3 Popular Taiwanese Health Foods You've Never Heard Of

by Evangeline Lan

I've been living in Taipei, Taiwan for the past year. Everyday I'm bombarded with ways in which the Taiwanese culture is different from that of the West Coast, but sometimes I'm also hit by similarities between the two cultures in ways I least expected. For example, I've come to realize that the Taiwanese are just as infatuated with the idea of health foods as we Americans are. When most people in the US hear the term "Chinese health food," the first thing that comes to mind is usually either bird's nest soup or shark fin soup, both of which have been delicacies in Chinese cuisine for over 400 years and are still very popular with affluent Chinese around the world. Both items have long been touted as restorative super-foods because of their supposed numerous health benefits; however, I decided to explore lesser-known health food options and examine their various health claims.

I interviewed a few Taiwanese colleagues and came up with a list of health food items, many of which consist of little more than cooked herbs flavored with rock sugar or brown sugar. In Taiwan, Chinese medicine is ubiquitous, sometimes even present in the form of herbs added to everyday snacks sold by small street vendors. In the spirit of keeping my article more food-oriented, I decided to research three items that can be consumed as food - specifically, either as a snack or dessert, a quick pick-me-up, or a meal.

Snow fungus jujube lotus seed soup with goji berries1.Snow fungus jujube lotus seed soup (銀耳紅棗蓮子湯): As its name suggests, this mild dessert-type dish consists of snow fungus, jujubes, and lotus seeds. The snow fungus is tasteless but adds a jelly-like texture to the soup, balancing out the softness of the jujubes and the mealiness of the lotus seeds. Stewed with rock sugar, this light soup is said to have many healthful benefits: the snow fungus contains iron, vitamin C, calcium, and phosphorous and is said to be effective in nourishing the lungs; the jujubes, also called red dates or Chinese dates, have a slightly sour but mostly sweet taste and are said to help relieve stress; the lotus seeds are said to "clear heat," helping one calm the nerves and sleep better. In addition, this soup is said to help prevent colds, aid blood production and circulation, and keep one's complexion smooth and moisturized.

Cost: NT$50 or approximately US$1.45 per bowl; cheaper if you make it at home.

"Ji", the Chinese character for chicken2. Essence of chicken (雞精): This is essentially concentrated chicken soup commercially produced under high p
ressure conditions. It is said to contain concentrated amounts of protein and "readily absorbed amino acids and bioactive peptides." Commercial essence of chicken generally contains reduced sodium and no fat or cholesterol, therefore it is supposedly more nutritious than traditional homemade chicken soup. Essence of chicken is said to help control anxiety, promote attention span, improve memory, help recovery from fatigue, and lower blood pressure and blood glucose. A 2003 experiment by Zain and Jamalulail, published in the Malaysian Journal of Nutrition, suggests that medical students who ingested essence of chicken daily for two weeks fared better on tests aimed to assess their mental and physical well-being than their peers who ingested either a placebo or carrageenan, a food additive commonly used for thickening purposes. It is recommended that a healthy person drink a bottle (68 ml) of essence of chicken every morning, and more often if they are in poor health, fatigued, or about to pull an all-nighter.
Essence of chicken comes in many different flavors
Commercial essence of chicken is sold in many flavors; in addition to original (plain essence of chicken), there are also caterpillar fungus (Cordyceps sinensis), a prized ingredient in Traditional Chinese Medicine that is commonly used as treatment for ailments ranging from fatigue to cancer; American ginseng, which is said to cleanse excess Yang energy and calm the body; Agaricus blazei mushroom (from Brazil) with Lingzhi (also called "herb of spiritual potency" or "mushroom of immortality"), both of which are said to help fight cancer among other things; and more.

Cost: NT$50 or approximately US$1.45 per 68 ml bottle

3. Dong quai duck (當歸鴨): Out of the three health food items in this article, this is the only one that can be and is often consumed as a meal. As suggested by its name, the main ingredients in this dish are dong quai (Angelica sinensis), an herb commonly used to treat gynecological ailments, fatigue, mild anemia, high blood pressure, and deficient libido, and duck meat. Secondary ingredients are eight other herbs (including Chinese peony, goji berry, and cinnamon twig), ginger, rice baijiu (rice cooking wine), and salt. Dong quai duck is said to be excellent for those suffering from an illness or fatigue, particularly women recovering from childbirth; this dish is believed to strengthen one's blood and restore the body to proper order.
Dong quai duck with misua
Dong quai duck is often served in herbal broth with misua (very fine wheat vermicelli) or winter noodles (thin mung bean vermicelli). The actual herbs used to make the broth may or may not be served with the dish. The dish is said to have a mild yet distinct herbal taste.

Cost: NT$60 or approximately US$1.75 per bowl

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