Liangcha (liang2-cha2) means "cooling tea". It contains no tea proper, but as with many herbal infusions it is called a "tea" - really a tisane. Liangcha is one of the most common Chinese herbal mixtures, and is drunk to bring down fever or for general relief on hot days. It may be taken or prescribed for many other reasons, which do not concern me here as I have no medical expertise. Rather, I am writing about the experience of buying and preparing Chinese medicine.

In the hot weather in Taiwan, I often drink the bitter ku3-cha2 and liangcha tisanes sold on the street. Bitter things are generally considered cooling (a technical term in Chinese medicine), and I have a high tolerance for bitter foods - some people would say, for the bitter things of life, as well. So I am looking forward to this particular mixture. I keep at least half a dozen different kinds of green or semi-green tea on hand, and I also have a small stock of unusual tisanes, many of them interesting things from East Asia. If this one turns out to be pleasing, I will add it to my stock, to be drunk during my long, solitary nights of scholarship.

What do you do with Chinese herbs once you've bought them? First, bring them home, wrapped in paper. You may have bought them at the apothecary, or directly from the doctor, or - if yours is a patent medicine, as mine is today - in a grocery store. Usually the paper is plain white, and may be tied with string or folded in such a way that it doesn't easily unfold by itself.

Herbs need to be decocted to be used, and there is typically one package for each decoction, but a given decoction may produce several doses. There is usually no indication as to the ingredients, and unless you have had two different prescriptions filled at the same time there may not even be any indication of what illness you are taking it for. A considerate apothecary will write out the dosage and may even number each package for you, so that you can keep track of how many you have taken. The apothecary, like the doctor, has been trained in a traditional branch of Chinese learning and may take pleasure in writing with a brush-pen and other old-fashioned Chinese things.

Today I have before me a package of Wong Lo Kat (Wang2 Lao3-ji2) brand "herbal tea", from Hong Kong. It is a patent medicine; I tell myself Chinese patent herbal medicines are less likely to have strong physiological effects and thus can be drunk casually as tisanes. The package is marked liangcha in large Chinese characters. It is square, about six inches on a side, bulky. Until a few years ago this medicine was sold in paper, the edges sealed up with paste; now they are using plastic. I miss the paper, which crackled comfortingly when you handled it. Because this is a patent medicine, the packaging is rather fancier than what you buy from the apothecary. The wrapper has elaborate pink and orange printing on both sides. There are various trademarks (including a picture of the original compounder) and fine-lined patterns such as you see on the edges of stock certificates. There is an elegant little passage describing the effects of the medicine, composed in twelve 4-character lines, a style anciently used in formal inscriptions:

Running a fever, "giving off heat",
"damp heat" stomach ache,
"vacant fire" headache,
colds caught in any of the four seasons,
heat-poisoning from coal,
reddened skin, heat exhaustion.

Eliminates the heat exhaustion, disperses the heat,
"vacant fire" toothache,
opens the appetite, eliminates constipation,
starts the saliva, quenches the thirst.
Drink it often - there will be benefit.
Forever preserve your health.

On the back there is a long paragraph in Chinese describing the history of the brand and encouraging you to see the importance of buying the authentic item. It is signed "the great-grandsons of Wong Lo Kat". Well may they urge you - spurious brands abound. Beware of imitators!

And there are some concessions to the modern marketplace. The ingredients are listed in Chinese and Latin, with their percentages by weight. There is a UPC barcode on the front in black, and a U.S. "Nutrition Facts" box informing me that one serving (500g) has 5 calories and supplies 1% of my Daily Value of carbohydrate. I'm not looking for carbohydrate any more than I am medicine - I'm looking for that ineffable something, an infused herbal drink at once harsh and soothing, for my long hours concentrating on vital problems of Chinese philology.

Open the package and you find a pile of dried leaves of various kinds, some pieces of wood with the bark still on them, and some twigs. The package lists twelve separate items. There are more leaves than anything else, but the two most important ingredients by weight are wood: the root of gangmei (Ilex asprella Champ., a type of holm-oak) and small branches of sang (Morus alba L., the mulberry tree).

Following the instructions, I bring five rice-bowls of water to a boil, throw in the whole contents of the package, and simmer for two hours. The liquid rapidly turns a murky light brown. There is a distinctive herbal smell. My wife comes home and her first words are "Oh, you're making liangcha." And when I strain out the sodden leaves, twigs, and bits of wood after two hours, there is a distinctive taste in the brown decoction. Not to put too fine a point on it, it tastes like boiled wood.

After the liangcha has cooled a bit, I ladle up two cups, drop into each of them five coarse rock-sugar crystals (it's called "ice sugar" in Chinese), and listen as they crack in the hot liquid.

saliva starts, appetite opens...
Stir until they dissolve. My wife and I drink together. We look at each other, then we make faces. Chinese medicine usually tastes awful, which for me is part of its attraction. But this isn't even bad enough to be interesting. The flavor doesn't carry anything of the interesting aroma that was produced while it was infusing. Most seriously, it's not bitter. It just tastes like boiled wood.

Disappointed, we decide to break out the Lagavulin and disperse our heat that way.

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