So yesterday I had the pleasure of accompanying a native Chinese lady, and when I say lady–I mean a real, true lady–on her daily shopping trip to the Chinese medicine shop. Even though she is older than my Mom and we come from totally different cultures, we really hit it off talking about cooking. She takes French lessons at the Peninsula Hotel. I thought we were going to spend the majority of our time at this Western baking shop she thought I would like and in the wet markets, but apparently a stop at the Chinese Dr. is also a part of the grocery trip! She claims to not really be a believer… but obviously believes in some of it! Although to her credit, she has never had her pulse examined or a remedy special made for her (below).
But she does have a very strong belief in the benefits of collagen… present in a lot of the items we saw and discussed. All in all, it was quite an experience. I don’t think I’ve ever felt the clash of cultures more.
On dried scallops: These are good for soaking for hours to make seafood broth. They have gotten much more expensive! Now for the cost of a medium scallop, I only get a small one.
Starting with an easy one… this seems perfectly fine to me. And I think I will try to make broth from these puppies some day, too. I’m curious as to what they use to preserve them. I would guess salt, but I wouldn’t know until I tried one.
On bird’s nests: Every Sunday my daughter and her husband come over dinner so I spend about three hours on Saturday with my spectacles on with a magnifying glass picking miniature feathers out of the bird’s nest before I make soup out of it.
Wow–now that is dedication to bringing about grandchildren! And this one is really pretty bizarre. Bird’s nest is so expensive, they are often called the ‘caviar of the East.’ They are nests made by a male swiftlet out of his saliva. Thank goodness, they normally let the birds raise their young (these nests are made for one to two eggs) before they harvest them. The Chinese think the nests improve complexion, raise libido, and help the immune system. The white nests (above) are considered most pure, but there are also black and red varieties that result from various minerals in the bird’s diet and are said to have other benefits.
On shark’s fins: My children–all of them–refuse to eat them. But I know they need the good protein for their health. So I have tried many ways to disguise it… it shouldn’t be hard to hide it because it really has no taste, but more often than not they can tell that I’ve tricked them from the fibers!
Obviously I find what they do to the poor sharks–cutting off their fins and discarding their bleeding carcasses–horrifying, but here I was faced with about 300 fins in jars and a petite little women who is somehow getting me to sympathize with her about the fact that her children don’t understand how important it is to their health! I think it’s important every now or then to feel like you just don’t get it at all. It builds good, humble character to meet someone whose motivations you just don’t understand. It really keeps you on your toes to not know what they are optimizing for. But, back to the fins: the larger the fin, the more expensive. The darker fins also seem to cost more. I can’t even begin to tell you how often you see Shark Fin’s Soup on menus here. Over 100 million sharks are killed each year and most shark species are in sharp decline, many above 70% and some much above 90%. One can only think that as the obsessive Chinese accumulate more and more wealth that they will soon be extinct. And by the way, they really do have no proven health benefits, although you’ll be hard pressed to find a Hong Konger who doesn’t insist on eating it for special celebrations.
On deer’s antlers: It’s very important that they kill the deer while it is running, when it is full of maximum energy and the horns are full of blood. You want to have as much blood as possible. That is where the benefit is.
So of course, knowing how little respect the Chinese have for the poor sharks… I wondered if the deer meet their end when they cut off their antlers, but apparently they live through it. These velvet antlers are from 75% mature deer and they are velvet because they are not old enough to have calcified.
Deer’s tail: This is a very special part of the deer for the same reasons as the tusks. It has a lot of blood.
On the subject of deer parts, Chinese Medicine also really values deer penis. It is said to be the quickest way for an athlete to recover from an injury… so much so that it’s ban from the Olympic games in Beijing caused a local outcry; it is usually mixed with a herbal ephedrine (a stimulant that can show up in drug tests).
Plant worms: The language barrier meant it was hard for me to understand what she was talking about. All I got was that in the summer this is a worm and in the winter the worms turn into a plant and you can see both states here. And it’s very good for you although she never eats it (not surprising because it literally looks like lots of tiny, disgusting worms).
So I did a little research and I believe this is called cordyceps. Here is a nice summary from ChineseHerbalMedicine.org.
“Cordyceps sinensis is one strange creature. It is the figurative fruit of a parasitic relationship between a caterpillar and the fungus Cordyceps. The caterpillars live underground in Tibet and China. When they feed on the roots of the Cordyceps fungus, they are infected with fungus spores. The spores then start growing inside the infected creature’s body, replacing the tissue with its own. What follows next is even stranger. When the caterpillar is about to die, the fungus somehow commands it to move to the surface. When the caterpillar finally expires near or on the surface, the spores are exposed from within its decaying body and thus it propagates itself. The Tibetans and Chinese handpick the infected caterpillars and dry them for use in medicine. It is considered as having an excellent balance of yin and yang, since it appears to be both an animal and a plant at once.”
To close, I’ll leave you with a few more pictures of crazy things used in Chinese Medicine, including seahorses and a pre-historic looking creature.