Eating snake seems so sleazy, and eating ants is just gross. So much nicer than either of these? A young, innocent deer. That’s one of the most common sights in a Chinese pharmacy, and when you see one stuffed, it represents longevity, happiness, luck and benevolence. And every single part of that benevolent deer is valuable.
The antlers are sold in elaborate gift boxes, almost like moon cakes. They’re not eaten whole, but ground up and mixed with warm water, until the combo becomes a thick glue, called Deer Antler Glue (鹿角胶, $10 for 250g). Apparently it’ll tone your kidney, remove meridianal obstructions, help produce breast milk, and—like so many of these remedies—boost the libido. It balances the pairing of yin and yang, and even helps women with menstrual troubles.
Only a few places in China can make Deer Antler Glue, and one of those is the ancient Beijing pharmacy, Tongrentang. The shop opened for Beijing business eight years after the start of the Qing Dynasty, in 1669, and has been operating at the same location since 1702.
Tongrentang is a TCM institution, and it’s aisles are staffed by very professional looking young ladies dressed in medical suits. Its cabinets, as well, are filled with a world of wonders: sea cucumbers, sea horses, and snakes. One thing I couldn’t find there, though, was deer embryo.
The embryo is used as an ancient remedy for women having trouble getting pregnant. According to Chen Shiduo’s 1691 book “The New Materia Medica” (本草新编), eating a deer’s embryo 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 to eat. It took failed attempt after failed attempt, and the use of all his personal connections, to finally get his hands on one.
“I asked my daughter to eat three spoonfuls of the ground-up powder a day,” he offered up. “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 Zhaofeng Deer Farm didn’t want her name printed — she wouldn’t even tell it to us — but she enthusiastically agreed with Dr. Bai. “Deer embryo is especially good for women,” she said. “Men can take it as well, as a tonic.”
But the best tonic for men, she said, actually comes from a male deer. The, ahem, deer loin. Okay, I mean penis.
Penises are used a lot in Chinese med. The basic concept is that you can improve any part of your body by eating that same part from an animal. “You are what you eat,” or in Chinese, “eat something, nourish something.” (吃什么补什么。 Chi shenme, bu shenme.)
Today, deer willies are priced for the gentry (a 100g knob costs $60), and are recommended mostly for the older set. “Young men should leave it to their elders,” said Xie Chongyuan, a professor at Guangxi TCM University. “They should focus on a healthy lifestyle, not on drinking tonics.”
But if you do want to prepare this healthy tonic, cut the penis into thin slices, and soak them in a liter of strong alcohol (Chinese baijiu works well) for about two weeks. Twenty milliliters of the pecker-liquor a day should be enough to help the adrenals, boost testosterone, and improve… function.
In ancient times, this was a legendarily popular tonic for the emperors. But then again, they had so many wives, and all those concubines. Aish. They probably needed a helping hand.