Every time I pass by one of those classic Chinese pharmacies, I can’t help but stop and wonder… And a few months ago, I decided to find out. This is the final part in my “Strange TCM” series, following “eating snake for healthier skin,” “eating ants to keep that lustrous hair,” “deer penis will keep you strong” and “how to eat fried worms (and why it’s so popular in China)“…
I ended part four of the series with Farmer Yu’s favorite recipe for earthworm soup — a disgusting thought, but he claimed it tastes better than pork soup. Pork soup, which is often served with sea horses inside. It apparently masks the salty taste.
Now I’ve eaten sea horse, and it was pretty nasty. Little sharp bits get caught in the teeth, the gums, and there’s a nauseating salt taste to it. Plus, they just look weird. Like little bone beasts.
Most of China disagrees with me, though. Here, they’re as popular as ginseng. And just like ginseng, they’re used to enhance a man’s… well, virility. They also reinforce the kidneys’ yang, I’m told.
As the raunchy old Guangxi saying goes:
One legendary fan of them (they’re fishes, you know!) 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, of course, but the fish remains a bestselling tonic.
Professor Lu Yannian, who works at a Chinese O.A.P. research facility, recommends it for middle-aged couples looking to spice up their sex life.
Neil Zhong, an overseas Chinese, buys his sea horses in Hong Kong and then eats them in the UK. He looks 30. He is 50.
“Exercise and sea horse wine are my secrets,” he laughs.
Every night he drinks a small glass of top-shelf whiskey, with the sea horses in the bottle. After the last pour, he chews up the fish. It’s salty, and has the consistency of squid, but these fish will costs up to US$750 a kilo.
Others will cook it into a soup with pork and dates–like Woo and I tried–or stew it with pig’s kidneys. It might be best, though, just to take it ground into a powder, then served in capsule form.
Also, I hear it’s not a fast cure. Dr. Tang Shulan 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 stay up all night doing coke and sea horses, stop and think about it.
Maybe you should try ants instead.
Much of this blog post is directly lifted from an article I wrote a few months ago, with research by me and my friend Chloe Chen, and published in my magazine, “The World of Chinese.” You should buy the magazine–subscribe to it, in fact! It’s quite awesome.