia staff was outstanding. I had a great time meeting people from all over the US as well as some from Japan, Brazil ... with different background but have the same interest in hollistic medicine and healthy lifestyle.

Since returning from the retreat i have been creating many synergies for spritzer, diffuser, and massage oil and gave them to family, friends to try, besides myself of course since i have been having problem with sleeping ( too much exciting readings :-) ) and muscle pain ( maybe from my Yoga workout :-) ) ... I am still learning the therapeutic effects of the oils so it's fascinating to experiments with the 24 oils i got from the learning kit. Some of my favorite scents are pinon pine, silver fir, and the uplifting citrus oils like mandarin, lemon, bergamot. The heavy, grounding, and meditative aromas like vertiver, patchouli, frankincense ... are more like acquired taste at the moment.

Aromatherapy for Healing the Spirit: Restoring Emotional and Mental Balance with Essential Oils
The Art of Aromatherapy: The Healing and Beautifying Properties of the Essential Oils of Flowers and Herbs
The Practice of Aromatherapy: A Classic Compendium of Plant Medicines and Their Healing Properties
The Complete Book of Essential Oils and Aromatherapy: Over 600 Natural, Non-Toxic and Fragrant Recipes to Create Health - Beauty - a Safe Home Environment