Rediscovering the Chinese Herbs That I Hated As a Kid

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Photo: Mariano Sayno / husayno.com/Getty Images

Growing up, my house smelled like three things: mothballs, Tiger Balm, and Chinese medicine. It wasn’t exactly the stuff of ambient candles — I don’t expect that Byredo is going to create a line called Taiwanese-American Living Room anytime soon. But to me, stinky Chinese herbs smell like home.

My parents used to receive their Chinese medicine in large bundles of folded white paper. Sometimes these were procured from our yearly summer trips to Taiwan; more rarely, they came from specific, trusted apothecaries in Chinatown, tucked far away from the fake-bag hawkers. As a child, I found these apothecaries mysterious and terrifying. Always darkly lit, they had mysterious wooden drawers stacked from floor to ceiling and smelled like potpourri that had gone bad. I remember watching The Little Mermaid for the first time, visiting an apothecary with my parents, and seeing several of Ariel’s friends petrified and dried out in jars.

Back in those days, the trick with Chinese medicine was that you needed to boil everything in the white bundles to create a tonic. The nauseating scent of that tonic is eau de my childhood — sulfurous, peaty, and dirty. The finished tonic was opaque, and sat in our fridge, pitch black, in clear Tupperware quarts. The medicine was brewed for my dad’s eye health, since he had a glasses prescription in the high double digits. But I only ever saw him drink it occasionally, and each time he chugged it fast.

Nowadays, Eastern medicine and Chinese herbs are becoming popular, especially as wellness becomes a buzzword. Some face-lifts now use acupuncture. Amanda Chantal Bacon’s popular Sex and Beauty dusts are made of Chinese herbs. Some of my more wellness-minded friends have even Instagrammed their apothecary “haul,” proudly showing off the mysterious flora and fauna they bought in Chinatown.

Dr. Frank Lipman, a holistic doctor with a medical degree who is perhaps most famous for his association with Gwyneth Paltrow, occasionally uses Chinese herbs in his practice. He explains that he was drawn to Chinese medicine for its ability to treat nuance. “Chinese medicine has a much more helpful way of seeing the subtle aspects of health and disease. Western medicine is great for crisis care, but there is nothing subtle about it. There is very little that’s helpful in terms of mending, healing, strengthening yourself, for all of the ‘soft’ things that happen in people’s real lives: insomnia, irritable bowel syndrome, migraines, or feeling tired.” In the spirit of being game, I paid a visit to Chinatown’s largest apothecary, Kamwo, along with the Cut’s fashion editor Diana Tsui.

Kamwo isn’t your great-grandfather’s Chinese apothecary. There are the same mysterious cabinets I remember from childhood, but the lighting is much better, and everywhere people in lab coats are purposefully yanking herbs out of them. The store has a well-designed website that offers a gift guide for the holidays and a drop-down menu of 38 potential treatable maladies, including acne, shingles, and herpes. Everyone speaks fluent English, and you can sign up for a fancy E-Script service that texts you when your prescription has been filled. They also take insurance (though, sadly, not New York Magazine’s insurance).

You begin your Kamwo appointment by meeting with an herbalist. After about 30 full minutes of face-to-face discussion, you fill out the longest questionnaire I’ve encountered on an iPad since the Myers-Briggs test. It inquires about the frequency of your bowel movements, their color (a shade differentiation I’ve never before had to make), your family’s health history, the year of your first menses, and the age of your mother’s first menses. The grandfatherly herbalist, Dr. Shi, has a medical degree from China and was the chief acupuncturist at a Harlem hospital in the detox program. He’s technically retired, but he commutes from the tri-state area to visit patients at Kamwo, because he “like[s] it! And it’s good to keep active.”

Dr. Shi doesn’t take my blood pressure, weigh me, measure my height, or take any of my vitals. Instead he reads extensively through my questionnaire and really studies me. He has me stick out my tongue to look at the color and texture (it’s diagnosed as “mostly red” with a light coating), and notes that my face looks slightly puffy, with some small breakouts along the jawline. He asks how many hours I sleep a night, whether I’m a morning or night person, if I spring out of bed ready to start the day, how often I exercise, when I feel bloated, and if I eat a lot of carbs.

Then he asks how he can help. I’m very fortunate not to have any major health problems, but I’d like better skin (I am a beauty editor, after all), fewer sugar cravings, and more energy during the day so I don’t get the 4 p.m. sleepies.

“Do you crave cold food?” he asks. “What about spicy or hot food? Do you drink cold water?”

I mention that I drink cold water in summer, but try not to drink too much. Since I was little, my mom has cautioned me against it, saying vaguely it wasn’t “good for my insides” and would give me cramps. You’ll find that the aversion to ice-cold water is a cultural thing — the Chinese drink hot (or at the very least, room-temperature water) no matter the season. The reasoning goes something like this: Generally, most people’s bodies run either cold or hot. The foods you eat contribute to what temperature you skew, and you want to maintain your health by keeping your temperature in balance.

Just as French nouns are classified as feminine or masculine, according to Chinese medicine, foods are classified as hot, cold, or neutral. Spicy foods are hot. Shellfish is a hot food. Mango is a hot food. Cucumbers are cold. White meat is cold. Red meat is hot. Eggplants are hot. Confusingly, ice cream is a hot food, because even though it’s cold in temperature, it’s thought that your body needs to generate more heat to combat the cold. Cold water is also hot.

According to this line of thinking, a body that runs hot is prone not just to being overheated, but also frequent acne, headaches, and facial redness. Bodies that are cold tend to have poor circulation, bloating after eating, and low energy. Note that Tom Brady and Gisele Bündchen’s infamous nightshade vegetable and inflammation-fighting diet is made up of mostly “cold” and neutral foods.

Dr. Lipman, the holistic doctor who works with Gwyneth Paltrow, thinks this concept is useful for talking about what’s going on inside the body. “Once you realize that it’s just another way of describing symptoms, it makes perfect sense. I don’t see it as either/or.”

Ultimately, the herbalist determines that Diana and I both run hot. I leave Kamwo with a specialized mix of nine different herbs designed to make my body more balanced. The labeling lists out the herbs and their names in pin-yin (Chinese written out in English), but despite deep Googling, I can’t seem to find that much information about them. “There’s estrogen and other things in it,” he says.

Unlike the herbs of my youth, Chinese medicine technology has evolved so that I no longer have to boil stinky plants. Instead, all the herbs have been condensed into dissolvable granules that look like sand. I’m instructed to mix two spoonfuls (Kamwo provides a spoon) into water (hot, of course).

Despite our similar diagnoses, there’s no cross-over whatsoever between my prescription and Diana’s. When I mix up my potion, the result is a light-brown liquid, like dirty creek water after a rainstorm. Diana’s, on the other hand, has the consistency of dark-brown sludge. Mine tastes a bit like tree bark, with a slight Advil-sugar-coating aftertaste, while Diana’s is completely unpalatable — it reminds me of a dirt-flavored Harry Potter jelly bean I once ate on a dare. Even with multiple tries, Diana can’t finish it, and she demands a candy chaser afterward. Thus ends her experiment with Chinese herbs.

As for me, I drink my potion faithfully morning and night for three weeks and find it to be a calming ritual. Although I usually end my night with a few gummy bears, the tonic proves to be a better nightcap and doesn’t leave me hungry afterward. The slight breakouts along my jawline are gone, my skin seems clearer, and I feel more sated and fulfilled after eating. Still, it’s not a miracle cure — I still have some trouble sleeping, but that may be more because of a neighbor’s screaming baby.

Overall, though, I feel better. Maybe the effects are mental? “Some people might say Chinese medicine is a placebo,” Dr. Shi says to me. “And that’s fine with me. I understand it, even if you don’t.”

Rediscovering the Chinese Herbs That I Hated As a Kid