Happy Thanksgiving from Belarus, where we actually scrounged up some turkey and butternut squash (to my surprise).
Naturally, this morning, I had a hard time getting up. Still heavy about the midsection. Luckily, there’s a Russian remedy for this problem! It’s called fireweed, or Ivan-chai in Russian.
Fireweed, you ask? Well, Russians (and Europeans at a certain point in history) drank it more than any other beverage. And it may be healthier than both tea and coffee.
Russians continue to love it. Take my mother-in-law, for instance. A few weeks ago, our large extended family gathered for a Sunday meal, and she asked what everyone wanted to drink. I said, emphatically, “Black tea!” Several others agreed. I was a little surprised, therefore, when what I started drinking was something else entirely.
When I complained, my mother-in-law merely looked mystified and said, “But it’s Ivan-chai!” That, of course, explained everything.
If you’re still not convinced, here are ten things you need to know about Ivan-chai (read the original Russian article here). Be careful, you may become a convert by the end of this post!
(An Ivan-chai factory, 1905)
- Before the beginning of the 20th century, Ivan-chai was the daily drink of choice for all Russians. As strange as this may seem to us now, Chinese and even Indian teas were no more than exotica, unknown even to some of the nobility.
- The export of Ivan-chai to Europe and the Americas was more profitable than trade in furs and even gold!
- The Chinese and the Indians took both the technology of tea-making and the name “chai” from the Russians. However, their “chai” was not fireweed, but whatever grew locally.
- Chinese and Indian tea appeared in Europe a few centuries after Ivan-chai.
- European countries consumed hundreds of thousands of kilograms of Ivan-chai per year. Europeans simply called it “Russian tea.” Interestingly, the English loved Ivan-chai, and even the British Royal Family drank it. The Great British Encyclopedia included a distinct entry for “Russian tea” in one of its 18th century editions.
- One hundred years ago, profitable Ivan-chai businesses all collapsed under the ruins of the Russian Empire. Drinking “Russian tea” did not survive in the same way into the Soviet period.
- The word “chai,” used internationally, derives from a Russian word meaning “hope.”
- Fermented Ivan-chai is not dried plant leaves, but real, fermented black tea, made according to the ancient rules of Russian tea-production.
- During World War II, the German army had an explicit goal to destroy a Russian war factory called “The River of Life” in Koporye, a village outside St. Petersburg. This factory produced a special “miracle drink,” based on Ivan-chai.
- And now, for the health benefits of Ivan-chai. (Note, I have no license to give medical opinions. I suspect this list is as much a measure of Russian vanity as anything. But I don’t doubt that some of these are, in fact, true.)
- Normalizes blood pressure
- Builds immunity
- Improves concentration
- Restores energy
- Gently regulates the digestion
- Has an anti-inflammatory effect on the stomach
- Strengthens blood vessels
- Can be a strong detox agent at appropriate concentrations
- Relaxes tension
- Helps relieve migraines
- Has beneficial effects on the mucous membranes of the mouth (translation: it can help prevent cavities)
See? I knew I’d make you a believer. Plus, it tastes really good.
Don’t be surprised if some of the “mentor” figures in my novels suddenly begin drinking fireweed. The Garden in the Heart of the World in particular has a few tea-drinking scenes…
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