On a trip to Laos, recently, my parents found the perfect birthday present for Michelle: matching bottles of snake and scorpion booze. Recognizing the fact that my mom doesn’t drink, this strange gift oozes with awesomeness.
“Don’t drink it all at once,” my dad said. Unlike my mom, he’s a fantastic tippler.
The Ayi now claims she’s too frightened to clean the bathroom, but she’d been too frightened to clean it for years. And what’s more Chinese than liquor infused with weird crap? (Remember my experiences with snake penis booze?)
There’s another reason I’m loathe to entirely believe her. The liquid levels of the scorpion bottle appear to be falling. Laolao liquor used to touch the top of the reeds. Then the top of the pincher. Now it’s barely over the scorpion’s antennae. I’m convinced Ayi is taking sips.
Laolao — the Laotian white lightning — is notorious for viagra-like effects. So I worry about her drinking it on the job. Seems dangerous if you ask me.
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:
“Eating sea horses keeps that 80-year-old granddaddy young.”
“Chang chi haima, bashi gonggong lao lai shao.”
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.
Just like the baijiu-soaked deer penis, earthworms are a legendarily royal remedy here in China. They’re not even called worms, but something far more royal: Earth Dragons (地龙).
It all started with Emperor Taizu of the Song Dynasty, who ruled China from 960 to 976. Apparently, he had a wretched case of shingles. All of the royal physicians were baffled and no one could find a cure.
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.
It turns out that, compared to $3000 snake penises, ants are a real bargain at just $30 a kilo.
But who in their right minds would eat ants? Maybe the happiest emperor in the history of China, Emperor Qianlong? He died just before the 19th century began, at the pretty insane age of 89, and blamed his good looks and eternal youthfulness entirely on his diet of ants.
This was the best photo I could get of ants… Someone bought these from the local pharmacy.
Every time I pass by one of those classic Chinese pharmacies, I can’t help but stop. You’ve seen them — the deer antlers and sea cucumbers sold in gift boxes; the dusty owls perched above the counter; the ants, sea horses, and snakes in cabinets. You can’t help but wonder… at least, I can’t… why on earth would someone eat these things?
A few months ago, I decided to find out. I bought some traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) books. I drank snake booze. I spent hours at Beijing’s TCM university museum. And I spent weeks asking questions of my TCM-expert friend, Chloe Chen.
Today, in the first of the series: why in the heck you might want to start eating snake…
Snake wine for sale in a Qingdao, Shandong Province pharmacy.
When she heard about my plan to get cupped, my old battleaxe of a language tutor was furious. “How can you make games of this? This is not a game! It’s serious!” And serious, it is. But it’s also pretty damn cool. Cupping draws bad blood to the surface, stimulating blood flow and qi. In the summer, you see huge black welts on men’s bare backs and women’s upper necks throughout China. Apparently, they last for days.
Well, I felt like I needed a good qi fix, so headed to the local “all things TCM” clinic, where a dizzying menu of medical choices left plenty of new TCM ground to be covered in the months ahead. But first… the cups!