Snapshots from Asia: Traditional Chinese Medicine for Yuppies


Photograph by Shimin Wong

Those of us who have Chinese friends may have heard them speculate on the "heating" or "cooling" properties of food. The curious among us may even have pressed them to elaborate on this singular notion that foods have "temperatures"—and no, it doesn't refer to ice cream being cold or hot potatoes being hot.

Based on a Buddhist Taoism belief that food is medicine, the kind and amount of food one takes is intimately related to one's health, and the selection of the "right" food is dependent on one's bodily condition at that time. The need to maintain balance—the complementary forces of yin and yang—for optimal health informs the categorization of food into hot or cold, and less significantly, wet or dry groups. Nourishing food is considered bu, which literally means "to repair" but is generally associated with "strengthening the bodily systems."

What you see here is a tiny sample of a wide selection of brews available at a Chinese medicinal hall. It used to be that womenfolk would carefully minister for hours over a double boiler to produce these healthful liang cha, or herbal cooling teas, for the family. Since the modern woman no longer has the time (and, some would say, knowledge) to whip these up, entrepreneurs concoct them in mammoth batches and bottle them conveniently for the grab-and-go crowd.

The Chinese believe that the viler a brew, the more curative power it wields, so if you're thinking that honey-lemon and lime juice don't sound particularly medicinal, you'd be right. These herbal-tea stands tend to be located on busy sidewalks, and locals who harbor no fondness for bitter brews treat these "extras" as healthier, thirst-quenching alternatives to sugar-laden colas.

For those with a yen for the exotic, allow me to point out the bottle of antelope tea in the corner. A garden-variety infusion of shaved antelope's horn, it's none too challenging to the taste buds (my best taste descriptor would be "a distillate of lacquered rosewood furniture"), but plenty beneficial for "cooling down the system."

Need I mention we were barred from bringing our camera into the back of the shop? Serious Eaters who come across one may find it worth their while to hijack a friendly decipherist and go looky at the dried seahorses, giant fungi, and other phallic protuberances inside.

About the author: Wan Yan Ling, Serious Eats's overseas summer intern, is an impoverished grad student and sourdough finger-crosser living in Singapore. She can usually be found in the kitchen procrastinating on "real work," or online tracking down obscure recipes. Ling thinks eating alone is no fun, and she still believes in hand-mixing.

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