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Between the Leaves February 2008

I want to completely knock my girlfriend's socks off this Valentine's Day. Are there any teas that have aphrodisiac qualities?

Aphrodisiac tea, eh? I'd say we're aiming a bit higher than mere sock removal, aren't we? Well, if a nice, sultry state of dishabille is what you had in mind, then you're in luck: almost any tea can be an aphrodisiac, provided that there are no underlying physiological problems to overcome. The reason for this is that almost any food item purported to be an aphrodisiac - all the way from green M&Ms to French truffles-has its efficacy based not in physiology but in psychology and anthropology.

The Kiss
The Kiss

If you were to pull up a list of aphrodisiac foods, you'll probably notice two things. There will be a plethora of exotic ingredients, and there will be a plethora of foods that are long and thin, cleft, or red. Anthropologists give a concept called 'sympathetic magic' as the reason for the latter group, and it basically denotes the thought that things with similar properties can influence each other. The voodoo doll, for instance, is often given as a classic example: the poppet, due to shape and inclusion of personal effects, becomes homologous with its target individual. It's this idea that shapes our abstract notion of symbolism, and so carrots and asparagus become phallic symbols, oysters and figs become yonic symbols, and red symbolizes the flush of arousal. Voila! The classic aphrodisiac.

Of course, tea is neither phallic, yonic, nor red. It is, however, exotic- at least once you look beyond your standard tea bag- anything exotic is new and exciting: the two building blocks of any potentially excellent tryst. Tea could be a great thing to help set the 'new and exciting' tone of an evening, particularly if care is taken as to its origins and history. A prime sencha from Japan's Kyoto prefecture, for instance, could be paired with some more daring sushi (no California rolls, please!) as part of an intimate meal, or you could regale your lady with tales of how a Buddhist monks plucked a certain Chinese green from the peaks of one of their four sacred mountains. You could get down to brass tacks and tantalize her senses with a creamy, spicy Masala Chai. All it takes is a bit of imagination, really, and a fair bit of humor. It'll certainly be a lot more memorable (and effective!) than a box of drugstore chocolates. Of course, if all else fails, there are a variety of tea-based alcohols on the market today.

If the spirit is willing, but the body beneath the clothes is weak, there are a few tisanes that could be considered physiological aphrodisiacs. However, two are highly suspect (yohimbe bark and damiana) and one is flat out illegal (coca tea, made from the plant that gives us cocaine). The former work to increase blood flow to the bits that count and the latter stimulates the brain's dopamine system. Obviously, neither of these routes should be taken without the explicit guidance of a medical doctor (and a lot of legal carte blanche in the case of coca tea), and they should only be pursued if there is actual physiological dysfunction at work. Substances that increase blood flow can cause heart attack and stroke- or even death- if used incorrectly, and substances that alter brain chemistry can, well, alter brain chemistry. Nothing ruins Valentine's Day like death or permanent psychosis- that's trivial knowledge you can take to the bank.