In any traditional Chinese pharmacy, one of the first things to strike a foreigner is always the ingredients… Frankly, they’re a little strange: dried sea horses, geckos, snakes, worms, a stuffed deer and one lone owl gazing down from above.
Meanwhile, they’re hovered over by serious pharmacists in lab coats, consulting giant medical tomes. It all seems rather incongruous. But this is not “Macbeth.” This is as much a part of China’s history as anything else.
Take, for example, snakes. They’re used for “wind expulsion” and “channel clearance”—which means they’ll do wonders for sagging energy levels and weak immunity.
Back in the Tang Dynasty (618-907), an unnamed villager suffered from a terrible skin disease. Boils and lesions covered his entire body. After drinking from a vat of wine over a period of time, his skin unexpectedly started to clear up. Everyone was shocked—no one could quite work out what had cured his ailments. That is, until a large, rotten snake was discovered lying at the bottom of the barrel. The snake, it was hypothesized, could cure skin diseases!
Li Shizhen lived from 1518 to 1593, and was one of China’s most famous doctors. He researched snakes for his massive 52-volume medical textbook, “Compendium of Materia Medica (《本草纲目》 B0n C2o G`ng M&),” and found that snakes could be used to “treat stubborn dry scale-like skin diseases, skin eruptions and rashes.”
Today you’ll still find snakes, prized for their medicinal qualities, preserved in liquor barrels. Snake-infused liquor is sold by the glass or the bottle.
At Lao Zhuan Cun, a restaurant in Qingdao, for example, Manager Sui bottles his own liquor, adding a long-nosed pit viper, gutted, to a liter of rice wine. He throws in some ginseng and wolfberries and lets it all sit for a month before selling it at 18 RMB a liang (两,50g).
“Many people like it,” says Sui, “especially men.”
Farmer Zhang Changmeng is one of those men. As a child, he suffered from rheumatic arthritis—until he took to drinking snake liquor. Two years later, he was healed and was so impressed he took to TCM studies; then he became a farmer. His crop? Snakes.
Farmer Zhang’s Red Plum Snake Farm, inSishui County,ShandongProvince, now sells 60 tons of snakes a year at 400 RMB a kilo.
“Snake powder not only helps with arthritis,” Farmer Zhang insists, “but also eliminates toxins, clears your skin, and keeps you young.”
To make the powder, first gut and skin the snake, then bake it at a low, steady heat. (You may have to experiment, as the precise time and temperature are closely-guarded trade secrets.) Finally, grind it in a mortar and pestle or a coffee grinder. But be warned, it’s a pungent treatment.
An easier way to take snake is to have it ground and packaged as a pill. There’s Vitiligo, for acne and other persistent skin problems, and Pure Zaocys, for lower back and leg pain.
For more specific problems, though, you shouldn’t miss the specifics of the snake.
The gallbladder of a Chinese rat snake, for example, is the size of a large soybean and is reported to be great for poor vision. “It is terrific for eyesight,” said Farmer Zhang. He sells fresh ones for about 5 RMB each. You can slice them into small thin pieces, or grind them up.
A snake’s male anatomy, meanwhile, is small, spiky, and apparently genius at warming the kidney and enriching the qi. But, priced at up to 20,000 RMB a kilo, it’s not cheap.
Ants, meanwhile, are a bargain at just 200 RMB a kilo.
Emperor Qianlong ate black ants and was apparently the happiest emperor in the history of China. He died in 1799 at the ripe old age of 89, and claimed his good looks and youthfulness to be entirely due to his diet.
He was inspired by Li Shizhen’s “Compendium of Materia Medica,” which was then 200 years old, and still the most popular medical book in China. (It remained that way until 1959.) In it, Li wrote that black ants “enrich the qi, beautify skin, delay ageing and restore kidney energy.”
The emperor’s preferred recipe, ants fried with pine nuts, remains an all-time classic. It’s the best way to ingest the insects, and can today be found in restaurants across China. Deep fry50gof black ants in vegetable oil until they become crisp, then do the same with300gof pine nuts. Now toss them in a pan with20gof vegetable oil and stir it all together. Add some salt and sugar, and dig in!
If you want to buy ants, know in advance that the bigger they are, the more expensive they’ll be. Organic, wild ants are also going to cost more than farmed ones. But the most expensive is the mountain-dwelling Wild Black Ant (300 RMB a kilo).
To catch this monster, professional hunters spread ground-up bones on plastic sheets, and sprinkle them with vinegar. After half an hour, huge ants will start to appear—the ant assassins will snatch them up and drown them in a bucket that’s half-filled with water. After a few days in the sun, they’re ready to be eaten.
Li Yanjun has farmed and sold ants for a decade, and talks like an entomologist businessman. “Ants are nutritional, medical and healthy,” he says. “They’re also one of the most valuable insects in China. The ant business has exploded in recent years. People realize that it’s a good medicine. Looks disgusting, but it tastes nice if you cook it in the right way.”
Which is, presumably, deep fried with pine nuts.
You can also soak ants in liquor, like a snake. After a week, the ant-guotou cocktail will be ready, but the longer you wait, the better. Drink 40ml a day for arthritis, or perhaps as an aphrodisiac.
A pre-bottled version of this recipe, Yilishen Tonic Wine, was a huge seller across China a few years ago. It advertised itself as a booster for men’s sex drive and fertility, with a discrete tag line of “Those who use, are those who know!” (谁用谁知道！Sheí yòng sheí zhīdào!) But the company has since disappeared.
“I didn’t see any effects,” said Mr. Yan, an older man who drank his own homemade ant cocktail. “Plus, it was disgusting.”
Granny Chen, meanwhile, eats ants for the same reason that Emperor Qianlong did: youthfulness. “Your hair will go from grey to black,” she says, citing a friend who ate ant powder for three years.
Unlike the emperor, though, Chen uses a microwave to heat her dried ants, and then blends them in a food processor. Two spoons a day, and she’s still waiting for her hair to turn black—but she has high hopes. The only problem? “It tastes horrible and smells like urine. It’s disgusting, really.”
Far more pleasant than the thought of eating ants is the thought of a deer. It’s one of the most common sights in a TCM pharmacy, and represents longevity, happiness, luck and benevolence.
And in the medicinal world, every single part of that deer is considered valuable.
The antlers are often for sale, presented in an elaborate gift box almost like moon cakes. They’re not eaten whole, but ground up and mixed with warm water, until it becomes gluey. Deer Antler Glue (鹿角胶, L&ji2o Ji`o, 70 RMB /250g), reputed to tone the kidney, remove obstructions in meridians, help produce breast milk, and—like many of these remedies, it seems—boost the libido. It balances the pairing of yin and yang, and even helps women with menstrual troubles.
One of the few authorized producers of Deer Antler Glue inChinais an ancient Beijing pharmacy called Tongrentang. It opened for business eight years after the start of the Qing Dynasty, in 1669, and has been operating at the same location in Beijing since 1702.
Like the “Compendium of Materia Medica,” it’s a TCM institution and its cabinets are filled with a world of strange TCM—sea cucumbers, sea horses, and snakes—but one thing we didn’t find there was deer embryo.
It’s an ancient remedy for women who have trouble getting pregnant, and according to Chen Shiduo’s “The New Materia Medica” (《本草新编》 B0n C2o X~n Bi`n), published in 1691, it will “invigorate the function of the spleen, reinforce kidney yang, tonify qi, and produce vital essence.”
It’s also extremely hard to find.
“All the embryos have already sold out this year,” Dr. Bai Xiaofeng told us. He’d spent months trying to find one for his daughter. It took many failed attempts, and some personal connections, to finally get his hands on one.
“I asked my daughter to take three spoonfuls of the ground-up powder a day,” he told us. “She didn’t like it—it smells so bad. But she was pregnant by the third week. I asked my wife to finish the rest. You see, deer embryo is expensive, and not a speck should be wasted.”
The owner of the Zhaofeng Deer Farm refused to give her name, but enthusiastically agreed with Dr. Bai. “Deer embryo is especially good for women,” she said. “Men can take it as well, as a tonic.”
But her favorite suggestion for a men’s tonic is actually made from the loin of a male deer.
Private parts appear frequently in TCM. The basic concept behind it all is that you can improve any organ in your body by eating that same organ of an animal. You are what you eat, or—literally in Chinese—”eat something, nourish something.” (吃什么补什么。 Ch~ sh9nme b^ sh9nme.)
Today, deer parts are priced for the gentry (400 RMB for a100gmember) and are recommended mostly for the older set. “Young men should leave it to their elders,” said Xie Chongyuan, a professor atGuangxiTCMUniversity. “They should focus on a healthy lifestyle, not on drinking tonics.”
But if you do want to prepare that tonic, slice the meat thinly, and soak the strips in a liter of strong alcohol for about two weeks. Twenty milliliters of liquor a day should be enough to help the adrenals, boost testosterone, and improve function.
In ancient times, this tonic was legendarily popular with the emperors. But when you remember the number of wives and concubines they often had, that’s not so entirely surprising.
Another legendarily royal remedy is the earthworm.
In China, though, it’s not actually known as a worm, but by a far more royal name: Earth Dragon (地龙，d#l5ng).
It all started with Emperor Taizu of the Song Dynasty. He ruled from 960 to 976, and apparently had a terrible case of shingles. His royal doctors were all baffled by this persistent and painful skin rash. No one could find a cure.
Finally, a folk doctor was brought in, and—where all else had failed—he simply pulled two earthworms from the ground. He moistened them with honey and sugar, and left them on a plate, where they eventually melted in the sun.
Using that wormy liquid as a balm, he wiped the shingles, and for the very first time, Emperor Taizu felt a cool relief.
But this wasn’t the end of the treatment. Next, the doctor fed the emperor a bowl of earthworm juice—a few days later, he was healed. As a tribute to the night crawlers, the emperor announced a new name for the worms: “Earth Dragons.”
Li Shizhen was also a firm believer in the earthworm’s merits, and noted the creature’s ability to clear internal heat, nourish the lungs and calm asthma, as well as heal aches in joints and skin problems.
Dai Wenjuan, a TCM scholar atShanxiTCMUniversity, explained that earthworms are still widely used. “They can be applied both externally and internally,” she said. “Eating earthworms can treat asthma, swollen joints and rheumatic arthritis. Externally, it will stop allergic skin reactions.”
Yu Fenghai started his first earth dragon farm, Guangxi Bohai Earthworm Cooperative Society, five years ago in a small village inSouthern China’s Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region. “We churn out 500 kilos of earthworms every day,” he said, proudly. “Most of them are sold to TCM pharmacies and factories.”
At a pharmacy, one kilo of dried worms sells for about 90 RMB.
Guangxi is not just a hotspot for earthworm farming, but also for earthworm eating. Down there, they’re found in liquor, in pancakes, stir fried with veggies, everywhere.
Farmer Yu’s favorite earthworm recipe is Earth Dragon Soup. To make it, fry200gof earthworms with50gof smashed ginger in a pan with oil. Add one spoon of rice wine and 600ml of cold water and let it boil for half an hour. Add salt to taste.
“Earth Dragon Soup can improve circulation and calm down asthma,” said Yu. “And what’s more, it tastes nice—even better than pork soup!”
Pork soup does taste nice, and it’s a frequently-used mask for the salty taste of sea horse, which is one of the most popular, and most mysterious, TCM ingredients of all—one that even rivals ginseng.
Much like ginseng, sea horses are often used as an aphrodisiac, and to reinforce the kidneys’ yang. As the Guangxi saying goes:
“Eating sea horses
makes an 80-year-old
“Cháng chī hǎimǎ,
bāshí gōnggōng lǎo lái shǎo.”
One legendary fan of the strange equine fish was Emperor Tangminghuang, one of the most popular emperors of China. He ruled from 712 to 756, and drank sea horse-infused liquor in his later years. This was hundreds of years ago, but the fish remains a bestselling tonic. Professor Lu Yannian, of the Chinese Old Age Research Group, suggests middle-aged couples use it regularly to enhance their private lives.
One contemporary enhancer is Neil Zhong, who buys his sea horses in Hong Kong to consume in theUK. He soaks them in 500ml of top-shelf whiskey, and drinks a small cup every night after dinner. While his passport reveals he’s 50 years old, he looks and acts much younger.
“Exercise and sea horse wine are my secrets,” he laughs.
Unwilling to waste even a bit, Zhong chews up the sea horse after emptying a bottle. It’s salty, and has the consistency of squid, but the fish also costs up to 5,000 RMB a kilo.
Others will cook it into a soup with pork and dates, or stew it with pig’s kidneys. You can also take it as a powder or in capsule form.
And yet, be forewarned that sea horses are a slow cure. Dr. Tang Shulan, who does recommend them as a remedy, says, “This isn’t Viagra. It’s a tonic. You have to take it regularly, and don’t expect to see effects in a short time.”
Dr. Bai Xiaofeng bought four, ate them, and saw no effect at all. “Rich people can afford more,” he said, “but I can’t.”
Sea horses are not only expensive, they’re also at risk: it’s reported that 20 million a year are sold for TCM purposes alone. They’re protected in China and only legal when farmed—not when caught in the wild. So before you go on a sea horse binge, stop and think about it.
Maybe you should try ants instead.
Special thanks to the Beijing University of Chinese Medicine Museum.
- A: How can I improve my Chinese?
- B: Eat more tongue!