Herbal ecstasy

From sexual ennui to diabetes, a restaurant in Singapore supposedly cures it all.


Mark Jenkins
October 15, 1998 11:00PM (UTC)

I have a horrible feeling I know what's going to happen next.

"Just a moment," says my pal Boon Hee, who lays down his chopsticks, jumps up from the table and scuttles through the packed Imperial Herbal Restaurant. I'm left nervously making small talk with Mrs. Wang Tee Eng, the restaurant owner, in-between mouthfuls of "Quick Fried Shredded Fish With Yam."

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My worst fears are confirmed when Boon returns waving two branchlike objects. "This one bull penis, this one deer penis!" he announces triumphantly.

Curious diners watch my expression as Boon and Mrs. Wang describe the aphrodisiac properties of the two organs, and how they're boiled, dried and sliced to make into curative, or "tonic," soups and wines. Mrs. Wang is especially explicit when explaining why. The dainty Singaporean restaurateur points to the shriveled testicles and exclaims, "That's where all the hormones are!"

I sit there with an aghast look on my face. I wish I were someplace where lunch companions are not in the habit of brandishing mammoth mammal members at me in public eating places.

Mercifully, Boon returns the offending objects to the kitchen and we resume one of the most interesting -- albeit peculiar -- meals I've ever eaten.

The Imperial Herbal Restaurant, located in the heart of "Old Singapore," is, according to Mrs. Wang, the world's only restaurant serving a full gamut of dishes expressly intended to remedy conditions ranging from arthritis to sexual ennui (that's what the bull and deer you-know-whats are for).

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The restaurant's runaway success in Singapore may be attributed to the Chinese conviction that you truly "are what you eat." It was inspired by southern China's "tonic soup" cafes -- eateries specializing in soups made with ingredients said to possess curative powers. Patrons of these establishments believe their yin and yang can be calibrated by consuming as many bowls as possible. Tonic soups, Boon says, are familiar to Singaporeans -- many of whom have roots in southern China -- because they are a staple of doting mothers who are thrown into a tizzy if one of their offspring looks even slightly off-color (when it comes to mollycoddling, Jewish mothers can't hold a candle to their Chinese counterparts).

In contrast to the down-home ambience of the traditional tonic soup cafes in southern China, Singapore's Imperial Herbal Restaurant is decidedly upscale, replete with rosewood furniture and antique silk wall hangings. The restaurant seats 160, and the day I was there, it was crowded with tables-full of tonic wine-chugging housewives, yuppies scarfing dishes intended to reduce their stress levels, ginseng-gobbling tourists from Hong Kong, Taiwan and Japan, and even a few bemused gweilo (white devils like me).

In Mrs. Wang's kitchen from the beginning has been a famous Chinese
herbalist/physician from Yianjin, China, Li Lian Xing. Mr. Li worked
with a master chef from China to concoct a myriad of
health-enhancing recipes. They created dishes that were not only curative -- but savory as well. Take, for instance, my shredded fish with yams. The fresh-steamed fish was
firm but tender, and served in a pungent garlic sauce that was a mix of sweet and spicy. Superb to the taste. According to Mrs. Wang, the yams will help strengthen my spleen and
stomach, thus improving my digestive system, and tone up my lungs and
kidneys. The dish is also supposed to reduce blood sugar and
remedy mild forms of diabetes.

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As for the Double-Boiled Chicken Soup with Ginseng and Chinese Wolfberry that I ate, the hearty dark broth allegedly improves blood circulation, lowers
cholesterol and improves eyesight. The chicken
they use for this dish, incidentally, is "black chicken," a different
breed of fowl whose flesh is as dark as slate. The Singaporean Chinese
believe this breed of chicken is more nutritious than your run-of-the-mill
white-fleshed variety.

I'm warming to the subject and ask Mrs. Wang to recommend something for
the after-affects of a 24-hour, transcontinental, trans-Pacific marathon
flight from Boston. She doesn't miss a beat. "Coming from a cold, dry
climate to Singapore, which is hot and humid, requires your lungs to be
moistened," she says. "And for that I recommend dishes using the bulb of
lily flowers."

And jet lag itself? "Ginseng!" blurts Boon, and Mrs. Wang nods sagely.

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"Ginseng in tea, in soup, in main dishes -- always restorative," she intones.

While flipping through the menu, I encounter dishes far more exotic than the ones
Boon has ordered for us: "Monkey-Head Mushroom With Milk Vetch Root"
("Improves complexion; enhances memory and all mental functions; sedative
prevention of cancer, especially stomach cancer"); "Stewed Shin Beef With
Plygonum Multiflorum Soup" ("Prevents premature graying; promotes
longevity"); "Freshwater Fish With American Ginseng" ("Prevents spontaneous
perspiration; fatigue, shortness of breath"); "The Whip Soup"
("Aphrodisiac"): "Gui Fei Soup" ("A lady's tonic soup for a youthful and
beautiful complexion"); "Multiflorum Jelly" ("Preserves the original color
of the hair"). Scorpions and ants are also served, after being marinated in Chinese rice wine and deep-fried in a lightly spiced
batter until they are a crispy golden brown. Ants, a group of esteemed
Chinese scientists recently reported, act against rheumatism, Hepatitis-B
and other "immunity disorders."

For those who are faint of heart, it's easy to find less adventurous items on the menu as well. Most of the dishes feature quite familiar
ingredients -- seafood, poultry, beef and vegetables. It's only the
presence of the oddly named curative herbs that is potentially off-putting.

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I'm skeptical about all this talk of curative powers. But Mrs. Wang points to Chinese medicine's "four pillars"
(the other three are acupuncture, manipulation and foot therapy). She
correctly observes that Western medicine has for years been co-opting the
tenets of its much older Chinese counterpart. AIDS researchers are
particularly aggressive in their pursuit of Chinese herbalist cures.

Among sophisticated Singaporeans, one of the Imperial Herbal Restaurant's
selling points is Mr. Li's ability to get his hands on China's finest
herbs, many of which the Chinese government restricts from being exported.
This is thanks to the restaurant being a joint venture with the Chinese
government -- an anomaly that is testament to Mrs. Wang's proficiency in the
art of the deal (for its part, the Chinese government welcomes the
foreign currency).

Another draw is Mr. Li himself. The trained herbalist (he's also a
qualified physician) mans a traditional-looking Chinese herbal medicine
counter close to the elegant restaurant's entranceway, a sight as
incongruous as a prescription counter at Morton's.

By request, Mr. Li will check your pulse and examine your tongue, provide a
diagnosis of your health and recommend dishes you should order. He may
also prescribe a package of herbs for you to steep in hot water and drink.
These packaged herbs range in price from $15 to $25. You might choose a
remedy for female sexual ennui, a mixture of herbs appropriately named for
Qin Fei Yin, a reputedly insatiable imperial courtesan. Or how about an
herb mixture that promises to preserve your "youth and longevity"? A gift
of 20 Singapore dollars (about $15), presented in a traditional red
envelope (available at most stationary stores), is a customary -- though
entirely optional -- gesture of appreciation for Mr. Li's consultation.

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The Imperial Herbal Restaurant has astutely tapped into the Singaporean Chinese fascination with
food and its relationship to health. Its regulars include many top
politicians, including Lee Kuan Yew, the nation's senior minister who served as the prime minister for 25 years.

Mrs. Wang tells me she's begun a trend. Herbal restaurants are in the works
elsewhere in Southeast Asia. However, she's quick to point out that none
of these restaurants has the same special arrangement she does with the
Chinese government.

Boon and I finish our dessert of
"Menthol Jelly With Honeysuckle Flower" ("Good for sore throat"), which
frankly makes me feel a little peculiar, as the restaurant slowly starts to empty. Although the dish has the look and feel of lime Jell-O, the menthol has the same effect on the lungs that
old-fashioned mentholated chest-rubs do.

I sit back in my chair, waiting for a wave of well-being to wash over me,
sweeping away in its path the detritus of jet lag and an overindulgent
night on the town, not to mention the heebie-jeebies from the four cups of
coffee I needed to get me going this morning.

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Nothing.

"It's not like Western drugs," Mrs. Wang says admonishingly. "You must live
healthily and eat herbal meals regularly. No quick-fix solutions."

Well, at least my "original hair color" has been preserved.


Mark Jenkins

Mark Jenkins is an author and freelance writer. His travel writing has appeared in the pages of Condi Nast Traveler, the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times, as well as many other magazines and newspapers. He was born, raised and educated in Singapore

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