Soapberries: their benefits and uses
I was busy in the past few days and have not had a chance to add new content. However, as I went to my usual Tuesday night Pow wow, I gather some intel for this post 😉 Indeed, I talked natural remedies and plant based products with a merchant there. As she was whipping a pink foamy mixture with an electric mixer, I got curious. So I ask what it was. Her response: soapberry indian ice cream. Well I had seen this foamy “ice cream” before at Pow wows but had never known what it was. As she told me that soapberries are thought to contain numerous positive and healing properties, I decided to research them a bit.
Native soapberries or buffaloberries or foamberries
So as I did my research, I came to the realization that there are two types of soapberries. The kind I am discussing here are the soapberries using by Native nations, especially on the West Coast. They look like the berries above and below, a bright red/pink fruit. The other kind of soapberries are also referred to soapnuts and are used as ingredients in natural detergents. Yes that’s right. That type of soapberries are contained in shells containing saponin, a compound responsible for some of their healing properties and cleaning properties (as it has foaming properties).
The “native” soapberries grow in a shrub that can survive harsh climates and pretty much any kind of soil. The shrub itself is about 3 to 6 feet high with loose branches. A soapberry shrub will need about 5 to 6 years to produce fruits. it produces a fruit that is often described as bitter (I can attest to that…) but when eaten has been reported as being an effective mosquito repellent. Go figure! Berries are collected from the shrub by placing a tarp under the shrub and beating the branches bearing fruits with a stick. Only the very ripe ones will fall down.
So what can soapberries do?
As I said, soapberries are used by many nations, here in BC at least (like the Lillooet nation or the Shuswap nation). Not only are they eaten in dishes as they contain high vitamin C (like the indian ice cream described below) but they have also been used by native people to treat high blood pressure, digestive disorders, acne and bringing on childbirth to name a few. However, as the native soapberries or buffaloberries also contain saponin, they must be consumed in moderation as they can upset your stomach. They can also be used externally to make cleansers or even shampoo.
But wait, there is more!! The roots, leaves and bark can also be used medicinally. Boiled inner bark can be used as a laxative or a infusion of the bark can be used as an eyewash (remember it has cleansing properties). The brew has also been used to soothe an upset stomach, to treat stomach cancer, constipation and venereal diseases. Similarly, a brew using the stems and leaves can be used as a wash for cuts, swellings and sores. The roots of his little miraculous shrub also have an anti-hemorrhagic property, in other words they stop bleeding as well as purge and cleanse. They have also been used as an aid to childbirth and to treat tuberculosis. Jeez that shrub does a lot!!! Who wants a soapberry shrub in their backyard now?
Ok but how do we eat them? Indian ice cream!
Well soapberries are rarely eaten directly, due to their bitter taste. They are most commonly mixed into something. They can be crushed and be used to make lemonade or tea. And yes they can be found in indian ice cream! Yes I know you are all wondering what the heck I am talking about. Let me explain by reminding you that soapberries contain saponin, which gives them a foamy quality. Meaning that when beaten, they become foamy. Vigorously beating them raises the foam level. So the soapberries are crushed then can be mixed in different ways. More than one recipe is out there. The woman I saw at the Pow wow was beating hers with water and sugar. That’s it. The result looks like the picture below. I included a larger image so you can see its texture. It’s basically as light as air and is often eaten in large gatherings like Pow wows. It is served in little cups. What does it taste like?? Well…..I can only describe what I tasted. The original taste is somewhat sweet but then an ashy/bitter aftertaste sets in. I was told that it is normal to have that aftertaste and that one gets used to it. I can’t say it was bad, as the texture is very interesting and fun but one cup was enough. I will continue to try it though to see if the ashy taste goes away.
But as I said, there are variances in how one makes indian ice cream. Indeed, Alaskan natives call it akutaq or agutak. It is basically salmonberries (similar to soapberries) mixed with fat. Yes you read that right. Berries and fat. It can be animal fat or good old Crisco. Same principle of crushing the berries and beating them with fat. The consistency is less smooth and more lumpy, like you can see below. What do they call it? Well Eskimo Ice cream of course 🙂
Have you ever had soapberries or indian ice cream?? Share your comments or experience below!