Thursday, August 12, 2010

Hangzhou and TCM, Traditional Chinese Medicine

What is the secret behind Chinese stamina?! How on earth do they drink/work/play hard, perform to top-notch standards, and do it all on nearly NO sleep at all? How?! We took a euphoric culinary adventure and tutorial (some parts were like FOOD HEAVEN, some disturbing...) through the concepts, ingredients and methods of Traditional Chinese Medicine, TCM, aka alternative (holistic, etc.) medicine and supplements. After touring the local hospital that offered both Western treatments as well as TCM, we explored an exclusive area of Hangzhou dense in wellness shops and dined at one of the premier Traditional Chinese Medicine restaurants. (Yet, another overdue China post that got lost in the transfer.)

Traditional Chinese Medicine recipes involve many plant and animal products (which pose a problem for vegetarians/vegans), including even some endangered species. Even though synthetic equivalents of the active chemical in most species have been invented, most old-school Chinese still insist on the real deal. With such a demand, even now, the result is big money being made in the black market. Like any chemical, these ingredients must be properly treated and processed and there remains some risk of poisoning, contamination and allergic reactions.
The foundation of TCM stem way back to the books, teachings and doctors from an early era, before the Dynasties, before the 5th Century BC! Since TCM was organized by the government in 1950 under the rule of Chairman Mao Zedong (who established The People's Republic of China, what we call China today), strict laws (requiring testing/monitoring) have made TCM more standardized and much safer.
A typical TCM pharmacy resembles a sort of fossil-museum-restaurant, as almost all TCM "prescriptions" are recipes that depend on a TCM-specific trained chef to properly prep and cook the ingredients. Even at the local hospital in Hangzhou (pic below), where Western medicine and TCM are both practiced, the pharmacy still requires a kitchen. 

Here (hospital in Hangzhou) the TCM Pharmacy fills prescriptions (hundreds per day) by cooking the medicine and then packaging them in the form of meals in sealed bags. Patients bring home cooked medicine doses/meals still hot.
Even with government-run hospitals supplying TCM products and services, people still seek out privately operated TCM stores throughout China and in Chinese communities all around the world.
Some important (and very hard-core!) products that TCM pharmacies carry (just sticking to the facts, k?) are: species of ginseng, the medicinal mushroom Língzhī, dried seahorse, rhinoceros horn, bear bile, bear gall bladders, turtle plastron (the flat belly part of the turtle), shark fin (for soup), dried snake, dried gecko, live frog parts, black centipedes, sea cucumber, elephant skin and eyeballs, leopard fat, porcupine stomach, wild boar teeth, monkey brains, dog penises, owls, every part of the deer, every part of the deer (most prized are the antlers, penis, testicles), every part of the tiger (most prized are the whiskers, eyes, nose, tail), every part of the bear (most prized are the gall bladder, liver, bile and paws), and so much more. Sorry if I made you nauseous with the list. I know, I know, it just sounds so....?!?!
Anyway, later on.... We were then taken to one of the original exclusive wellness restaurants specializing in TCM-prepared delicacies. Our private dining room had a noticeably interesting layout that followed traditional feng shui rules. People come to this restaurant from all over the world to feast on these centuries-old medicinal recipes with huge faith and belief that these meals, if prepared properly, will cure. Many come wishing for miracles.
Our host summoned us to the table. A few cold dishes of various coldcuts and starter appetizers (each loaded with "medicine") were already out on the lazy susan. The suspense was killing me and I was dying to taste and feel what the Chinese consider the epitome of health and wellness. Again, another blissful evening of sequential translation begins. Some of the details and descriptions got lost in the translation, but I'll try to identify as much as I can. (Even though our host toned down the thrill aspect in our meal, we were still presented with a few "extra special" dishes...!)
Black Fungus (below). Little red gogiberries, aka wolfberries, and cilantro brighten up the blacker-than-black dish of black fungus. Cold, crunchy and delicious.Pumpkin with Gojiberries. I was told it was pumpkin season. The server gave each person one serving of pumpkin roasted in a medicine broth.Omg, this was the most incredible blend of flavors and textures. DELICIOUS.Baby Shrimp with Saffron. Light and an explosion of flavors. WOW.Deer Testicle Soup. Of course it sounds ick, but the Chinese really eat everything. Getting past the name, it was surprisingly delicious, like a very light beef stew. The table chuckled as I took a bite out of hubby's bowl (fyi, he's a pescatarian!) and I was taught that this "very special" concoction is an afrodisiac meant to be consumed only by men. Well then!This long wormy-looking piece in the soup is not a worm (!!!) but a crunchy plant TCM. It tasted like a flavorless... um... a flavorless twig! Yes, like a twig or branch.Cucumber. I think the cucumber was pickled and the yellow berry-looking things are TCM and taste sweet like berries.Braised Pork and Steamed Buns. The goldleaf was a nice royal touch. Flavors incredible and the buns were sweet, smooth and chewy.Ginseng. This was incredibly unusual and very good. It was soaked in a warm sugary syrup (to relieve the bitter taste). This huge plate was set on top of a flame to keep the syrup from hardening. There was a dipping bowl filled with a mystery clear liquid. Hmmm.Steamed Fish with Ginseng and Gojiberry. Delicate, sweet, salty, mild, just FABULOUS! This was my favorite. So tasty!Pretty plating. So many garnishes...Sea Cucumber. We had so much sea cucumber during throughout the trip. This was my favorite preparation, whole garlic cloves and onion in a mild sweet soy sauce with mystery powders. These sea cucumbers seemed less slimy and had smooth bodies (versus spiky bodies).
Mushrooms! Thick empire mushrooms in caramel and medicine tasted like fresh abalone...amazing textures and flavors.
Spare Ribs. Tender and perfectly chewy meat marinaded in a magical medicine rub. I didn't dare ask what was in the rub (!?!?!).
Cabbage. Looks like it was wok-seared in bacon bits.
Beef Curry. Probably the BEST curry I've ever had in my life. The meat texture was interesting and the flavors were crazy good. Again, there were some very "new" textures...
Celery. This was probably the most simple dish with vibrant colors. Very crunchy and good.
Frog Placenta soup. This was one of the weird dishes. I've had frog legs at Euro restaurants, but never placenta. This is the female afrodisiac soup that was served chilled. The cloudy white specks had no texture. It was something I've never had before as far as flavors, textures, chewy dark things (dates, maybe?!). Overall, it was delicious, really! One bright red gogi berry popped out of the bowl. Presentation is everything.
Duck. This was sort of a duck stew in medicine broth and fresh bamboo shoots. Very good also. (The duckhead freaked out hubby.)
The feast continues... Our translator continued to teach us and explained why certain dishes were beneficial to specific parts of our body that related to our overall health. When I learned about how expensive the dishes were, I began appreciating and savoring each bite.
Dumplings. Huge, plump, meaty, DELICIOUS dumplings... The best in the world!
Herbal Crepes. AMAZING flavors and textures. I could eat this all day long. SO GOOD.
Fruit. Interestingly, the fruit seemed to be fading in color.
Nearing the end, I was told that our host went easy on the menu due to the number of us Westerners. By the end of the night, I could feel superpowers taking over my body. Seriously, no kidding! FYI: For about two months after this TCM-infested meal, I was operating at an awesome SUPER level on barely 3-5 hours of sleep a night. I am a believer! This was the most fantastic meal EVER!


  1. This is an awesome post Lisa! Thanks.

  2. Wow, what is the name of this restaurant? Planning on visiting Hangzhao next May.

  3. I am waiting for my China connection to get me the real name of the restaurant!

  4. Thank you!, atiently waiting... My trip is not until next May :).

  5. You know, have been researching TCM for some time, and today I said to myself, "I am not too confident to make the healing food recipes myself, I wish someone would create a restaurant that served TCM dishes." And I found this blog. Wouldn't you know it, I asked the question and in 5 seconds I got my answer. I wonder if there is one in the USA. Anyway I don't mind traveling to China.

  6. Do you know the name of the TCM Restaurant?

  7. Hi,

    I'm a student of MTC in Geneva in Switzerland and I love your post !
    Maybe, I will to go Hangzhou for my studying and I would like to know the name of this restaurant !


  8. Hi,

    I would like to know the name of this restaurant please because I^m a student in TCM in Geneva and I would like to create the same restaurant !