A bitter pill… A taste of one’s own medicine…
The expressions are self-explanatory; no matter what it is, medicines are almost always unpleasant. For some people, the simple act of swallowing a pill is a battle in itself.
But if you ask most Maldivians, this is not the case! Our forefathers have left us with a ‘medicine’ that serves as more than just a healing agent.
‘Hili Beys’, roughly translated into English as ‘stirred medicine’, is a mixture of traditional medicinal herbs, rice, and sugar syrup. Not only does this chewy, sticky mixture carry a wide range of healing powers and health benefits, including fending off gastric problems and body pain, it also tastes good to just have a spoon or two for no reason.
So how did our ancestors, with little to no knowledge of medicinal practices in the outside world, come up with such a handy ‘medicine’ that is sought after even today?
Like the ancient history of the Maldives, which revolves around myth and folklore that have been told through times in different forms, there is no one story that explains how the sweet and sour Hili Beys came into being. But its origins can’t be understood without touching upon the livelihoods of early Maldivians and how it all contributed to the development of ‘Dhivehi Beys’ – the indigenous Maldivian medicine.
The islands of Maldives, scattered over 90,000 km in the middle of the Indian Ocean, were historically isolated. Travel was restricted to and from the closest neighbors of India and Sri Lanka, but that too took weeks if not months due to the Islanders’ reliance on sailboats.
But this isolation didn’t stop Maldivians from achieving great things. They used it to their advantage; learning to fend off for themselves and making self-sufficiency an integral part of their livelihoods. So, like most aspects of Maldivian culture and tradition, Dhivehi Beys was also born out of necessity!
The origins of Dhivehi Beys are shrouded in mystery and lost in time too. But there is no doubt that Maldivian healers – called Hakeems – learned basic medical knowledge from traders that visited the islands from far corners of the world. Healing remedies and secrets from Indians, Arabs, Persians, Malaysians, Sri Lankans and Chinese were acquired, adapted using ingredients that were available from the surroundings, and used to develop Dhivehi Beys.
Dhivehi Beys has taken care of the primary health care needs of the Maldivians until the 19th century. Plant and animal raw materials obtained from the surrounding environment have been used to treat several diseases, including diarrhea, skin infections, fungal infections and sexually transmitted diseases. People suffering from non-contagious diseases such as arthritis, body aches, muscle strains, indigestion, constipation, kidney and urinary tract infections, diabetes, and heart diseases have also benefitted from these traditional medicines.
In the olden days, Hili Beys too served a very crucial purpose; it was originally used by women right after childbirth to relieve pain and promote physical recovery.
As the Maldives, aided by its flourishing tourism industry, turned to modern medicine as well as healthcare facilities and practices followed in the developed world, several remedies offered by Dhivehi Beys have lost their appeal. Hili Beys is also amongst the victims, but luckily enough, it has found a new purpose as a sought-after snack by many!
When it comes to the preparation of this medicine, the methods vary in the northern and southern part of the Maldives. Below is one of the most widely followed methods shared by practitioners.
100g Mathikuraa Beys (a dry mix of cinnamon, cardamom, cloves, nutmeg and mace, and cubeb pepper)
50g Haru Beys (a dry mix of herbs, specifically chebulic myrobalan, esma and burolhi)
Minaa Beys (a dry mix of 10g fenugreek seeds, 10g cresses, 5g black seed, 10g caraway seed and 100g black pepper)
1kg puffed rice
1 litre cooked toddy
- Dice the plantains.
- Place all the dry ingredients except the rice separately on a thin sheet, and place it in direct sunlight. It is advised to sundry the ingredients for a minimum of two days.
- Grind the Mathikuraa Beys, Haru Beys, and Minaa Beys separately until each of them turns into fine powder.
- Cook the toddy in a large container on medium heat. Stir continuously and add the ground Haru Beys and Minaa Beys. Continue to cook and let it simmer.
- Use a spoon to check if the mixture had thickened. If not, cook for a few more minutes.
- Add the ground Mathikuraa Beys to the mixture. Stir and let it simmer.
- Once the mixture is thick, turn off the heat and let it cool down.
- Add the puffed rice and stir until it is mixed well.