World's Strangest Cold Remedies
Every time Crystal Ramirez comes down with a cold, she thinks of Cancún—and the mouthful of hot peppers she ate there on the advice of a waiter.
“He arrived at the table with a bowl of habaneros and asked me to eat a whole one—a cure that his mother taught him as a child,” says the New York–based account executive, remembering aMexico trip that saw her sick. Initial tingling turned to “full-out mouth-burning” and—after the eye-watering, nose-running pain—eventual relief.
“It didn’t completely cure my cold,” she says, “but I could smell the wonderful aromas of the food again.” Turns out, capsaicin helps thin mucus and clear clogged nasal passages.
Getting a bug while you’re traveling may be a letdown, but it offers one intriguing opportunity: to try a local home remedy, an international answer to good ol’ chicken soup. A few ingredients may seem universal—hot teas, ginger, honey, garlic—while others verge on bizarre, such as snail slime, dehydrated lizards, or scratchy coins. All have hundreds of years of tradition behind them.
Of course, quirky remedies aren’t exclusive to other countries. Folk cures in Texas reportedly used to include rubbing beef tallow on your feet or a little cow manure on your chest (which indeed might really open up the sinuses).
So this cold and flu season, stifle those sniffles with a glug of onion juice, then suck on a salted kumquat for your sore throat. Or do as they do in India and regain your strength with a nice warm glass of turmeric milk. Some of these international cold remedies may sound strange, but rest assured, they’re Grandma approved.
Turmeric Milk, India
A cup of warm milk is one thing, but haldi ka doodh packs more punch: locals with sniffles have long laced milk with a hefty dose of antioxidant-rich turmeric, as well as some ginger, honey, and black peppercorns. Turmeric’s healing powers, big in ayurveda, have also been claimed to ease indigestion and toothaches.
Snail Syrup, Germany
Fight mucus with mucus? Snail extract—actually the goods from the trail that the mollusks leave behind—has long been used to soothe sore throats, and lately to boost the beautifying properties of skin cream. In Germany, you can still buy authentic “snail syrup” as an over-the-counter expectorant, like Cheplapharm’s Schnecken Extract, which luckily comes in not-so-snailish pineapple flavor.
Coining, China and Vietnam
Cupping—the centuries-old Chinese practice of vacuum-sealing hot cups to meridian points on your skin—is said to increase blood flow and qi (chi) energy, sucking whatever ails you out through the skin. “Coining,” or cao gio, works in the same spirit: first, you take some Tiger Balm (or a menthol or eucalyptus oil) and smooth it on your back, then take a coin or a similarly rough-edged object and make scratches on the skin, around your spine or ribs, until the marks are red. It’s supposed to relieve aches—even if it creates a few new ones along the way.
Mashed Turnips, Iran
Loaded with vitamin C and calcium, this otherwise maligned root vegetable has been heralded in folk medicine as a blood purifier. In Iran, a plate of steamed or mashed turnips (shalgam) stands in for chicken soup and is also supposed to be good for thinning stuffy mucus.
This generations-old folk-medicine practice—which pops up in Europe, Israel, and even American pioneer times—promises to work better than it sounds. A chopped or sliced onion is placed in a bowl, then covered with sugar or honey, which draws out the onion’s natural juices (rich in B vitamins as well as immune-boosting vitamin C) and purportedly makes it more palatable for chugging.
This super-salty pickled plum—which to Western eyes may resemble a pinkish apricot—is high in citric acid and praised for its antibacterial qualities. You might soak it in green tea or in a bowl of okayu, a congee-like rice gruel that’s comforting when under the weather. In Japanese candy shops, you can find a crunchy candy version called karikari ume. While umeboshi is known for a kind of apple-a-day preventive mojo, it also has morning-after appeal, touted as an effective hangover cure.
Lizard Soup, China
Can a few cold-blooded creatures bring down your temperature? In this soup, dried lizards simmer and fall apart in broth, along with yams and dates. Other folks cook them in rice wine, for an elixir that may boost the love life while combating that cold. In street markets and even at pharmacy counters, dried lizards are typically sold two at a time, so that you can get both the male and female energy in your elixir.
Salty Licorice, Netherlands
Rough on the uninitiated, the North Seas region’s native Ricola is a super-salty, anise-forward take on the sore-throat calmer. Not so much candy as constitutional. Dutch citizens take their “drop” pretty seriously: it’s been reported that the average citizen consumes about four pounds of it a year.
Gogol Mogol, Eastern Europe
To some, it’s a Christmas party staple, to others, a first line of defense against a sore throat. This Slavic eggnog is made with whipped egg yolks, milk, vanilla, nutmeg, and honey—and for grown-ups, a jigger of rum, cognac, or slivovitz plum brandy. Combined with the warm milk, this no doubt helps you sleep, too. The New York Times has even dubbed it the “Jewish echinacea.”
Garlic Omelets, Morocco
While plenty of cultures embrace the benefits of eating whole cloves of garlic for its health-boosting (if smelly) allicin—also shown to have antiviral properties—the Moroccan way softens the blow with some brunch. Made much like a Spanish tortilla, it’s thin and quiche-like as opposed to a loaded-up Denver, with a generous amount of chopped garlic, onions, and pepper cooked in olive oil.
Tom Yum Goong Soup, Thailand
Thailand’s famous hot and sour soup—with shrimp, gingery galangal, cilantro, lemongrass, chili peppers, and kaffir lime leaves—may have found its place as a cold remedy thanks to the notion that spicy foods open up your sinuses, even if only temporarily. But there may be more to tom yum goong’s power: a 2001 study showed that the Thai staple boasts some cancer-fighting properties, too.
Hot Black Currant Juice, Finland
Packed with vitamin C and antioxidants, this Nordic beverage is an appealing twist on OJ or hot lemon tea. For a version with a little more bite, ask for glögi, the winter mulled wine that often features a fair amount of the dark juice.
Kimchi, South Korea
The spicy mix of fermented vegetables such as napa cabbage, daikon, and cucumbers in a red-chile paste is not only popular—when you’re under the weather, you could easily have it as a side dish at each meal—but it’s high in iron and vitamins A and B. In recent years, eating plenty of kimchi was rumored to have even helped locals ward off swine flu and SARS.
While the soup that uses a bovine tail as its base may qualify as offal to a lot of people, plenty of cultures find it awfully comforting during a cold. A Thai-style version typically includes chili peppers; Indonesians fry or barbecue their tails first; and in the U.K., Heinz sells a more blended and tomatoey canned convenience.
The Japanese cousin of eggnog battles your cold with a boozy dose of protein. The classic recipe calls for a raw beaten egg, a shot of honey, and about six ounces of hot sake, downed quick. While today’s parents might not give it to their kids, apparently plenty of grandmas have over the years (perhaps so that everyone could get some sleep).
Dried fish, goat, tripe—the Nigerian answer to chicken soup doesn’t hold back when it comes to flavor. Or peppers. Nsala (also called pepper or white soup) is considered prime comfort food for colds and is also given to women who have just given birth.
Kumquat Syrup, Taiwan and China
Native to China, this citrusy vitamin-packed fruit is often cooked into a sweet syrup, which can then be brewed into tea or simply swigged with a hot water chaser to ease a sore throat. Bolder palates can try another version of the remedy: sucking on a salted, pickled kumquat.