Go to any herbal tea shop in Hong Kong and you are guaranteed to find Twenty Four-Flavour Tea — the perfect solution to your volcano-like pimples or your rasping sore throat — just try to ignore the fact that it’s so bitter. However, how many of the 24 herbs can you actually name?
The Hong Kong Wetland Park is offering guided tours titled “The Wetland Grocery Stores”. Available in both English and Cantonese on every weekday except Tuesday, the tours give you a 45 minute introduction to the many herbs — and sometimes insects — used in Traditional Chinese Medicine, as well as the produce derived from the wetlands which we use everyday without knowing it.
Young Post attended one of the tours and here’s what we learned about Traditional Chinese Medicine and our beloved Twenty Four-Flavour Tea.
Twenty Four-Flavour Tea actually has various recipes and the exact herbs used may differ depending on which herbs are available. But there are a number of staples found in most recipes
One of these is the Lidded Cleistocalyx, a type of tree commonly found near ponds or riverbanks. They produce deep red fruits, but it’s their small white flower buds which are used in Twenty Four-Flavour Tea.
But which herbs are responsible for the tea’s distinctly bitter taste?
One of them is the Thin Evodia. Known as “Sam Ah Fu” in Chinese, the clue — or should that be warning? — is in the name: “fu” means bitter. Meanwhile, “sam”, which means “three”, refers to the fact that Thin Evodia’s leaves are spilt into three leaflets like a fork.
Next into the brew goes some Lalang grass, which has beautiful strands of white cotton-like flowers at its tips. Not only is the grass commonly used in Twenty Four-Flavour Tea, it is also an ingredient in another traditional beverage, the Sugar Cane and Imperatae Drink, which is drunk to cool down the body in hot weather.
Now, have you ever woken up with a blocked nose, pounding head and gravelly throat? Most of us have had the misfortune of suffering from a cold, and while some may take western medicine, many people in Hong Kong choose to drink Sam Tung Chaa. This herbal tea is highly effective in alleviating the symptoms of a cold as well as other respiratory diseases. One of the three ingredients, or “tungs” as the name suggests, is the root of the shrub Ilex asprella. But this versatile herb is also found in Twenty Four-Flavour Tea, proving we must never underestimate how useful a plant can be.
Don’t worry, we’re not going to go through all 24 herbs used in the tea. Instead, here are three other delightful Traditional Chinese Medicines we bet you can’t wait to try (ahem).
Cicadas: we’ve all heard the chirping symphony they perform on a hot summer evening, but you may not have heard of Cicada Slough. The slough of an insect is the shell from which it emerges once it is fully grown, in a process called eclosion. It may not sound especially appealing, but Cicada Slough is sweet and cold, and is commonly used in herbal medicine for alleviating sore throats.
Moving on to another lovely creature - toads. Unlike frogs, toads can’t turn into princes, but they can be used to make Chinese Medicine. The Asian Common Toad secretes a poison under its eyes when it feels threatened. Practitioners of Traditional Chinese Medicine believe that it is possible to “cure illnesses with poison”, and the secreted poison is extracted to make a medicine popular among older generations called the Six Spirits Pill, which is taken to tackle all sorts of illnesses.
Would you eat poo? This sounds like a stupid question, but you might want to make a mental note of the fact that poo is often an ingredient in Traditional Chinese Medicine.
Bat’s dung is used in Chinese Medicine because it believed to improve one’s vision. The reasoning behind this is most likely that bats are nocturnal and the ancient Chinese thought that if bats could see in the dark, then their faeces must surely contain sight-improving properties. Sound logical? Well believe it or not, it’s a legitimate Traditional Chinese Medicine.
It’s safe to say that our tour of the Wetland Park has changed the way we think about our dear old Twenty Four-Flavour Tea, not to mention other kinds of traditional medicine. But it has also given us a greater appreciation of the world around us. Hong Kong’s natural environment is as rich as its history of traditional medicine.
So next time you feel a tickle in your throat or a gurgle in your gut, rest assured that nature has the cure.