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Food and drink

Mellow without the yellow: Keeping an even keel in the midst of the winter blahs

It may well be the endless grey and white wave of Pacific storm after Pacific storm. Or the throngs of tourists and skiers clogging “your” favourite places. Or the joys of a four-hour gridlock from the village to Creekside.

The flu bug or a cold will definitely do it. As will an irksome neighbour who keeps dumping his extra snow in your driveway, or the sheet of black ice that sends you careening into a snow bank.

Any number of things can put you right off your mood centre in winter, and sometimes the happiest solution, besides a trip south (don’t forget to buy your carbon offsets), lies right on our kitchen shelves.

We often forget that many common foods and their accompaniments are perfect for lifting spirits without spirits, or mellowing a craggy, snaggletooth mood when too much winter or not enough sun leaves you feeling sad or S.A.D. (Seasonal Affective Disorder — look it up!)

Here are a few of my favourites, all way cheaper and easier on you and the system than a Cancun getaway:


Banana-rama for a lack of drama

My mom loves to tell the story about the two little old ladies (they must have been really old) who sat behind her on the bus, talking about bananas. Oh, you have to eat more of them — they’re so good for your nerves because they’re full of phosphorous, one said. No, no, it’s not phosphorous, dear, it’s phosphorescence, the other replied.

Not to upstage those two old gals, but it’s really the potassium in bananas (they knew it was one of those “p” words) that’s “good for your nerves.” And other than possibly being disappointed over not glowing in the dark after eating one, you’ll be glad to know that bananas are good for you and your mood, possibly explaining why people tried smoking the skins back in the ’60s.

The old “food as medicine” guru Earl Mindell says that an average banana contains about 450 mg of potassium, which is vital for normal blood pressure and for heart function. Bananas also help maintain normal fluid and electrolyte balance, ergo feeding mashed ripe banana to kids who’ve suffered tummy upset. They also contain a lot of B6, which boosts the immune system, helping you avoid colds and flu that might really upset you.

And here’s something I didn’t know that sounds a lot nicer than eating a Tums. Mindell says that bananas make a great natural antacid, so next time you’re suffering a bit of heartburn, try one. And if you’ve never tried an organic one, splurge and treat yourself. They are way tastier and grown in way more varieties than the usual commercial bananas — so just say no to monocultures .


Green tea will fill you with glee

I used to stop at a small Japanese restaurant and buy myself a nice bowl of steamy hot udon noodle soup after night school. The owner was always quick to point out that the green tea he served wouldn’t keep me awake, but would relax me and keep me sharp for the drive home.

It seems like an odd contradiction, but if you’ve ever been really wound up and stressed out (should I make that “when” not “if”?) have you noticed how your brain is buzzing and you really can’t concentrate or be productive?

Buddhist and Zen monks have used green tea for centuries to keep themselves calm but alert during meditation, and hopefully avoid a cuff from the master for nodding off. Green and other teas, with their strong anti-oxidant properties, have also now been scientifically proven to be strong deterrents against some forms of cancer.

One of my favourite green teas is a Japanese blend with roasted rice added that gives a wonderful nutty highlight to the astringent green tea taste. Genmaicha it’s called, and if not available at your local grocer, Fujiya Japanese Foods at the corner of Clark and Venables in Vancouver has it, along with a mouth-watering array of Japanese products.

As for the claim that green tea won’t keep you awake, you have my word. If I have even a tablespoon of coffee in the morning, I can’t sleep that night and green tea has never bothered me. As for keeping me alert and sharp of mind, it depends on who you ask, but at least I haven’t fallen asleep at the wheel, knock on a wooden tea box.


Ginseng: can it make you sing?

An Oregon State University study concludes that the claim that ginseng puts you in a good mood has no conclusion. How Zen.

But the same study also shows that 7.7 percent of participants who took 400 mg of ginseng a day said they experienced enhanced moods. While that’s more than those who took placebos, or less ginseng, it’s also within the margin of error as to render it, well, inconclusive.

However, just to confuse you more, another report in the American Family Physician indicates that Panax ginseng, which comes from Asia or Korea, was effective in boosting both the immune system and psychological functioning, with the caveat that there was some conflicting evidence regarding the latter.

So, what the heck? If you want to scupper boring old science and go with my own observations, then go with the positive. It may be as unscientific but as undeniable as Tandoori Grill manager Naresh Madaan and I acknowledging last week that lentils make us feel good. But even if the scientists don’t agree, there’s still tons of anecdotal evidence out there supporting the magical mood properties of ginseng.

For one, just look around the Lower Mainland. In a store the size of the Grocery Store that sold nothing but ginseng, I saw barrels and barrels filled with ginseng roots. Some of them went for over $200 per pound. Then there are all the fields of ginseng growing near Kamloops.

All those farmers can’t be wrong. Nor can the millions of Asians who have long prized ginseng for good health, longevity, balancing the old yin/yang and its general all-round tonic effect.

In fact, I’m sipping a nice hot cup of ginseng tea this moment while sucking on a green tea lozenge and winging the peel from the banana I’ve just finished into the garbage. Life couldn’t be better.

Or wait a sec, maybe it could … if only I had a nice big chunk of dark chocolate.


Glenda Bartosh is an award-winning freelance writer who believes in the power of good food.