Walking through the crowded streets of Hong Kong, you can’t help but notice the herbal medicine shops when you pass by. Why? Because they smell. A really strong, herbal smell wafting into the streets mixed with intense heat, cooking pork, a slightly damp lush green smell from the humidity and of course millions of very hot bodies on a very small island. It’s kind of intense.
But while you can’t miss the dried herb shops, what you might walk past are the regular medicinal tea shops hidden between stores and restaurants. Where locals pop in for a quick bowl of tea to rebalance their constitution before continuing their day.
It’s these shops that intrigue me, probably because they’re so very local, and the signs are usually all in Cantonese. I went out exploring to learn more.
Before moving to Hong Kong, I knew a bit about Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) and knew I’d find a lot of herbal shops – but I hadn’t realized just how integrated TCM is into daily life. TCM, like many holistic approaches to wellness, is all about bringing your body back into balance. Symptoms are classified as hot or cold, damp or dry etc, and looking at the entire person, a TCM doctor will provide herbs, food and lifestyle suggestions that bring you back into balance. But what I’ve found so fascinating is that this approach to qualities (hot/cold, damp/dry) as well as elements (earth, metal, fire etc) and tastes (sweet, salty, sour, bitter etc.) is just part of daily life here. I’ve met Hong Kongers who told me they couldn’t eat damp foods this time of year, or that it’s really unhealthy to have iced drinks (well, most people seem to follow that rule here!), or that you need to add certain spices to certain foods to balance their coldness while cooking.
So I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised when I started spotting these little medicinal tea shops dotted throughout the city. Depending on the shop they’ll have 2 or 3 vats of tea on a heater, and you can either drink a bowl immediately in the shop, or they’ll put it in a bottle to takeaway. Some shops like this one also sell Thousand Year Eggs (which aren’t really old – they’re just hardboiled in tea, and the shell is cracked to make a great pattern!), or Siu Mai (little pork filled dumplings) for a snack along with your tea.
I visited this small medicinal tea shop near Bowrington Road Market, and the vendor spoke enough English that I decided I’d sample some of the tea myself. She had 2 teas available – one heating and one cooling. I picked the heating tea, and she poured me a bowl. Now I suddenly realized my mistake. By choosing to get a bowl to drink there, I couldn’t just sip the tea and leave it – I really had to drink the entire bowl! It tasted … well, about like medicinal herbal tea tastes. (I’ve made and drank many quite suspect tasting teas in the past decade, so the taste wasn’t a problem.) My main concern was that I didn’t know what was in it. But I drank it up, and happily went on my way – only to feel really buzzy about 30 minutes later (like a caffeine buzz — I’m guessing there was some ginseng in the mix?)
I found the whole experience fascinating, and after speaking with my Cantonese teacher learned there are usually a few different mixes available. Not just heating and cooling, but also one for colds/flus. Wanting to try more medicinal teas, but feeling a bit skittish not knowing the ingredients, I spotted this upscale medicinal tea and soup shop in one of the MTR (subway) stations.
This is an awesome medicinal tea option as a non-Cantonese speaker because everything is labelled in English as well! Plus they’ve got medicinal soups, and takeaway medicinal desserts (think: Lots of puddings and jellys) Here’s the wall of their herbal tea options:
I must’ve spent 30 minutes looking at all the different options before choosing a few to take home with me (and sample freely without feeling like I had to consume the entire bottle!)
These teas are delicious. But unfortunately they’re loaded with sugar. I tried four different kinds. A coconut and while fungus one which was tropical and so tasty. A pear tea that the saleswoman suggested I heat before drinking. A black sesame one which was a bit … gritty. And this Walnut tea to support your kidneys. (Each of these teas had specific medicinal effects listed on the bottle, but unfortunately I only have pictures of this one!)
Buckwheat & Walnut Drink, to “strengthen the brain and replenish the kidneys”. So here’s what’s fascinating – how many people in the Western world would say “Oh, yes, my kidneys need strengthening, let me get that one.” — I’d say most people don’t think about their organs until they have a serious problem with one. Another fascinating aspect of this label is that it’s “suitable for all types of constitution” – whereas some of the bottles say they’re more for dry people or hot people etc. So clearly the average Hong Konger has a general idea of what’s going on with their body – are they hot or cold, are they congested or dry, which organs need support – not only from visits to TCM doctors, but probably from their mothers and grandmothers telling them as well!
Now here’s the downside of these medicinal herbal drinks:
Sugar. Lots of it. And Evaporated Milk (Hong Kong loves evaporated milk! I guess it’s a holdover from British rule, but given that the majority of Asians can’t typically digest dairy products, I’m surprised they don’t use soy milk or another alternative in their famous dong lai cha – iced milk tea).
So my medicinal tea quest continues. The tea in the shops labeled out by the bowlful wasn’t sugary, but the ingredients were a mystery. The lovely, clean, medicinal drink shop in the MTR station is in English and many are delicious – but loaded with sugar. So where next? I think I need to recruit a Cantonese speaker to come translate…