By Nadia Arumugam |

A Homemade Brew to Soothe Strep Throat

I had grand plans for today. I’d heard that some of the vendors at Union Square Farmer’s Market were already offering one of spring’s best kept secret ingredients; ramps.  These members of the onion family, which are sometimes called wild leeks, look like scallion, but taste more garlicky than oniony. Anyways, my plans were scuppered by a sudden and nasty onset of step throat. So, there’s no ramps for me, and no post on ramps for you.

Aside from moaning (quietly) to anyone who’ll listen to me, and assiduously taking my antibiotics, I’ve been nursing my ailing throat with a number of homemade brews and potions. Since it’s strep season, and I’m sure I’m not the only one suffering, I thought I’d share one of my favorite throat soothers, barley water. If you haven’t heard of barley water before, it probably sounds like a pretty grim drink; something that Oliver Twist would be forced to imbibe on days when gruel was less than plentiful! But don’t get stuck on the name. For almost 2000 years barley water was the sacred drink of the Eleusinian Mysteries, an ancient Greek religious harvest celebration – it’s that special .When we were young, my mother often had a large pot on the stove with whole pearls of barley gently stewing in water flavored with pandanus leaves (the Asian equivalent of vanilla) and big stones of rock sugar. This served as both a cure-all for coughs and colds and other respiratory illnesses, and as a general “cooling”, and healthy alternative to sodas since it’s thought to bring down the body temperature. In hot countries, you’ll even find barley water on offer in restaurants, cafes and street stalls – in Malaysia it’s definitely my go-to order when we are out and about. It’s also thought to be a great detoxifier, if you’re after one, and good for keeping the kidneys in good condition.

So when I was simpering down the phone the other day, my mom instructed me get a pot of barley water going tout de suite. Luckily for me, we have a great health food store just around the block from our apartment so getting hold of the grain was easy enough. The pandanus leaves, were a different story, so I just used a couple of vanilla pods instead, spliced down the center to release the seeds. As for the sweetener, I forgo the more exotic rock sugar for a mix of honey and granulated sugar. You can add lemon zest or juice for additional flavoring, or even oragne juice and zest for a kind of funky orangeade. But I like to keep it simple.  Many recipes will have you straining the barley water after the brew has cooked for long enough. Personally I like to leave some of the softened barley in the drink. The grains are nice and chewy and they remind me of the tapioca pearls in bubble tee. I’ve been sipping on warm barley water for 2 days now, and it’s doing wonders to ease that horrid, scratchy feeling in my throat. As for my kidneys – boy, are they getting a thorough spring clean!

I tend not to use a recipe per say for barley water, but rather eyeball how much water to add to the amount of barley in the pot, and I season with sugar and honey to taste at the end. Still, I’ve put together a “formula”for you, which you should feel free to play around with.

Barley Water
2.5 quarts water
1 cup pearled barley
2 pods vanilla, split down the center
1/4 cup honey
2 tablespoons granulated sugar
juice and pared zest of 1 lemon – optional

Place the water and barley in a large pot over medium high heat. Cover, and bring to the boil. Add the vanilla pods to the pot, and reduce the heat to low. Simmer gently for 1 hour until the barley is soft. Stir in the honey, sugar and lemon juice (if using). Taste and adjust the sweetness. Strain, if desired, discarding all of the barley or returning some of it to the barley water. Pour into a large jug, and keep in the fridge.