Something strange is going on amongst Chengdu expats. Perhaps it’s the overcast weather, all of the spicy food or maybe the lethargy of the pandas is starting to catch. The need for an energy boost seems omnipresent. And people have started looking in the most unlikely of places – yaojiu 药酒 or medicinal alcohol.
Chinese pharmacology dates back thousands of years, but is still practiced by millions. Skeptics call it quackery, believers swear by it. Regardless of which side of the fence you find yourself on, studies continue to demonstrate that certain Chinese folk remedies do, in fact, have real therapeutic value. Why just the other week a Chinese plant by the extraordinary name of thunder god vine was shown to have eliminated pancreatic cancer in mice. Chinese medicine is often mixed with alcohol because it is believed that the alcohol more easily absorbs the medicine’s strength than other liquids and can compensate for the plant’s often bitter taste.
Last month I was out at a bar when someone suggested that I try some of the ubiquitous Jingjiu 劲酒, the local answer to Red Bull with a dash of Spanish fly. Jingjiu comes in little bottles with red labels and can be purchased in just about any convenience store in China. It’s about the same color as a whiskey and it has a full-bodied, distinctly earthy taste.
The first thing I do when I’m drinking medicinal alcohol is check out the label. So what’s inside? The first ingredient is “high-quality baijiu,” and I have no reason to doubt that it’s the healthiest baijiu on the market for under RMB10 (US$1.60) a bottle. Next up there’s water, wild yams, golden eye grass, Chinese angelica, desert broomrape, wolfberry, yellow leader, horny goat weed (!!!), Chinese cinnamon, lilac and sugar. So you know we’re talking about some pretty good stuff here. Did it wake me up or give me more fuel in the tank? Hard to say, but it didn’t put me to sleep.
A few weeks before my Jingjiu experience I was in Wowo (a popular convenience store chain in Chengdu) with another expat who wanted me to try his favorite tonic. This one also came in a similar hip-flask-sized bottle with a red label and was called Da Zhangfu 大丈夫 or Big Mister. I’ll give you one, and only one, guess as to what it is intended to do.
The poor guy hadn’t realized what he’d been drinking, but I didn’t mind telling him. The ingredient list reads much the same as Jingjiu, but with three notable exceptions at the end – bull penis, dog penis and lamb penis. The traditional thinking here is some kind of testoster-osmosis, whereby if you cut off something’s…erm…and steep it in your baijiu, you acquire its man-power.
Despite smelling vaguely like Robitussin, it wasn’t half bad. I passed it around my friends at a bar – without telling them what they were drinking – and the consensus was mostly positive. I’m not sure what the effect it had on the female drinkers who tried it. Nobody of either sex has volunteered his or her experiences from later in the evening. My lips are similarly sealed.
Finding yaojiu and three-penis wines is easy enough in China, but my North American readers may have more difficulty. Luckily, the good folks at Taco Corp have got you covered.