The impact of Chinese medicine is easily seen in the food and drink of Taiwan. By nature, the prevailing local viewpoint regarding healthy diet emphasizes variety and suitability of food to the current climate. As far as the impact of Chinese medicine into the food in Taiwan, it is sometimes difficult to draw the line between foods and medicine. For example, a soy-milk style beverage is made out of yi yi ren, and shan yao is often seen as a vegetable on the dinner table. Can we say these are examples of the influence of herbal medicine? How about watermelon juice with aloe in the summertime, or a dish made of stir-fried si gua and ginger? Or a pesto-like sauce made from the aerial portions of the plant that yields chun pi?
Throughout Chinese society, the importance of diversity in one’s diet is a central theme. In contrast to America, “healthy eating” involves much less elimination of foods than we often see in America. In the U.S., many patients present with a variety of sensitivities to certain foods; the general conception is that some foods are “good” and some are “bad,” so allergenic foods and other unhealthy foods should be minimized. By contrast, it is rare to meet a Taiwanese person who complains of food allergies. Ironically, lactose intolerance should actually be much higher here than it is in the U.S., but I’ve almost never met a Taiwanese person who ever seemed bothered by milk tea or milkshakes. My own speculation is that fewer food allergies are seen because few individual foods are over-consumed; most people eat a little bit of everything and have no particularly problems with any one thing. It is also possible that the general population density, less meticulous hygiene, and the propensity to eat a wide variety of foods can strengthen immunity by providing more stimulation to the body’s defenses.
Equally important to the concept of dietary diversity in Taiwan is the general emphasis on matching the temperature of foods to the body’s needs. Winter months emphasize hot pot, soups, and warming meats like lamb, while summer months emphasize cooling things like sweet mung bean shakes and xian cao, which is a gelatin made from a local heat-clearing herb. During menstruation, women often avoid ice and cold foods and favor warming foods. Thus, while most Taiwanese people lack a sophisticated understanding of Chinese medicine, basic concepts like heat and cold are deeply ingrained in the culture.
As far as “herbal” foods go, perhaps the best organization is by type. No matter what, I’m sure I’ll be forgetting to mention half of the things that I see.
Black sesame (hei zhi ma) is commonly integrated into Taiwanese sweet snacks. Cakes are made with black sesame and maltose; these allow one to ingest quite a large quantity of hei zhi ma. Black sesame is also put into pastries and steamed sweet buns, and it is ground and made into a warm sweet soup that is served as a delicious dessert (zhi ma hu).
An entire genre of shops in Taiwan sell sweet chilled soups with Chinese herbs, typically lily bulb (bai he), red date (hong zao), white tremella fungus (bai mu er), and lotus seed (lian zi). Lotus seeds and a variety of beans such as chi xiao dou, hong dou, and lu dou are commonly put onto finely shaved iced desserts, which are popular in the summer. Additionally, some traditional dessert shops sell xue ha gao, a sweet chilled soup made with longan fruit, red dates, and the ovaries and fallopian tubes of a northern forest frog (xue ha supplements yin and essence, and is similar in nature to bird’s nest or white tremella fungus).
A stunning variety of fruit juices are available seasonally in Taiwan. Chinese medical influence can be seen in the popularity of watermelon juice and cooling mung bean milkshakes, which are used to combat the oppressive heat of Taiwanese summers. On the flip side, a variety of hot winter beverages are sold on virtually every urban block during the cold months; common choices include fresh ginger drinks and ones made from longan and red dates. Ju hua and gou qi zi also figure prominently in street side drink stalls, and suan mei tang, a drink made with shan zha and wu mei, is incredibly popular as well. Dong gua tea is also made from scratch throughout the island, and mulberry fruit (sang shen) is prevalent seasonally. Stewed mulberry fruit is regarded as a blood supplementing agent, while the fresh form is better for boosting body fluids.
Taiwan is home to a whole genre of drinks made from cooling local herbs, generically called qing cao cha. Qing cao literally means green herbs, and it collectively refers to all of the dozens of local wild crafted plants of any given region. These herbs are sold in their own markets and rarely overlap with professional herbal medicine and traditional pharmacies. In the case of Taiwan, qing cao cha generally is a combination of these local herbs with cooling and aromatic plants such as bo he and xia ku cao. Every vendor has their own recipe, and qing cao cha is even manufactured on a commercial scale for sale in the 7-11s that are ubiquitous in Taiwan. Taiwanese 7-11s also sell bottled drinks made from mei gui hua and ju hua, though it should be noted that the greatest diversity of Chinese herbal drinks in 7-11 can be found in Hong Kong rather than Taipei. 7-11s also stock concentrated solutions of si wu tang and “essence of chicken” with Chinese herbs (essentially concentrated chicken soup with herbs, taken by students to promote vigor).
Soups with Chinese herbs are a whole genre of their own. Shi quan pai gu tang, pork ribs cooked in shi quan da bu tang, are incredibly popular in Taiwan. They are quite delicious. Similar menu items include dang gui duck soup, he shou wu chicken soup, ren shen chicken soup, etc. One spot makes chicken soup in one of several different herbal broths, including a variety of local herbs as well as classics such as si wu tang chicken soup. One can also select the type of chicken, normal free range chicken, “local chicken” (a leaner subspecies of chicken that is native to the area), and black chicken. Really awesome stuff, and so many choices!
A variety of alcoholic beverages in Taiwan also utilize Chinese herbs. Aside from the obvious things like ginseng liquors and the more obscure homemade liquors such as snake penis liquor, there is a whole group of mild local “wines” that are made with Chinese herbs. Most of these wines are similar to the unfiltered millet wine that is famous among the indigenous people of Taiwan. There are nine different indigenous minority groups in Taiwan, and it appears that their love of homemade millet wine is one of the few things that they all have in common. This wine is also brewed with shan yao and sang shen, and it is incredibly delicious with these herbal additions.
Taiwan is also noted for its consumption of various vinegars, many of which use herbs and are mixed with water to make a healthy beverage. These vinegars can be industrially made or made on a small scale, and range from inexpensive to more expensive than fine wine. Additions include honey, aloe, ling zhi, and mulberry, and the top shelf varieties are incredibly delicious. Apple cider vinegar has also reached the market, but it pales in comparison to the other health vinegars commonly available. If sour is not your thing, perhaps try the local honey instead- Taiwanese honey made from longan flowers or litchi flowers is easily found, and it has a truly excellent flavor.
Ah, it seems that the list just goes on and on… One is constantly making new discoveries. From a little hilltop shop by a temple that sells homemade ling zhi wine to a new flavor of shan yao yi yi ren soymilk in the 7-11, the Chinese medicine enthusiast is never bored in Taiwan.