KITCHEN BACKSTORIES: Fah Talai Jone – A Heaven-Sent Herb?
These unassuming plants are, in fact, the now highly-prized fah talai jone (FTJ), loosely translated as ‘The Heavens Strike Down the Thieves.’
My dog perks up her ears and fixes her gaze keenly upon an invisible point ahead. All of a sudden, she scrambles towards the wooden gate and jumps onto her hind legs to peek down the alley, wagging her tail with a little whine. A few seconds later, the low, rhythmic, grumbling of a pick-up truck engine becomes perceptible, reaching a crescendo as the augured vehicle appears before my house. Reaching over a squirming, overexcited white dog, the delivery guy hands me a slender oblong box of medium size. Placing it on the garden table, I use a cutter to slit the tape, and open the box. Inside, lying prostrate is my precious carriage: four slender seedlings, their long, thin, angular stems bent slightly by the walls of their closed quarters.
These unassuming plants are, in fact, the now highly-prized fah talai jone (FTJ), loosely translated as “The Heavens Strike Down the Thieves.” I’d heard this rather dramatic Thai name being bandied about over the decades but only remembered it vaguely as a strange, long, and tongue-twisting name for a local plant, focusing more on its linguistic mystique than its medicinal properties.
Known in English as Chiretta (andrographis paniculata), the plant is characterised by long, thin, but sturdy stems, dark green, narrow, glossy leaves with tapered ends, and delicate, small white blossoms. High in andrographolide, which can kill some viruses, the Thai herb has been used to cure sicknesses like the flu, sore throat and infection across South and Southeast Asia, and China for centuries. And in July 2021 the Thai government formally approved FTJ for use in alleviating the symptoms of COVID-19. More on this later.
In Thailand, the leaves of FTJ are collected as its flowers begin to bloom, and are traditionally prepared in one of three ways: as a tea (or, more correctly, a tisane), as a tincture or as pastilles. Tea made from fresh leaves is said to be excellent for ailments of the upper respiratory system, including colds with congestion, sore throat, bronchitis, tonsillitis, hay fever and other allergies.  A tincture can also be prepared by infusing 50% alcohol with torn-up pieces of the fresh leaves and straining out the resulting liquid. Alternatively, FTJ can be consumed as pastilles, made by drying the leaves, grinding them down and combining the powder with raw honey, and rolling the mixture into small balls. The modern way of consuming FTJ, though, is as commercially-produced capsules – whereby obtaining them is just a matter of popping down to the local 7-Eleven.
Feeling somewhat paranoid about my slightly dry throat, and eagerly curious to try this traditional natural remedy, I set about preparing myself some FTJ tea. I snip a small bunch of leaves from my plant, add it to a pot of water, and bring the mixture to a boil, letting it simmer for 10 minutes. Switching off the heat, I allow it steep for another five, before straining the liquid into a glass teapot. The result is a translucent, light green, innocuous-looking liquid.
I take a sip, and – choking slightly – immediately understand why this plant has been named the “King of Bitters” – and, also, why the Thais have given it the grand name of “The Heavens Strike Down the Thieves.” Now, I love bitter things – whether bittermelon or Brussel sprouts – but this bitterness was on a WHOLE other level. As one of my friends later remarked, hours after trying the tea, “even my stomach still tastes the bitterness.” I don’t think it was an exaggeration. (It also explains why capsules are the favoured method of delivery by the general populace). Nonetheless, after some minutes, I swear I can feel gentle warm energy beginning to radiate throughout my body. Something is happening.
With the advent of COVID-19 and its increasingly more severe variants – further compounded by challenges around access to vaccines – FTJ has emerged from the shadows of being a half-dismissed, archaic “grandma’s remedy” and into the spotlight as a nationally approved herb to combat the symptoms of the virus.  As early as March 2020, reports of people hoarding FTJ had featured in the media, but were largely dismissed – with one media source even claiming that the herb was “classified as useless.”  However, by December 2020, clinical trials jointly conducted by the Faculty of Medicine of Siriraj Hospital, the Chulabhorn Research Institute, the Medical Science Department, the Government Pharmaceutical Organization, and the Department of Thai Traditional and Alternative Medicine (DTAM) were showing promising results: Patients who had tested positive for COVID-19 within 72 hours of developing symptoms had seen their condition improve after receiving the medicine. Laboratory research had found that the FTJ extract is effective at killing the COVID-19 virus and preventing it from multiplying, if not preventing cells from being infected by it. 
In April 2021, a larger trial conducted with 300 patients yielded similar results, with patients’ mild symptoms cured within 3-5 days. While the results of more comprehensive, randomised, controlled tests (RCT) have yet to be published, in July 2021, Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha instructed authorities to establish a committee to study the use of FTJ to treat mild COVID-19 symptoms, following evidence showing the Department of Corrections’ success in treating 12,376 inmates infected with COVID-19, with the plant’s extracts. 
Notwithstanding this, health experts still caution that FTJ should not be consumed for more than 5-7 days, as longer-term use may have impacts on blood pressure and the kidneys, and may also cause numbness. Moreover, it’s not recommended for pregnant or breastfeeding women, people with kidney and liver problems, or those taking high blood pressure pills and blood thinners.
While those accustomed to modern Western approaches might continue to dismiss the initial findings around the effectiveness of FTJ in treating COVID-19, I personally believe there’s something to be said for traditional remedies proven over centuries, if not millennia. Is it truly “heaven-sent?” We can’t be certain yet, but it sure seems promising. At the very least, I think all “thieves” should be scared.
P.S. No sign of the dry throat the morning after drinking the tea.
Disclaimer. Information provided in this article does not constitute medical advice, and opinions expressed are the author’s own. Please consult a licensed physician before attempting to use FTJ or other herbs for medicinal purposes.
 A Thai Herbal: Traditional Recipes for Health and Harmony, P. Salguero, 2003.
 A promising development in the fight against Covid, Bangkok Post, 19 April 2021
 People Are Hoarding Herb Classified as Useless Against Covid-19, Khao Sod English, 17 March 2020.
 Fah Talai Jone proven effective in improving the condition of COVID-19 patients – DTAM, Thai PBS World, 9 December 2020.
 PM orders study into green chiretta, Bangkok Post, 22 July 2021.
PHOTO CREDIT: By H. Zell – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9027172