• Peter Alton

Hong Kong: A Fine Balance

A commonly heard Cantonese greeting between friends or acquaintances is "Sik faan mei a" which simply means, “Have you eaten yet?” It is not as you might expect an invitation to go out and eat but a popular greeting similar to saying, “How are you?” in Western society. It is believed that if you have eaten then your appetite is good and you are well but if you have missed a meal then perhaps your appetite is not so good and therefore you may be unwell. It is an acknowledged gesture throughout Hong Kong and Southern China and really shows just how important diet is and how much a part of everyday life food and health has become. For the Cantonese food and health are very much more than just nutrition or fuel for the body they are intrinsically linked offering a way of life that actually provides the foundation for a happy and healthy society.

As far back as the Eastern Han Dynasty around 206 BC, the relationship between food and health had been recognised with a balanced and varied diet acknowledged as by far the best way to keep body and mind in harmony in order to have a long, contented and healthy life. The idea of a typical balanced diet in Hong Kong may differ from the Western notion of a nutritionally balanced diet rich in vitamins and minerals but basically they both seek to balance the extremes of dietary excesses and deficiencies which may have a detrimental effect on the overall health and well being of the individual.

For the Chinese food has always been therapy and even in today’s modern society it is still frequently used to replace or enhance orthodox medication, to aid recovery or even prevent disease in the human body. There are many foods which have long been admired for their healing and restorative properties and their ability to bring balance back to the body. In the realm of Chinese food therapy which is thought to have begun over 2,000 years ago a balanced diet refers to the balance of yin and yang in the body, a balance that may be influenced or unsettled by incorrect diet. Yin and yang are essentially two opposing and complimentary forces in the universe which when balanced create total harmony and tranquillity. Certain foods fall within the realms of yin and certain fall within the realm of yang with a healthy diet only achievable by carefully balancing the two. Yang foods are believed to be warming and increase the body’s metabolic rate while yin foods are cooling helping to decrease the metabolic rate. Yang foods are usually items high in fat, sugar or carbohydrate as they give the body energy while yin foods often have a high water content to help flush the system of impurities or toxins.

Food is used as therapy to induce or reduce an action in the body. Yin foods are regarded as calming or cooling foods, which sedate the body while yang foods are warming foods that stimulate the body. Too much of either group can result in over stimulation or a slowly down of the body. Foods categorised as yin are banana, poultry, fish, eggs and potato while yang foods are things such as chilli peppers, onion, olive, spices and oils. The exact food groups may vary and often contradict but in general animal products tend to be yang foods while vegetable products tend to be yin. This is clouded slightly by the fact that plants from temperate climates growing below ground are regarded as yang while plants from warm climates growing above ground are predominately yin!

To confuse matters even further the body is similarly categorised as having yin and yang organs with yin organs generally storing materials such as blood, fluid or energy and yang organs responsible for the functions that keep the body alive. The heart, liver and kidneys are all yin organs, while the stomach, bladder and intestines are representative of yang organs. Most ailments according to Chinese medicine can be attributed to an excess or deficiency in the delicate balance of yin and yang. Careful selection of diet can improve and also prevent illness by readdressing the natural balance of the body.

It is also believed that the body has a natural energy or qi (pronounced chee), which circulates through the body in channels known as meridians. An imbalance or disruption of this energy flow can lead to illness and general lethargy in the individual. The homeostatic balance of the body can be reaffirmed by using Chinese herbal medicine or food therapy often supported by massage, acupuncture or martial arts such as Tai Chi Chuan. Food is a good source of qi and a correct and healthy diet can according to Chinese medicine practitioners restore the body’s metabolic balance.

It all gets very complicated but the basic premise that if you eat a balanced diet and enjoy everything in moderation then your chance of illness will be greatly reduced. I know my Grandparents would agree with this philosophy and it is one that perhaps we in the West should adopt. Fancy diets can cause more harm to the body and cause more health problems than they resolve. Vitamins and mineral supplements although important cannot replace the true dietary value of food and a single tablet cannot erase the harm that years of poor diet can cause. The Chinese as a nation actually consume more fruit, vegetables and grain products per head than America or the U.K. They also eat more calories in comparison to body weight but interestingly suffer dramatically less from heart, circulation and obesity disorders, so perhaps there is a lesson here for us all to learn.

Hong Kong is a busy modern society where the issue of health taken very seriously. The recent influx of Western dining fast food restaurants catering for people in a hurry has meant that more and more people are turning to Chinese medicine as a way to adjust the balance of a poor diet. Food, medicine and health play an important part in modern Hong Kong and even in today’s advanced technological age people still return to traditional Chinese medicinal cures or tried and trusted foods that redress the balance in their bodies helping them to maintain a healthy life.

Traditional Chinese Medicine is widely accepted today and is even taught in medical schools throughout Asia and as far a field as the United States. It is often referred to as alternative medicine and is very popular because it has been proven to be as effective as conventional medicine but without the side effects that are often seen with chemically composed treatments. Traditional Chinese medicine coexists side by side with Western medicine and despite much scepticism from some Western doctors trained purely in the science of medicine there is no doubt about the validity of some of the traditional cures. Unfortunately there have been instances of untrained traditional Chinese medicine practitioners who have inadvertently done more harm to their patient’s health than good but then I guess the same could be said for contemporary medicine as well. Traditional Chinese medicine uses a wide variety of natural foodstuffs to treat both simple and complex ailments provoking great interest from Western medicine as many of the resulting compounds are unknown and untried outside of Asia.

Just take a trip past Western Market and into Sai Ying Pun along the Des Voeux Road West and Ko Shing Street on the tram towards Kennedy Town and you will see the true popularity of Chinese medicine. Your nose will tell you that you have arrived long before your eyes as this is the pungent dried food district of Hong Kong with hundreds of shops sitting side by side seemingly all selling the same abundance of dried meat, fish, mushrooms and famous herbal remedies. The Chinese have a love of dried food and many of the items here have medicinal value and are revered for the way they prevent or cure physical ailments. The smell is unpleasant on one level but on another it is intoxicating and heralding your arrival into another Hong Kong completely separate from the one inhabited by the huge skyscrapers that dominate the skyline. One of the most famous Chinese medicine shops is located at 152 – 156 Queens Road in Central. The Eu Yan Sang medicine store offers a huge range of products and is a hugely successful company. One of the quirkiest things about the store is the payment system used here. Your money is placed in a small cylindrical pot which is sent over your head to the cashier through a system of pulleys with your change coming back the same way. The shop also has various display cases showing a wide variety of Chinese medicine products along with details of what ailments they are supposed to alleviate.

The Hong Kong Tourism Board in conjunction with Eu Yan Sang arranges Chinese medicine classes every Wednesday where you can gain some insight into the workings of traditional Chinese medicine. If you contact the Hong Kong Tourism Board or pick up a leaflet at the airport you will find details of this and various other classes exposing the delights of Tai Chi, Feng Shui, Chinese Tea, Chinese antiques or even Chinese opera. They really are pretty good and offer a brief insight into some of the delights that make Hong Kong so unique.

The foods used in Traditional Chinese medicine are many and varied often coming from the strangest of sources. Looking in the dried food shops along Des Voeux Road West you can see a bewildering array of dried seafood, mushrooms, and funguses that you are told are guaranteed to make you healthy and revitalised. Looking and smelling the way they do the delights on offer make me very sceptical that anything that smells so bad could actually do you any good. I suppose that we are always told that, “Good medicine should always taste bad” and the items here definitely look like they will taste pretty bad. I am also frequently worried and somewhat amused that the reaction of the shopkeepers to my enquiries about the various products on sale nearly always meets with the same, “Makes you strong” answer. This would not be too bad on its own but it is normally accompanied with a hand cupped in the elbow and a balled fist raised in the air leaving you in no doubt exactly where it makes you strong. Now I will try most things but I must admit that a bowl of fermented mushrooms topped with a duck’s gizzard and a garnish of frog’s scrotum is not something that I would generally look for in an aphrodisiac. A few oysters, soft music and a bottle of wine maybe, but a soup that looks like something from the A&E department of your local hospital that is not for me. I am afraid that after a few sips the only thing I would be cuddling in bed would be a cold plastic bucket.

There are a whole manner of foodstuffs that are used by the Chinese as aphrodisiacs some have confirmed scientific value while others are unconvincing to say the least. Take the sea cucumber which is a somewhat disturbing creature revered for its special medicinal qualities. It is a weird cucumber shaped, jelly-like creature that is a distant cousin of the starfish and the sea urchin. Perhaps due to its phallic shape the sea cucumber is renowned for its aphrodisiac qualities. It is known in Chinese as hai shen, which means sea ginseng a reference to the ginseng root, another traditional aphrodisiac which promotes blood circulation and lowers blood pressure. The sea cucumber requires a lot of preparation to remove the stomach and internal organs and is often washed, soaked and boiled several times before it is eventually ready to use. It is available pre-soaked in water or dried ready for use in soups or broths. Surprisingly sea cucumber is actually flavourless and readily absorbs the surrounding flavours making it very popular with diners. It is also believed to have excellent healing properties as it contains minerals beneficial to healthy joints and circulatory problems. It is frequently added to creams and lotions to help wounds heal more quickly.

One of the most popular ingredients in Chinese medicine are bird’s nests, which are commonly used in the famous birds nest soup. The nests are a delicacy and are produced by birds called swiftlets, which dwell in caves across Asia and the South Pacific. The birds use sticky saliva to produce a strand like nest attached high on the wall of a cave, which are much prized as a delicacy. The nest can sometimes be hundreds of feet in the air so collection is a very risky business, which is reflected, in the high prices they command. The bird’s nests develop a gelatinous texture when they are cooked and can be found in both savoury and dessert dishes. The nests are cleaned by hand to remove any dirt or droppings and are then soaked prior to use. They are rich in calcium, iron, potassium and magnesium and are considered beneficial to the appetite and effective at improving the complexion and quality of the skin. They are also reputed to be good for the voice and give relief to respiratory problems such as asthma. Like sea cucumber the nests do not have a distinctive taste and are actually quite palatable particularly as a dessert when braised in coconut juice and sugar.

If you fancy trying something truly unusual then dried Chinese hair seaweed or black moss is the one for you. It grows in the desert and comprises of coarse black hair like strands that look like a cross between human hair and a scouring pad. It has a rough texture and must be soaked before use resulting in a somewhat soft and spongy texture after cooking. The moss is rich in protein and carbohydrates with traces of phosphorus, iron and potassium and is supposed to be good for blood disorders or for people with an iron deficiency in their diet. It is also reputed to be good for cleansing the colon and presumably much easier to digest than a scouring pad. It is actually tasteless and surprisingly popular particularly around Chinese New Year when it is most frequently seen. Try braised oysters with black moss or black moss and mushroom soup both of which are very enjoyable once you get used to the strange texture of the moss. In truth it is probably more popular because of its name than because of any medicinal qualities. In Cantonese it is known as fat choy, which translates as good fortune making it particularly popular with the superstitious older generation. The traditional Cantonese New Year greeting is “gung hay fat choy” meaning “be prosperous” so it is not really surprising that to a superstitious community black moss is considered very lucky in both health and financial matters.

If you have a cough, asthma or a kidney infection then help is at hand in the shape of a dried gecko. You will often see these dried flat lizards hanging ominously on dried food stalls like a Christmas decoration for the Addams Family. They are anything from 6 to 15 inches in length with the head and tail intact and an abdomen, which has been flattened out like some prehistoric lizard Frisbee. It has a distinct smell of seafood, and a slightly salty taste, which is not unpleasant and is commonly ground into pills and powders. Like most Chinese medicine it too is reputed to “make you strong” though somehow I really do have my doubts.

A popular health remedy is Hasma which is made from the dried fallopian tubes of the snow frog. It has a slightly fishy smell but is actually tasteless with just a hint of sweetness. It is often mixed with rock sugar and used in Chinese desserts adding texture to sweet soups. It is believed to ease respiratory ailments, help sleep and even improve the general complexion of the skin. It is also used as a general tonic for women who have just given birth.

Two of the more palatable and most used foods in Chinese medicine are ginger and garlic. Ginger is frequently used as flavouring for Cantonese dishes or as a health tonic in soups and tea, with ginger tea recommended as a cure for headaches and nausea or a natural way to settle stomachs and aid digestion. The rhizome or underground stem of the ginger has anti-inflammatory qualities making ginger ideal for head and muscular aches in the body so it really is a valuable commodity. Garlic is also a mainstay of Chinese medicine with fresh garlic reputed to help the immune system fight diseases, relieve respiratory ailments and even prevent the spread of the common cold virus.

There are in fact many hundreds of ingredients used in Chinese medicine and almost every family has their own particular favourites. Winter melon for cooling the body or soothing the throat, lotus roots to purify the blood, water chestnut to cleanse the colon, tangerine peel to aid digestion, dried mushrooms to lower cholesterol and lotus seeds for a healthy heart. All these cures and preventative medicines are passed down through the generations with many people extolling their virtues. Even something as small and insignificant as a sesame seed is considered important in Chinese food therapy. The white seeds are rich in calcium, protein, iron, magnesium, vitamin A, B1, B2 and E and essential fatty acids, they are seen as beneficial to the lungs while the darker black seeds are seen as beneficial to the liver and kidneys. In fact if you find that you are going grey then the naturally sweet black seeds are regarded as the perfect way to retard prematurely greying hair.

Perhaps the most nutritious and medicinally valuable food is the Chinese wolfberry. They are nutritionally very rich comprising of over 15 % protein, along with 21 essential minerals and 18 amino acids and a good source of vitamin C. They also contain 29 fatty acids, vitamins B1, B2, B6 and E and are rightly regarded by the Chinese as a superfood. From a medicinal viewpoint they are seen as an excellent way to boost the immune system, blood circulation and improve vision. They can be eaten fresh or dried as part of a meal or even in an herbal tea.

Herbal teas are commonly used as part of Chinese medicine or as food therapy to detoxify the body and balance the body’s metabolism. Chinese herbal tea is a kind of medicinal soup using a concoction of infused traditional Chinese cooling herbs. It is often very dark and bitter and can be sweetened with syrup to make it more palatable. Herbal tea is very popular in Hong Kong and the Guangdong region of China and is said to cure anything from fever, sore throat, aches to the common cold. Many different varieties of herbs are used but surprisingly the tea seldom contains any part of the tea plant. Herbal tea is hugely popular and can be found in most supermarkets in dried, bottled or canned form.

One of the most unusual variants of medicinal herbal tea is the Hong Kong perennial favourite Gwei Ling Go. This is the much maligned tortoise jelly or turtle tea that many Hong Kongers love because of its restorative and cleansing qualities. Young and old alike can be seen regularly packing the traditional Chinese teashops for this famous delicacy. It is said to rejuvenate the body, remove toxins, freshen skin, remove blemishes, promote a healthy appetite and cure insomnia. Whether it succeeds or not there is no doubt that it is extremely popular and for a lot of Cantonese it is part of their health regime ensuring that they are free of any toxins in the body.

Gwei Ling Go is a distinctive black jelly-like pudding made from various herbs and the ground bottom shell or plastron of the semi-aquatic three-striped box turtle. Over the years this has unsurprisingly caused much controversy particularly since this turtle was put on the endangered species list making it illegal to hunt and use as food. Other species of freshwater box turtle have been used but thankfully nowadays Gwei Ling Go commonly has no turtle or tortoise ingredients used with herbs replacing the plastron that upset so many people. Each teashop has its own recipe but commonly Gwei Ling Go will consist of dried Chinese herbs such as rhemannia, which provides energy whilst strengthening the immune system along with divaricate saposhniovia or dong fang feng as it is known in Cantonese which eases aches and pains. Liquorice root gives the tea its distinctive dark colour while honey and the sweet tasting bright orange-red Chinese wolfberry sweetens the often bitter nature of the tea and enhances the immune system.

The first time I tried Gwei Ling Go was by accident in a teashop which you can find along Percival Street in Causeway Bay. Situated amongst the explosion of camera and clothing shops it is easily identified by the huge shiny golden samovars that dominate the storefront. On my first visit here the place was packed with Asians and not a single gweilo was in sight so with a little trepidation and with Eden for reassurance I went inside. The shiny appearance at the entrance did not replicate itself inside with the tables reminiscent of those in the dingy school dining rooms of my past. We found an empty table to the rear of the shop where we could observe the other diners who in between conversations seemed to be for the most part all consuming some black jelly-like substance from white ceramic bowls into their mouths. Our table was opposite a refrigerator which seemed to be home to these bowls and from there I had my first close up view of what turned out to be the black jelly called Gwei Ling Go.

Perhaps the turtles decorating the wall should have given me some sort of indication but it wasn’t until Eden explained that it all clicked into place. I came in hoping for a nice refreshing jasmine tea known locally as hong peen char but from that moment I knew that I wanted to try the strange black jelly that looked liked some substance last seen covering Sigourney Weaver in one of the Alien films. It seemed to be very popular so we both decided the time was right for us to be healthy and detoxify our systems.

The waitress took our order with an air of indifference and presented us with two bowls of the stuff along with a glass of steaming hot Chinese tea which Eden sensibly ordered just in case the Gwei Ling Go tasted as bad as it looked. We opted for the cold jelly, which seemed to be the favoured choice of our fellow diners. Presentation I must stress was not a strong point of this establishment with the Gwei Ling Go arriving at our table in white ceramic bowls, which were uniformly streaked with dried black jelly around the edges and down the sides of the bowl.

The jelly itself was dark brown bordering on black and it was only the absence of a scoop of ice-cream and a couple of wafers that stopped it looking like something out of a ghoulish children’s tea party. It had a very pungent fragrance that was not altogether unpleasant but it must be said not altogether appealing either. The taste was extremely acrid and bitter and quite a shock when the first spoonful hit my mouth. It had a strong taste of tannin like an over-stewed pot of tea but with an infusion of herbs thrown in for good measure. My wife suggested like the other diners that I try some sugar or syrup with it to ease the bitterness. I poured some syrup onto the jelly and to my surprise it was quite palatable and almost enjoyable. I wouldn’t say it was the most pleasant of dining experiences but I am glad I tried it. Did I feel successfully detoxified afterwards? Well to be honest no but that doesn’t mean it didn’t do me any good. The Cantonese believe that the bitterer the taste, the more beneficial the tea is, so on that basis it must have been very good for me.

Medicinal teas are an integral part of life in Hong Kong and they are regarded as a way to pick you up and to prevent and cure simple ailments without the need to see a doctor. You will find tea shops everywhere selling Gwei Ling Go or similar medicinal brews. Some contain no tea leaves at all and are extremely harsh like the famous bitter tea or fu cha which is so bitter that people drink this in one gulp to avoid tasting it.

Food can cure and food can kill which is a fact that I am sure everyone will agree with. Chinese medicine and culinary experimentation are journeys of discovery finding out through trial and error exactly what is good for you and also just as importantly what is bad. Modern medicine owes many of its cures to humble herbs and funguses so we really can’t be too dismissive about the value of Chinese medicine. Some things help alleviate or prevent illness or discomfort while others don’t which can be just as easily be compared to conventional medicine. In general a balanced and healthy diet can only improve your well-being, which I think everyone no matter what their medical background believes in.

Chinese medicine and Chinese food therapy has great value and providing that the ingredients they use are ecologically sound and not endangering any creature in the effort to make another’s life longer or more comfortable then they should be embraced rather than dismissed out of hand. All medicine should evolve and find natural ways to achieve consistent and safe cures to protect future generations. Chinese medicine is an emotive subject but one that is important to Asians and something that is part of the fabric of their everyday life. Food gives life, maintains life prevents illness and cures illness so it is really not so surprising that a healthy diet is so important.

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