Traditional and Modern Methods of Herbal Extraction

The Thai and SE Asians live among a cornucopia of herbs, and plant matter. Rural folk can forage for ginger, galangal, turmeric, plai, guava, pineapple and more.  In fact, local gardens are everywhere, and farmer’s markets are abundant. City folk are fortunate enough to get fresh material trucked in from surrounding countryside.   

I spend time in the Thai countryside with herbalists examining plants and discussing their various uses. We learn traditional methods of preparation. Two prominent methods used are the hot oil and poultice extraction.   

Breaking Down Hot Oil Extraction

 The hot oil extraction is performed by chopping up your material and placing it in a large wok filled with oil. The material fries for several hours yielding a very stable material that can be stored at room temperature for long periods of time. This comes at a cost – the high heat evaporates the volatile oils and destroys many molecules by thermal and oxidative processes. The finished product isn’t as potent and does not have the same composition as the starting herb or rhizome. 

What Is “Steam Distilled”?

Today, the material is “steam distilled” at larger productions for commercial use. This is how most essential oils are prepared.  The temperatures don’t exceed that of boiling water. Volatile oils are carried over with steam to a collector, where they separate out and float on the water as an oil layer. Almost all of the essential oils you buy are prepared this way.  Both methods are harsh, but they supply us with stable material cheaply. We may lose beneficial molecules we desire in our formulations. What to do? 

Poultice Bridges The Gap 

The poultice was an early solution to this problem. Fresh herbs, rhizomes, fruits and plant materials are macerated and applied directly to the body as a paste, or they are placed in a muslin pouch and bound. The muslin poultice is placed in a steamer to prepare it for use. When hydrated and warm, this poultice is rubbed on the body to distribute FRESH oils. The volatile oils are not lost, and the less stable and delicate oils are not destroyed.  The benefits are noticeable. A muslin poultice filled with plai, turmeric and herbs is part of a traditional Thai massage and can be found today in Thailand at a more luxurious venue. Most SE Asians simply grind fresh material and apply it directly. The turmeric stains clothes yellow, and the process is a bit messy.   

How Do We Extract Plant Material? 

We process our turmeric, ginger, plai, guava and other plant materials using traditional steam distillation, cold pressing, cold oil extraction, and ultrasound assisted extractions to recover the molecules found in the “fresh” ingredients. These processes are superior to the older traditional methods, as we no longer live in jungles. In addition, we understand antioxidants and ingredients at the molecular level. We learn from tradition, evaluate processes and in turn improve. Being able to carry something more effective than a fresh poultice in your pocket or purse is what Applai is about.