Tasty herb nourishes, cures and turns tide of war
Ngai cuu (Artemisia vulgaris L.) is a plant that holds a secure place in Viet Nam’s medical and culinary traditions.
A friend of mine, a veteran war reporter, remembers one instance when this popular plant was used to help relieve the legendary General Vo Nguyen Giap of a great pressure at a crucial moment in the historic Dien Bien Phu campaign.
It was early in 1954 and the commander-in-chief of the Vietnamese army had to make a tough choice that would decide the outcome of the entire war: To launch a lightning offensive for a lightning victory or to conduct a prolonged siege that would take time, but that could ensure certain victory and would cost much less in human lives.
But to opt for the latter strategy would also necessitate the withdrawal and eventual re-deployment of the artillery and air defence units already positioned on mountains overlooking the sprawling French military complex enưenched in the valley below.
General Giap pondered over the problem so hard that at times he thought his head would literally split. Hot compresses of ngải cứu were then ordered for him. (The next day, General Giap chose the second strategy and in so doing secured the decisive victory).
Most commonly, ngai cuu is valued for its blood enriching property. That’s why it is consumed almost daily, with eggs in the form of an omelette, or with pork or ca diec, a species of freshwater fish, in a refreshing soup for torrid summer days. Boiled ngải cứu sprinkled with salt is also a popular dish. More expensive is the ngải cứu that features in restaurant menus, as in ga tan (stewed chicken) or lau ga (chicken hotchpotch).
Ngai cuu ,a perennial plant grows wild in Asia and Europe. In Viet Nam, it is one of the 16 medicinal plants - the culture of which is encouraged by the Health Ministry. The leaves, usually picked during the Festival of the Tet Doan Ngo (the 5th Day of the 5th Moon) are for use fresh or dried.
Ngai cuu is specially used for women because of its antispasmodic, emmenagogic properties, and as a measure against stillbirth. It is also prescribed for dysentery, vomiting, colic, rheumatism, neuralgia, headache and many more ailments.
Frequent use of ngai cuu infusions is good for the skin, and hot compresses or steam baths using this herb are very effective against lumbago.
One variety of ngai cuu, moxa ( Artem is commonly used in acupuncture. A stick of rolled dried leaves is used instead of the customary metal needle. It is burned over the points on the body corresponding to the ailing organs inside that need to be activaled.
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