Terroir and ‘hiyang’
That’s terroir, not terror, a French word derived from “terre” (earth), and is used mainly to refer to the qualities of certain plant crops, especially grapes, that are believed to be tied to where they are grown: the type of soil (including other forms of life growing in the soil), climate inputs such as rain and sun, even the slope or terrain. These attributes of the earth interact with the crop’s genetics to produce distinct qualities.
Terroir explains why one plant species will have so many variations in different areas, even within the same farm or garden, for example.
The word was coined in relation to grapes and wines in France, but the concept is now known to work with many other crops, from tea to marijuana.
Maybe the best way to explain terroir would be fruits associated with a particular place. I wrote, not too long ago, about Sagada oranges. We could extend that to Camiguin lanzones, Guimaras mangos and others.
I thought about terroir while listening to a former professor, Dr. Mark Nichter, talking about his latest research: human microbiomes, referring to the different types of microbiological communities we have in our bodies.
“Microbiological” sounds so technical, so let me use the lay term: germs. We have billions of them in our bodies, with all kinds of varieties depending on their “habitats.” Yes, our bodies are divided into these germ habitats, notably the mouth, the stomach and the digestive system, our hands—yes, I’m going from top to bottom—and our genitourinary tract (I have to be polite), down to our feet. Let’s not forget the largest organ in the body, the skin. And there will be variations, too, in the microbiome for, say, the skin on different parts of the body.
Our health, it turns out, depends on a delicate balance that has to be maintained in our biomes, between good and bad germs. The germ theory that has dominated modern medicine focused on bad germs entering our bodies and wreaking havoc, but now, there’s a more sophisticated understanding of how the germs within our own body are also vital in determining whether we are healthy or not.
In a sense then, there’s terroir in our bodies. If we could grow grapes in our bodies, we’d be producing different wines depending on whether they came from our mouth or our stomach!
What’s even more important is that our terroir varies from one individual to another, and on what happens to the individual. Infections alter the microbiome, and so does stress. Certain medicines do, too, particularly antibiotics, which can be major disasters, killing off good germs and allowing bad ones to take over.
That is why many physicians now prescribe probiotics — which are really microorganisms — to patients taking antibiotics. Probiotics are also used now to prevent “traveler’s diarrhea,” which you get while on the road not because of an infection per se, but because the new environment, especially water and food, can upset your microbiome.
Nichter was mainly concerned about the indiscriminate use of skin steroids, especially on the face, which could turn simple eczema into more severe inflammations. If you extend the concept of terroir, even cosmetics could be problematic for the microbiome.
How does “hiyang” come into the picture?
Hiyang is a local concept around “fitness,” applied to medicines, cosmetics and sometimes even relationships with people. Mothers will swear Tempra works with Junior but not with Ana, who gets well faster with Biogesic. Yet both are brand names for paracetamol.
I used to scoff at hiyang, but it could make sense when you think of terroir and our microbiomes. Paracetamol is paracetamol, but the excipients, the stuff that goes into making the tablets, may be different with brand names. Generally, the differences are too small to make a therapeutic difference, but maybe, just maybe, there might be terroir at work here.
Other concepts from traditional medicine might make sense if we use terroir. The Chinese and the Indians characterize people as “hot” and “cold,” reacting differently to foods, which are also classified not just as “hot” or “cold” but in relation to fire and to wind.
Enter “personalized medicine,” with hospitals charging an arm and a leg to have your personal profile drawn up, and the kind of therapy that might be most appropriate, especially for very serious diseases like cancer or those affecting the immune system.
Watch out for more studies on our microbiomes, and how they just might prove there’s some sense to this idea of hiyang.
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