Deciphering Chinatown's bewildering herbal shops requires a guide and a prescription; drinking medicinal tea requires an iron stomach.
In Chinatown, herbal shops are almost as easy to find as dim-sum spots. But for non–Chinese speakers who lack a thorough knowledge of Eastern medicine, knowing how to navigate these apothecaries is another story.
“In Chinese medicine, there is no protocol,” says Jin-Hong Ngan, an acupuncturist/herbalist at Ton Shen Health Chicago Acupuncture (2131 S Archer Ave, 312-842-2775). “It’s always different per person and per illness. [Unless you’re a professional], you don’t know the root of your health problems, so self-diagnosing can be dangerous.”
To that end, she recommends visiting an herbalist who will write you a prescription before you hit up one of the shops. Lucky for me, Ngan guides me through the stores herself.
We start off at Sweet House (2143 S China Pl, 312-225-5389), which Ngan describes as a “high-end” herbal shop with a greater focus on health maintenance than medicine. From the looks of the place—bulk bins brimming with dried herbs and row upon row of pill bottles—it doesn’t appear fancy, but prices like $700 for abalone and $1,995 for mushrooms indicate otherwise. If it weren’t for the English labels, I’d hardly recognize anything—the elephant ear–like reishi mushrooms; the hairy, tentacled ginseng; the dried gelatinous fish gut (good for the skin).
“A shop owner can tell you what something is good for, but they can’t treat you unless there’s a licensed practitioner on staff,” she says. “It’s not recommended to [choose the herbs on your own] unless they’re food-based, like sea urchin. If you get anything you have to [boil and] make into a formula [without knowing what you’re doing], it can be toxic.”
Walking around to the other side of the store, I’m overwhelmed by a pungent fish smell. I look up and see a wall of abalone, sea cucumber and shark fin. Joining me, Ngan holds up a rather phallic dried sea cucumber. “It’s like a natural Viagra,” she says, then directs me to the sliced deer antler, followed by a package of seal penis and kidney (which looks more like shriveled jerky and is stowed behind the counter). “That, too.”
Next, we cross the street and duck into Nam Bac Hang (243 W Cermak Rd, 312-842-1229), which Ngan describes as a low-end shop. “What makes us different is this wall,” owner Long Huynh says, pointing to the traditional storage method—Chinese character–inscribed wooden shelves—for the raw herbs. The place is also crammed with herbs in pill form. Only the boxes of beauty products—mostly herbal masks and skin-whitening products—are in English.
A few days later, I return to Chinatown to see if an herbal remedy could reduce my stress level. I meet Ngan at her office, where she takes my pulse, examines my tongue and asks health- and diet-related questions. She says my sweet cravings are abnormal, my cold-water-drinking habit has detrimental effects on my circulation and my qi (energy) is weak. She gives me a prescription written in Chinese.
Back at Sweet House, I hand the scrap of paper to the shop owner. After ten minutes of scrambling around the room and weighing small portions of about 15 herbs, she returns with a basketball-size plastic bag stuffed with one serving of herbs that costs $6. The only one I recognize is rosebud, and neither she nor Ngan know any of the herbs’ English names.
If you can wait 90 minutes, Sweet House will boil the herbs for you, but I opt to take them home. Later that night as I dump all the herbs into a pot of water, I catch a whiff that smells like fresh potpourri. But by the time the five cups have boiled down to one that’s ready for drinking, my house reeks, and the liquid has turned into a sludgy brown stew.
My stomach turns at the tea’s look and smell, but, holding my nose, I take a sip…then let out a loud groan. It tastes something like tea that’s been steeped ten hours too long mixed with a spoonful of bitter, earthy, liquid echinacea. Ngan had warned it would taste bad, but bad doesn’t begin to describe it. After a few weak attempts at sipping it, I set down the drink for good. If this is the path to stress-free living, I think I’ll learn to live with my neuroses.