Mud Forest Brew: The Miracle of Traditional Chinese Medicinal Tea

DSC_0002

A few years ago, I was in a writing group called Merry Muses with two close friends while we lived near the sea in Venice Beach. One night, alongside our bowls of fruit and chunks of dark chocolate that accompanied our reading materials, our hostess served a special “ladies tea” she had bought earlier that morning from an herbalist at a spa in Santa Monica. Reading through the list of ingredients on the tea was impressive—there were at least 15 items in the mix. The brew was a golden brown with caramel overtones and came wrapped in white linen paper smelling of cucumber essence. This was all fine and dandy but deep down inside I knew the herbalists of Santa Monica serving the new trend of herbal blends customized to each unique human were a watered down version of the truth.

The truth as I knew it was an older, spry man with a wizened face named William Woo Yiu Fai who sat at a small table in the bowels of Chinatown. His table was cluttered high with papers next to a wall lined with sticky notes. He sat there in the middle of Fuk Yin Tong Herbal Trading Centre day in and out, while his wife manned the store counter, giving his $15 consultations to anyone who walked in complaining of a certain ill. After spending two years battling severe ups and downs with my hormones surrounding my menstrual cycle and feeling weakened in the adrenals from a foodie’s roster of weekly cocktails and a strenuous hiking schedule, I finally ventured in to meet him.

I handed over my $15 bucks and told him my woes. I was tired. I was seeking energy. I was getting older and having my womanly chi suddenly alternate between rage and lethargy on a whim. I didn’t want a fancy woman to hand me a cotton robe and an Indian flute soundtrack and a bag of weak chamomile and exotic sounding mellow dried fruits. I wanted medicine and could he help me?

It took him ten minutes to look at my tongue, stare into my eyes, review my ears and sit silently listening to my pulse. He then told me that I shouldn’t eat the spicy Indian and Thai foods that I love because my nature is too hot. I should drink water at room temperature as to stop “shocking” my digestive system which is more like a tepid miso soup than a cold vichyssoise or a boiling stew. He said it was time to ask my medical insurance company for my first colonic because my tubes could use a flushing. He said the rest of me was healthy but 42 years of ingestion (and some of those years including cigarettes and other not so great ingredients) had taken its toll so I needed a reboot. He said my menstrual woes and random headaches were connected but he could push a reset button in me with a special tonic tea if I followed his instructions properly. While I sat in a dark back room with my feet in a bucket of water for a $10 ionic detox treatment that helped my body go back to a more alkaline state, William’s wife carefully measured and poured six $25 bags of herbs, roots, barks, dried mushrooms, powders and other ingredients of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) for a 6-day regimen. The bags weighed five pounds each—no dainty envelopes here.

DSC_0001

For the next 6 days I followed William’s instructions to pour an entire bag of ingredients into a 4 quart-dutch oven and cover the lot with water. I then boiled the pot followed by a low simmer for 1-2 hours as the liquid condensed into only one cup. I then drank the cup. An interesting phenomenon occurred. On the first day the brew was unbearable; it tasted and looked like bitter mud from an ancient forest. But as the days went by and my body started to assimilate the ingredients, the taste magically went away. By day six, I was drinking in slow measured sips rather than chaotic, gulping gags. I found that so interesting, that the fluid had entered my cells with its nourishment in such a way that my body now fully welcomed it.

In one week I felt brand new. My sluggishness was gone. My need for a 2 p.m. nap had dissipated and I was upping my daily yoga to an hour and a half without a problem. Of course I don’t have x-rays or a hefty insurance bill to showcase the changes that took place in my liver or kidneys but the way that I feel is assurance enough for me, even now two weeks later when the effects are still lasting and real. I even went through a menstrual cycle which was surprisingly mellow and didn’t deter me, as is usual, from walking miles up an overly steep hill.

When I was leaving the store that day with my bags of tea, I asked William when I should come back for a follow up appointment. He told me whenever I was feeling bad again. I was reminded that Chinese herbalists and practitioners of TCM pride themselves on not getting paid when a client is sick, but being paid to keep a client well. Following those instructions for wellness were now all on me.

Laissez les Bon Temps Rouler in Chinatown’s Newest Po Boy Paradise

AIt has been a decade since I have experienced the hot decadence that is New Orleans—sad but true. I miss the balmy, never ending evenings; the happenstance of finding an impromptu house party with lawn jazz in the middle of the night where strangers bear cocktails and smiles; the shotgun shacks concealing backyard poets, musicians and revelers; and the wafting smells of food everywhere, aromas that carry a Creole tang or spicy herbaceousness or swamp juiciness that reminds you that home is somewhere very far away. Fortunately for me, I found a little piece of the Big Easy this past weekend in Downtown LA.

The Little Jewel of New Orleans is a deli and market smack dab in the middle of Chinatown. What better place to reside in any big city, than the Chinese neighborhoods, which always display the unsterile, non-pretentious and colorfully, character-casted versions of existence away from the shopping malls and bland suburbias. In Los Angeles, it is the one area where you can still feel a little danger, witness true artists rolling out of their dingy lairs on Saturday mornings looking for 80 cent bao bun breakfasts and revel in the boisterous market scenes where the stank of fish mingles with the gargantuan reishi mushrooms on display at the herb emporiums. There is a constant sense of dashing life and nary a poseur hipster in sight, which is a good thing. Of course, a place purporting to serve authentic New Orleans sandwiches would fit right in with all this funk. All we need now is a parade … I envision royal dragon heads on drag queens and Mardi Gras leis over Chinese silk dresses.

IMG_9465A clean and bright market sells normal neighborhood pantry staples and convenience items alongside hard to find New Orleans standards like beignet mix, coffees, hot sauces and muffuletta olive salad. But it’s the deli, with a smattering of tables on a black and white checkered floor with cases full of banana and whiskey bread puddings that is the true gem. Walk up and order an oyster, shrimp or catfish po boy and you won’t be sorry. The fish is expertly cornmeal fried with just enough breading to cover the tender fish but not too much so as to distract from the texture and taste of the fish. The savory combination of mayo and hot sauce that lubricates the perfectly soft and sopping-friendly bread shipped straight from the Leidenheimber Baking Co. in New Orleans is an addictive and wondrous bath for the crispy pickles and crunchy lettuce. I have been looking all over Los Angeles for a po boy worthy of its moniker and I have finally hit eureka. The muffuletta, which in half form is still the size of a whole sandwich, is an incredible feat of meat, cheese, olives and hot mix that manages to curiously taste like a yummy pepperoni pizza.

As we ate, the cashier kept barking out orders from a microphone at the counter. When he wasn’t barking out orders, the air was filled with lively Cajun music and old school New Orleans jazz. At one point he announced that he had two king cakes behind the counter and the ability to order more per our desires. It took all I could muster not to buy one on the spot.

As if I needed more excuses to go to Chinatown. Now, I have another. I have been looking for a place to call my own in 2015 where I can spend whole days tapping on the typewriter keys while absorbing my kind of local color. I perhaps have found my very own spot.

Reishi Tea Begins My Chinese Way

IMG_5629 It was a noisy Sunday afternoon when I found myself curiously hunched over my knees in a portable toilet in the middle of Los Angeles’ Chinatown scribbling down notes on the right way to make reishi mushroom tea while a parade of large, colorful faux dragons took place mere feet away from me, marked by ear-deafening gongs on the street.

I had spent the past two days helping a friend man her upcycled clothing booth during the annual Chinese New Year celebration where my languid affair with the Fuk Yin Tong Herbs Trading Co. began. The store was located across the alleyway from where I stood for two whole days and I managed to come to know it better over the course of the weekend.

It started with the sign of course, a place promising herbs – and I, a burgeoning student studying to be a certified herbalist, found it the perfect sort of synchronicity for a weekend’s worth of curiosity. Atop the sign was a balcony, done in typical sloping Chinese architecture with no doorway and I quickly envisioned myself holed up there in that mysterious room for days uncovering centuries of lore in big dusty books. As a matter of fact, at the end of the first day there the spry senior proprietor came outside baring boxes of used books to sell for $3 each, capitalizing on the onslaught of potential customers in the center for the celebration, and I spent a good deal of time meandering over to peruse the stacks. Philosophy, literature, art and seething, smart writing on history and politics over the course of the last fifty years showed a reader with a mind constantly needing to be fed. I entered the store to find a seed, root and bark geek’s dream as every perimeter shelf was lined with plump glass jars filled with twisted and earthy specimens of each, labeled plainly with white stickers and scribbled with indecipherable Chinese. These shelves surrounded a central area filled with other products stacked high of every imaginable breed from shark cartilage pills to plump the skin to various assorted flushing and purging teas. I was in bliss. I immediately bought tiny green mung beans to self-sprout at home and red aduki beans to make healing stews. The proprietor and his female companion were clearly old enough to be my grandparents yet both seemed ultra youthful and spry, leaving me to wonder about the old wise words of Lao Tse who professed the key to life was based on keeping the mind and body perpetually busy and fed with natural things, and also to be still like a mountain and flow like a river.

The second day I meandered back in, lured by a new character in the store’s cast of staff – another older man with a warm and gentle smile in perfectly creased blue jeans and a soft blue sweater. Something about his energy called to me and I discovered he was offering Chi massage for a dollar a minute. I also noticed that it was a busy day in the store and that many people, including groups of families, were coming in to speak to the proprietor for a few minutes in the small curtained back room out of which he would come bearing a piece of paper written with notes and proceed to fill a bag with a combination of things from the various medicinal jars. My friends and I decided to try out the massage. We each took turns entering the store, sitting on the chair, and getting miraculously pounded, poked, prodded and touched for fifteen minutes prior to floating ethereally from the place back into the alley in some sort of ecstatic, state – our energetic fields completely readjusted and properly electrocuted.

I decided that when it was time to do my intern hours for my certification in herbs, I would eschew the trendy yoga and alternative spas and wellness centers cropping up on every street corner where cucumber water accompanies your meeting in lieu of some funky place like Fuk Yin Tong where the meat of life’s essence glistens from the neon lights permeating the space and highlighting the elemental underpinnings of true warts and all health and centuries of knowledge.

IMG_5725On the last day I asked the man behind the counter what I should do with a large bag of petrified reishi mushrooms I had waiting around at home and he told me to grate them and make a tea. Try as I might to scribble down all that he had said in that portable potty in the last minute, I failed to capture all of his description. So for the past month, I have been researching on my own, the values of these strange yet potent fungi and in my class have been experimenting with a couple of brews.

The reishi mushroom is known for its cancer fighting, toxic cell inhibiting, blood pressure regulating and immune system boosting properties and it is said that within a month of incorporating it into your life, you will feel a marked difference. I have been drinking mine steadily for about two weeks now and have noticed a few definite things. For one, I don’t wake up tired in the morning nor do I need my afternoon nap – a habit that had lingered for years. And secondly, and most importantly, I don’t feel fearful around certain issues that arise in the course of life but that I can tackle anything with an odd sense of peace.

The key is to find the right preparation for you and like with all herbs, it’s important to know yourself before accepting any old recipe from someone like me. Some people have allergic reactions to reishi and therefore need to brew the tea with other herbs that counteract the allergy-producing elements. For me, this means the addition of astragalus root. But anyone wishing to make just a basic reishi brew can start with the simple combination of one tablespoon reishi to about 4-5 six cups of water. The water is boiled first, then the reishi thrown in, and then the whole pot simmers for two whole hours to extract the water-soluble polysaccharides known as beta-glucans that are hiding out inside the tough interiors. It tastes mighty bitter and goes down like dirt but I spruce mine up with pine cone honey to make it a little more palatable.

I am looking forward to visiting Fuk Yin Tong again in the near future to capitalize on another of those chi massages that have that magical ability to get me back into whack as well as continue my studies approaching a brew at a time in my new repertoire of ancient health.