Every neighborhood of every city in Taiwan has stores selling herbal medicine. However, in the capital city of Taipei, one neighborhood is actually composed nearly entirely of herbal medicine shops. This area is called di hua jie and is located near the harbor north of downtown. It spans several city blocks and is perhaps the most concentrated place on the island to see impressive herbal specimens.
The entire district is a feast for the senses. Enormous sacks of flowers brimming to the top with colors are everywhere. Dried fruits and dried seafood products abound, which creates a bizarre and complex smell and provides no end of interesting snacks while you shop around. Normal tropical dried fruits abound, of course, but a few interesting ones instantly strike the Chinese herbal enthusiast. For example, lotus seeds cooked with sugar until slightly sweet are very popular with Japanese tourists; they are served dry and have a nutty and sweet flavor, not unlike a roasted chestnut with a hint of sugar. Another specialty is dried longans, but not the seeded and baked ones used in TCM. Instead, the longans are dried in the shell, and can be transported, cracked open and eaten. They taste very fresh when processed in this manner.
Di hua jie is an excellent place to see medicinals that are rare or hard to find in their authentic state in the West. Many such items are minerals. The pharmacies of di hua jie are host to a variety of different sizes and grades of natural pearls, which are primarily used in facial creams or powders for insufflation to treat sore throats. Some are mixed into powder, some are sold as face creams, but the best are kept in little glass vials that are ground on demand. Natural pearls are tiny little irregular things and are quite expensive. Other minerals that are rarely encountered in their higher grades in the West include amber and cinnabar. Seeing the beautiful color of a huge vial of red cinnabar makes one realize why it was the origin of such lore in Taoist history. The poisoning induced by the excessive consumption of cinnabar was said to make the body appear lifelike after death and slowed the decomposition of the body; this is one of the reasons why it was explored as an ingredient in the quest for immortality…
Ginsengs are naturally a favorite display product. Some shops have roots that look amazingly human-like; we saw some that looked just like little people dancing. As everywhere, the ginsengs are separated into Korean or Chinese red ginseng and American ginseng; the latter is virtually exclusively wild or cultivated in Wisconsin, roots cultivated elsewhere are much less expensive. Nice wild ginseng roots are kept in locked cases in ornamental displays.
Herbs are widely used in foods by the Chinese. Many herbs are ground to a fine powder for use in making instant beverages, generally mixed with milk or soymilk. Chinese wild yam, polygonum, coix, medicinal black beans, and mung beans are common for this and very aromatic and pure almond powders are sold for their flavor as a beverage additive. Chinese hawthorn fruits are sold either in little round sweet pills or in jars after being stir fried with sugar…
Many shops make their own pills and wines. Most are little black honey pills, typically made according to a particular recipe kept in secret by the shopkeeper… Wines can be incredibly complex and expensive, and are all secret family recipes in most cases. Some places have gelcaps of coptis extract, others have a variety of powders for skin problems, and some have doctors on hand to diagnose and write prescriptions.
Wood products are particularly fascinating in such markets. Many shops have fancy stuff like thick Vietnamese cinnamon bark, while others have special pieces of aquilaria ( chen xiang ). Most chen xiang sold in the West is of very poor quality or downright fake. True chen xiang sinks in water and is very dense. Some shops have very fancy chen xiang in a big glass case, but then will pull out the “real” stuff to show you the most authentic and expensive varieties and tell you that the stuff in the case is for people with no ability to discriminate the real thing. Good sandalwood is also frequently seen in such places, but it is nowhere near as expensive as chen xiang…
Many pharmacies stock granule extracts, with hundreds and hundreds of formulas and single herb extracts. Most professionals prescribe common things that are effective and affordable; most of the consumption of strange and expensive penises and such are based on folk medicine and the desire to buy expensive stuff to show off. This district generally offers granule extracts at a 25% discount from the list price.
Finally, mushrooms are incredibly common and varied in di hua jie. Huge bags of shiitake mushrooms from Japan and China can be seen in a variety of sizes and shades. Also noteworthy are several grades of black wood-ear mushrooms, typically wild-harvested from various regions (cultivated ones are cheap and common in any supermarket, either fresh or dried). Very nice qualities of cordyceps can be spotted, often Tibetan in origin; wild Tibetan cordyceps is quite expensive. Ganoderma is also very common, both in wild and cultivated forms. Cultivated “antler” ganoderma has a very unique shape and is slightly more expensive than cultivated mushroom forms, but the effect is similar (although arguably more potent).
Whether you are shopping or browsing, knowledgeable or naive, there are many things to be seen in a Chinese herbal market. Some look magical, some look disgusting, some look ordinary, and some just open your eyes a bit wider. The variety of ways in which natural substances have been used throughout history is amazing. The clinically effective agents of modern Chinese medicine and the substances of legend and early shamanism live on together, providing the shopper or the gawker with an endless amount of stimulation for the eyes or the body. Whether you see the herbal districts or not, they will continue as they have for thousands or years. Anyone who sees them in their full splendor will leave with a little more experience than they came with, yet will still walk away pondering many questions that will never be completely answered”.
posted by Eric Brand, M.S on the blog “The Herbalist’s Corner”, 2005.