Why Chinese Drugstores Sell Deer Embryo and Penis

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.

Why Chinese Pharmacies Still Sell Ants

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.

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Why Chinese People Eat Snake as Medicine

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.

Wild stories, photos and recipes, after the jump! Continue reading “Why Chinese People Eat Snake as Medicine”

Tokyo’s Creepy Parasite Museum

You might think it a bad idea to eat all these weird and raw meats — like diaphram. I did, too. So I trolled the streets of Tokyo until I found the world’s only Parasite Museum. Sadly, everything was written in Japanese, and I couldn’t find a single employee to translate. Not one. Just an unlocked door, and room after room of parasites, and no people. (Even the gift-shop was empty… parasite key-chains (real parasites!) stood waiting to be sold, but I left them there.)

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Eating Diaphram in Tokyo

Another of Tokyo’s “best meal” contenders was Toraji Param, a Korean hormone restaurant on the 500-something-th floor of some fancy Tokyo building. As the elevator flew up the 5000 flights, my ears popped. At our table, floor-to-ceiling windows showed off all of Tokyo. It was jaw-dropping, to put it mildly.

And then the food came. And my jaw dropped again.

Before this meal, I’d never heard of “hormone restaurants,” but it’s a new Tokyo fad where every part of the animal is offered on the menu. You want to try delicate, thinly-sliced, cow’s diaphram? We got it! And it was TDF. So amazingly tasty.

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Whoring in Chiang Mai

Chiang Mai's an interesting town: a lot like Bangkok, but on a much smaller scale.  Hundreds of coffee shops.  Great boutiques.  And old white men with young Thai girls.  Absolutely everywhere.  Old hippies with Thai women in their 40s, and adorable little hapa kids.  Bald and bearded bikers with chubby teenagers.  Backpackers with stunning beauties.  It's not as offensive as it was in Hua Hin, but it's twice as pervasive.

At the UN Irish pub, I joined a group of four older farang, each of whom turned out to have come to Chiang Mai for the women. 

Derek, a 76-year-old cockney, works as a tree surgeon's assistant back home.  He's been in Chiang Mai on and off for forty years, but for three years he's lived here more than not.  "I went into a bar," he says, "And this bird sits down next to me and asks me to buy her a drink.  Now she wasn't what's normally my type.  I like 'em small, you see, and this one's big.  She's got some weight on her.  But I said, why not — thinking to myself it's just one night.  And we had some fun.  Well, that was three years ago, and we're still together.  Thirty six years old, she is."  She's less than half his age.
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Forensic Science Museum, Bangkok

Deep in the bowels of the King’s Hospital, if you look hard enough, you’ll eventually find the stomach-churning absolutely wonderful Forensic Science Museum. I’ve a weak stomach, but the permanent exhibit here is unmissable. (Photos aren’t allowed, so I apologize for this scarce and clumsy record. You’ll clearly have to go, yourself.) It’s a cluttered mix of photos, bones, corpses, bits of corpses, larger bits of corpses, implements of murder, victim clothing, and a really horrifying stretch of “pickled punks.” Little is labeled, less is explained.

This arm, for example, is simply labeled “tattoo.”

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