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Tuesday, October 16, 2007

On the Yin and Yang of Food, Traditional Chinese Medicine, and Eating Bird Spit

Most people are familiar with the Chinese symbol of yin and yang (dark and light), and its idea of two mutually correlated opposites that balance each other. But how does that relate to food?

Growing up, my ba noi (Vietnamese paternal grandma) always told me not to eat too much of certain foods, specifically my beloved mangoes, because they would make me "hot" and thus, give me nose bleeds. To offset its effect she would feed me che dau xanh (Vietnamese dessert soup with green mung beans) because it was "cool." The Chinese concept of "food therapy" may seem a little unusual if you didn't grow up with it. Think of it this way, doesn't your body feel all gross if you've had too much fast food or deep-fried food or greasy food? And then think of how you feel so refreshed if you eat a slice of watermelon afterward? That's because the greasy food (the "yang") made your body "hot." Introducing watermelon (the "yin") brought your body back into balance again.

Wing Hop Fung Traditional Chinese Medicine Luncheon 1

Well, traditional Chinese medicine encompasses those ideas. So I was definitely intrigued when I was invited to a media luncheon to show various ways to incorporate traditional Chinese medicine into dishes.

The luncheon was a preview for a later event where wine and gourmet entrees will be prepared with traditional Chinese medicine ingredients. Tickets are going for $368! The event, "Dining for Beauty - Feasting for Health: Deluxe Bird's Nest Herbal Banquet," was sponsored by Eu Yan Sang, a Singaporean-based traditional Chinese medicine company since 1879, and Wing Hop Fung, a Chinese herbal and gift shop in Los Angeles' Chinatown and Monterey Park, which started in 1985.

The event was held at the San Gabriel Hilton. For my non-SoCal readers, this particular Hilton has a Chinese-cuisine chef from Shanghai, and a Western-cuisine chef from Hong Kong. So ostensibly you get the best, or at least very good Chinese food, in an elegant American setting right? Well, many people seem to think so because there's at least half a dozen weddings here every weekend. I've never attended a wedding reception here myself, but the major complaint I've heard from my relatives and friends, who have dined here, is that the food comes out lukewarm. A definite no-no when it comes to Chinese cuisine. Anyway, just keep that in mind as I describe the food because I'll refer back to this later.

I dragged along UnHip LA, who was not nearly as comfortable as I was with traditional Chinese medicine and its exotic ingredients. She was not nearly as enthusiastic about the experience.

First impression from the table setting alone was very elegant as you can see above. The wines were a cabernet sauvignon, a reisling, and an "I can't remember." :P My cup of tea was constantly refilled, and at one point when it had cooled down, the waiter dumped out the cold tea and poured me fresh hot tea. Silverware was constantly replaced between dishes. Very good service indeed.

First course was pureed partridge with bird's nest. What is bird's nest you ask? Bird's nest, most commonly eaten in bird's nest soup, is really spit from swiftlets. These tiny birds make nests out of their saliva, which hardens when exposed to air. The nests are usually built up high on the side of precarious cliffs. The nests, some of which can run up to $1,000 apiece, are cleaned of feathers and debris, and eaten in soup or as a drink. It supposedly helps you maintain a youthful complexion, stimulates appetite and digestion, and speeds up recovery from chronic illnesses. Does it do all that? Umm, I don't have enough money to drink or eat bird's nest every day so I can't say. But I was seated next to Lan Ong, daughter of the founders of Wing Hop Fung, who says she drinks bird's nest every day. And let me tell you, if I had the money, I would gladly guzzle all the bird spit in the world to look half as good as she does!

What about the soup you ask? The pureed partridge tasted like cream of chicken soup. The bird's nest itself is a bit gelatinous in texture and pretty tasteless.

Wing Hop Fung Traditional Chinese Medicine Luncheon 2

Second course was Kobe beef cubes with hericium (monkeyhead) mushroom and root of Chinese angelica, commonly known as dong quai or female ginseng. Chinese angelica influences the heart, liver and spleen, nourishes the blood, and reduces swelling. The ginseng was part of the sauce and had a rather strong flavor, which if you're not familiar with, can be overpowering. The beef was nice and tender but not nearly as marbled as I would expect of real Kobe beef. I loved the fried lotus chips. Overall, this dish had high expectations but a rather lackluster taste.

Wing Hop Fung Traditional Chinese Medicine Luncheon 3

Third course was braised whole abalone and asparagus with ganoderma mushroom sauce. Ganoderma mushrooms have been used in traditional Chinese medicine for 4,000 years and treats heart problems, allergies, pain, liver conditions, lowers cholesterol levels and boosts immunity. The ganoderma mushrooms are the two dark pieces on the bottom. They were used in the sauce and not meant to be eaten as they taste very bitter. And yes, that is a whole piece of abalone you see. I've actually only eaten slices of abalone, usually at wedding banquets. So I was very impressed with getting a whole piece of abalone. If you've never eaten abalone before, I'd liken it to a very earthy and tough scallop perhaps? I quite liked this dish as the Chinese medicine part (the ganoderma mushroom) was subtly incorporated into the sauce. Plus, I don't know if/when I will ever eat a whole abalone again so I was suitably impressed.

Wing Hop Fung Traditional Chinese Medicine Luncheon 4

Fourth course was sea bass and crab meat with tremella mushroom, shrimp roe, bamboo pith, dioscorea (Japanese mountain) yam, and gastrodia. Gastrodia, a variety of orchid root, influences the liver, unblocks stagnation, controls tremors, and alleviates pain. I'm not sure exactly what or where the gastrodia was in all this, but the other ingredients were all familiar to me and I quite liked this dish. The bass is on a bed of tremella mushroom, also known as white fungus, which I know is supposed to be good for me. The green sauce was a spinach puree if I recall correctly. I was quite, quite full at this point but there was still another course and dessert left to go!

Wing Hop Fung Traditional Chinese Medicine Luncheon 5

Fifth course was grilled prawn with mango and hawthorn berry coulis. Hawthorn berry influences the liver, spleen and stomach, and enhances appetite. Even though I was really full, this dish looked so pretty and was so good I just had to eat it. Now, while the other dishes have incorporated traditional Chinese medicine ingredients, the concept of yin and yang is again at work here. Shrimp is known to be high in cholesterol. Hawthorn berry is known for reducing cholesterol. Thus, serving hawthorn berries with shrimp would balance its ill effects.

Wing Hop Fung Traditional Chinese Medicine Luncheon 6

Dessert was sweet bird's nest in Hawaiian papaya. The papaya was filled with so much bird's nest. The papaya was heated and its natural sweetness was a good foil for the delicacy of the bird's nest.

Wing Hop Fung Traditional Chinese Medicine Luncheon 7

This was actually the only dish served piping hot. Yup, as I mentioned at the beginning, all the other dishes were served at just warm temperatures.

And you know me, I don't pull any punches. So since the general manager of the Hilton just happened to be seated at my table, I had to verify with him if the Shanghai chef was still in charge. He was. So why does all the food come out lukewarm? Shouldn't he, more than anyone, understand the concept of wok hey? And how come they charge $2 apiece simply to cut the wedding cake?

The general manager said the complaints he hears are usually in tones of envy as people boast of topping this for their own weddings, that plenty of brides love taking pictures in the pretty foyer, and that the prices they charge are simply their fees and if people don't like it, they can go elsewhere. And I said, in my family's case, we did go elsewhere. :P It wasn't a question of money, but if Chinese food comes out lukewarm, that's not going to go over so well with the guests. Anyway, so while this wasn't a wedding banquet, the San Gabriel Hilton's reputation for serving lukewarm food, continued. Pluses for presentation and service, mostly good for taste, would have been much, much better if the food came out hot.

I had asked Lan why her company decided to hold the luncheon. Why now? She said it was partly because the younger generation have gradually taken the leadership reins of the company and want traditional Chinese medicine to be more accessible to non-Chinese, as well as incorporated into meals for everyday well-being, not relegated as a cure for ailments. One of the ways Wing Hop Fung has mainstreamed? Her brother added a vast wine selection and wine tastings to the Monterey Park store. A wine tasting at a Chinese herbal shop? Heh, you know me. That's a future blog post right there!

My souvenir from the event was a tiny bottle of bird's nest in rock sugar drink. See the small bits of bird's nest? Still tasteless with a gelatinous texture. Sure I can't afford to drink this every day, but every little bit should improve my complexion right? Right? :P

Wing Hop Fung Traditional Chinese Medicine Luncheon 8

Actually, all joking aside, it's a good thing I can't afford bird's nest. The demand causes the birds to lose their homes, and sometimes their young, as many as three times each season. :(

Wing Hop Fung Traditional Chinese Medicine Luncheon 9

Wing Hop Fung
725 W.Garvey Ave.
Monterey Park, CA 91754
10 a.m to 7 p.m.


727 N. Broadway Suite #102
Los Angeles, CA 90012
9 a.m - 6 p.m.


  1. Wow, what an experience! Too bad it was lukewarm.

    Bird spit soup intruigues me. Which of our ancestors was the first to say, "dude. lets make soup out of bird vomit!"

  2. Jaden,
    Not vomit, spit! Slightly different level of grossness. Hehe. :D

  3. Hi...I came by your blog by googling rau ma! Had to figure out the english word for it. When I got married last year, my mother made me eat a huge container of birds spit che. It had the dried tau in it. I would never pay for it, but it really is tasty. Love all your receipes!

  4. Sarah,
    Bird spit is good for your complexion. Maybe your mom wanted to make sure all your photos would turn out nice. :)


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