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Jonesing for Johar Joshanda

Pakistan’s ephedra- and poppy-infused answer to Emergen-C is a cold and flu remedy that actually makes you feel better

As someone who rarely makes it a few months without a cold, I’m very familiar with the wide range of cold and flu tonics marketed to suffering consumers, especially the kind you find at pricey organic grocers sold at three times the cost of a normal drink. I know they aren’t very effective, but I still partake in the charade as testament to how badly I want to escape my symptoms.

These beverages, meant to alleviate sore throats, runny noses, and coughs, often promise more body-altering properties than they deliver. Emergen-C, those bright-orange packets filled with Tang-like vitamin C powder, do little more for the average cold-sufferer than deliver a pleasant, fizzy sensation that sometimes provides temporary relief to stuffy sinuses. An expensive cold-pressed orange juice with cayenne pepper and ginger is the medical equivalent of sipping a 7-Up. Spending $5 on an immunity-enhancing “shot” of turmeric and lemon juice is stupid, but the act of buying and drinking it somehow beats wallowing in misery and just gulping down water.

I was in that familiar state of self-pity and joint aches when I learned of a new breed of tonic: Johar Joshanda. If you don’t recognize the name, it’s probably because you don’t live in Pakistan, where it’s commonly referred to as Joshanda, and during the chilly months when cold and flu viruses run rampant, it’s on the tip of everyone’s tongue.

I moved to Pakistan for work about a year ago, and once my friends clued me in to the wonders of Joshanda, I started noticing it everywhere. Drivers kept it in their glove compartments. Aunties carried it in their purses. Uncles drank it as a replacement for their afternoon chai. It was only a matter of time before I came down with a cold and finally had a chance to try Joshanda.

Joshanda is Pakistan’s answer to Emergen-C. Sold in sachets, the powdery substance is meant to be mixed with hot water or milk and served like a tea. It’s marketed as a relief from cold and flu symptoms and sold in nondescript boxes decorated with faded illustrations of flowers and herbs.

I prepared a warm mug, expecting little more than a cup of generic herbal tea. The first few sips seemed to confirm my suspicion — the licorice and eucalyptus flavors cut through to my dulled taste buds, and the warm liquid soothed my throat, but not much else was happening. “I guess every culture has its own overhyped flu remedy,” I thought.

But halfway through my first cup, I felt a rush, a swell of adrenaline that made me grit my teeth and clench my jaw. My brain fog cleared, and I had a sudden urge to chat with anyone about anything. I felt bright, like my cold-induced malaise might be ending. I finished the cup. I felt amazing. This was not the sickly-sweet feeling that comes after chugging a glass of Emergen-C, nor was it the gritty, earthy aftertaste of a garlic-turmeric-something-or-other shot. This was different, and it was familiar.

Like a lot of women I know, I briefly dabbled in diet pills. One short-lived but particularly intense phase of my college career was fueled by a bootleg brand I ordered online. These pills both suppressed my appetite and gave me sudden bursts of energy, which eventually led to crippling panic attacks, an unsurprising result given that I think the product was called “Cobra Sting.”

The active ingredient in those pills was an herb called ephedra, a substance banned by the FDA in 2004 for contributing to a wide range of issues from mood swings to heart palpitations. Ephedra is an upper, the precursor to pseudoephedrine, which is the active ingredient in Sudafed as well as the key ingredient in making methamphetamine. There’s a reason that Cobra Sting had me twitching like a Requiem for a Dream character and breaking out in cold sweats mid-lecture: The stuff was low-grade speed.

Ephedra’s history, however, is more than just a diet supplement gone wrong. It’s been used in herbal medicine throughout Asia for millennia, included in concoctions that acted as expectorants for chest coughs and the like. Scholars in traditional medicine, though, found that even in those recipes, the adverse effects of ephedra plant were clear, and it was rarely if ever used for energy or weight loss. It wasn’t until the herb began appearing in weight-loss formulas in the United States and Europe in the late 1990s, when people reported psychosis, stroke, and heart palpitations after taking it in high dosages, that a concerted effort to regulate it led to the FDA ban.

I haven’t touched diet pills since my own brush with ephedra, but once the mood-lifting energy of my first cup of Joshanda hit and I began answering emails at warp speed, I realized why the tea felt so familiar. The box, in its ’70s palette of pinks and deep brown, confirmed my suspicion with its ingredients list: Each sachet contains a whopping 53.19 mg of ephedra. It doesn’t sound like much, but Cobra Sting was half as strong and it sent me into near psychosis. So much for my “soothing” cup of herbal tea.

But Joshanda, crucially, anticipates the hard edge of a hefty dose of ephedra and counters it with a dash of khashkhash, the Urdu word for poppy seed extract. The same poppies that made Dorothy fall asleep in the fields of Oz, and the same ones that produce the flowers that produce the paste that can be processed into heroin. That’s why drinking Joshanda feels so pleasant. It’s the herbal, over-the-counter answer to a speedball. And although the drink might be described as a distant cousin to these hard drugs, Joshanda’s effects are fairly mild. Chewing on coca leaves is not freebasing cocaine. You won’t find Joshanda drinkers strung out all over Karachi. The mixture is, however, the perfect relief for my cold symptoms. The ephedra jolts me out of my flu-induced haze, while the poppy extract dulls the rush enough that I didn’t resort to frantically papier-macheing candle holders and plates in my apartment, as I had during my Cobra Sting days.

Ephedra is legal in Pakistan, as it is throughout most of South Asia, which explains Joshanda’s popularity. There’s nothing illicit about middle-aged uncles drinking Joshanda with their afternoon biscuits or aunties who won’t leave home without it. Alcohol is banned in Pakistan, as part of the country’s enshrined religious code, so social drinking tends to revolve around caffeine. As a nation of chai-drinkers, it’s easy for Pakistanis to replace an afternoon tea with a packet of the herbal mixture. And Joshanda’s kick is not unlike that of a Red Bull: just a few notches above the traditional doodh patti that fuels the country.

Qarshi Industries, the company that makes Joshanda, is the nation’s leader in selling mass-market versions of age-old medicinal recipes that use the region’s abundant plants and herbs to treat everything from constipation to cancer. Universities offer five-year degrees in the field, called yunani, or “Greek” medicine (rooted in Hippocrates), with courses taught by masters in the craft, including the makers of Joshanda. More traditional outfits create the herbal concoction from scratch, a time-consuming process that involves boiling and straining and cheesecloth — the kind of stuff we don’t want Gwyneth Paltrow to hear about, lest she include it in the next issue of Goop.

Joshanda is sold to the Pakistani market as a consumer-friendly version of the health tonics South Asian great-grandmas might have made. One of the product’s TV commercials depicts a familiar cold-and-flu ad scenario: A man jolts out of his sleep, coughing and clutching his head, and the voice behind the camera asks, “Why not Joshanda?” His reply: “Wake up my wife at this time of night, for Joshanda?” Cue a montage of the old man ripping open a packet with satisfaction.

That ephedra features prominently among Joshanda’s active ingredients isn’t controversial in Pakistan the way it might be in the States, where the herb is associated with fitness instructors keeling over on ellipticals mid-workout. Yunani medicine has a rich history in the region, much the same as Chinese traditional medicine in East Asia, and ephedra’s presence in traditional remedies laps its role as a weight-loss supplement by several thousand years. Ephedra’s FDA ban has little effect on its reputation in Pakistan.

Restrictions on ephedra outside of Pakistan, however, have limited Joshanda’s chances at global expansion. If you’ve already begun Googling how to buy Joshanda in the United States, yes, it’s available on Amazon, but unfortunately, the overseas product lacks the Cobra Sting that gives Joshanda its kick. For that, you’ll have to come to Pakistan.

Meher Ahmad is a journalist based in Karachi, Pakistan.
Copy-edited by Rachel Kreiter