I first met Hsiao Tien on a midsummer day when I first came to Tainan; I was sipping a hot Americano in a café with no air-conditioning when a foreigner couple and their friends came in. As I grabbed my bag to stand up, trying to offer my seat, she did the same. She thanked us and said, “Why don’t you two sit together?” She eventually sat down with me upon my invitation. Noticing my bag, she asked “What’s in there?” “Wormwood,” I said. “I am a Chinese medicine doctor,” she said. Since then Hsiao Tien and I became friends. Coffee and herbs connected us.
Plants have the power to heal your body and soul, which has always made me curious about herbal medicine. About a year ago, Hsiao Tien’s boyfriend, Dr. Cai, opened up his clinic, Xiang Yuan Chinese Medicine Clinic, in Tainan. On normal days, the couple would see patients and prescribe medicine; and when not with the patients, they devote their time to developing plant-based health products. “I want the public to accept Chinese medicine and remove the ‘old-fashioned’ label that is often associated with it.” I am amazed by Hsiao Tien’s ambition. Recently, the couple worked together with Somoku, a small plant-themed dessert shop in Tainan, to produce some herbal balls. Originating from Thailand, herbal balls are a healing tool which I’ve been using for almost a decade.
In consultation room #2, I said to Hsiao Tien, “You might well be the first Chinese medicine doctor who sells Chinese herbal products at an outdoor market.” Prior to the launch of their herbal balls product, Hsiao Tien and Dr. Cai had successfully created several other practical and handy items including handmade soaps, herbal sachets, anti-mosquito solution, and gromwell ointment.
Here I quote from Hsiao Tien:
“The pharmacy is scorchingly hot, filled with the acrid smell of Chinese medicinal powder, pain relief ointment, and various kinds of herbs going through the cooking processes. To produce a jar of ointment, it takes a considerable amount of time to soak and cook the herbs — the hours that might well be spent with my beloved takes a backseat. It’s best to soak the herbs for three to five months. The ointment will turn out vivid purplish red, glossy, and opaque. During the cooking process, the aroma of herbs fills the room and accompanies the crackling sound of frying dong quai (Chinese angelica). Vigorously stir the mixture until it cools down. Pour it into the jar and immediately seal it. The essence of the stems and roots are all sealed in that jar.”
Hsiao Tien continued to weigh, pack, and seal the herbs. “Herbs’ fragrance changes over time. They also diffuse at different rates. We have to pay attention to what goes in first and last when preparing the herbal sachets and balls.”
It’s similar to making perfume, but the making of herbal balls requires way more knowledge on Chinese medicine. I asked Hsiao Tien, “What is san jiao (triple burner)?”
When it comes to Chinese medicine, Hsiao Tien became serious. “It refers to the ‘burners’ in our body. The upper burner relates to our heart and lungs. The middle burner relates to the stomach. The lower burner relates to our kidneys, intestines and bladder. Even though the herbal ball is for external use, Dr. Cai and I both agree that the smell of it could stimulate our burners and make us feel better and healthier.”
I reckon if it was just a normal crafter making herbal balls, he or she would probably only focus on cost, smell, and packaging. But for Hsiao Tien, it’s a different story. She treasures the dried plants as if they are her dear old friends. While she makes the best out of these plants, I also get a chance to learn how I am connected to nature. As I run my fingers over the herbs, I feel calm and peaceful. It must be the magic in Hsiao Tien’s prescription.
Hsiao Tien looked determined and focused. I thought she wanted to heal people’s bodies and souls with plants, but it turns out that she simply wants the public to learn about the various possibilities that come with Chinese medicine. “For body massage, we can use herbs such as moxa, mint, atractylodes, fish mint, ageratum, calamus, perilla, etc. For scented herbal balls, we will add agarwood, sandalwood, and lavender. Different formulas bring different benefits.” The names of these herbs sound both intriguing and elegant. Later on I steamed to heat up the cotton herbal ball. A soothing scent lingered in the air. I closed my eyes to enjoy the moment of being alone in nature.