Why aren’t you drinking the Wang Lao Ji?

Imagethief spent a busy two days helping some representatives of a European country manage a last minute press conference. This was a sudden request that had resulted in 36 hours of breakneck work involving much frantic communication, central European languages, weird time differences and assorted ministers, agencies and secret handshakes. Ultimately all went well, but it was a weary team that schlepped its way back to the office.

Upon getting back, I headed for the pantry to get a Diet Coke. Once upon a time I used to drink a can of real Coke a day, but I also used to be 20 kilos heavier. I have a wicked sweet tooth inherited from my father, an Englishman (no further explanation should be required), and kicking soft drinks was a big part of my weight loss program. But we keep a fridge full of the stuff in the office and for the past few months I had increasingly fallen under the seductive thrall of the Diet Coke. Wicked sweet with no caloric guilt!

One-a-day Diet Cokes got to be such a habit that a couple of weeks ago I decided to give up on it for a while, lest I become a poster boy for the as-yet unknown effects of excessive aspartame consumption (are those antennae on your head, or are you just happy to see me?). But after today’s frantic activities, and the hot taxi ride back, I caved. As I was pulling a can from the fridge in the pantry our assistant finance manager flounced in, all floral sun dress and bright eyes, and said to me, “Why aren’t you drinking the Wang Lao Ji?”

I really had no answer for that. I had noticed that little cartons of Wang Lao Ji had started appearing in the fridge a week or two before. They looked a bit incongruous next to the Coke and Fanta Orange that are the mainstays of our beverage selection. Wang Lao Ji is a Chinese soft drink based upon a herbal tea. It’s advertised on busses across the nation and  recognizable by its distinctive red and yellow logo. Like any Chinese food or drink with a tenuous connection to the world of Chinese herbology, it is ascribed mythical powers as a tonic, including the ability to forestall diseases you’ve never heard of and increase various vital essences. Most of this is marketing courtesy of the manufacturer, a large Guangdong-based beverage and pharmaceutical company. On a more practical level, the Black China Hand has cited Wang Lao Ji as a hangover cure.

Despite all this, I was stumped as to how to answer my colleague’s innocent question. She rushed to take advantage of my speechlessness. “It’s very good for…I don’t know how to say it in English…It can help you to jiang huo.”

I didn’t know what “jiang huo” was, but it didn’t sound like something I should be doing in the office. I wasn’t even sure what about my appearance suggested that I needed to jiang huo. Either way, whatever jiang huo was, it was clear that she didn’t think a Diet Coke was going to help me achieve it.

“It’s a Chinese medicine thing,” she added helpfully. “Sometimes, you know, you eat things that make your body too hot.”

Got it. It’s a cooling food. Jiang huo (降火) means “reduce heat”. In fact, I’ve had some exposure to this. My Singaporean mother-in-law is big on cooling, home-made liangcha(cold herbal tea). In sweaty Singapore that’s not hard buy into. But to the Chinese and their overseas kin, “heaty” foods and “cooling” ones aren’t just about spiciness or physical temperature. It’s a metaphysical concept that relates to proper balance, energy and health. Certain times and physical conditions demand certain kinds of foods. Too much heaty or cooling food can cause problems. Too much durian (a classic heaty food)? Guaranteed pimples. Of course it might also be that durians are loaded with oil. But anyone who has eaten durians would agree that “heaty” is not a bad classification for the sulfurous fruit. Herbal teas, along with bamboo shoots, crab meat, water chestnuts, egg whites, pears etc. are cooling. I gather it’s best to aim for a kind of lukewarm average over time. Balance is everything, right?

So I cracked open a carton of Wang Lao Ji and gave it a slurp.

The mystery cooling ingredient is sugar. Despite its olde-style patent medicine labeling and health tonic claims, Wang Lao Ji is well placed in a fridge full of soft drinks. There might the barest, most elusive hint of herbal flavor lingering somewhere behind the cloying sweetness, but you have to breathe in over the liquid like a wine connoisseur to detect it. Everything else is syrup. It’s definitely not my mother-in-law’s bitter, bracing, home-brewed liangcha. I can also report that the little cartons of Wang Lao Ji will burp sticky liquid out of the straw and all over your suit at the slightest provocation.

So it’s back to the Diet Coke for me. It might do much for my balance or help me jiang huo, but nor will it put me on the express train to diabetes.

However I can believe that Wang Lao Ji makes a good hangover cure. After all, is there anything heatier than a hangover? For that reason alone it might be worth keeping a carton or two in fridge, wedged between the sour plum juice and the hair of the dog that bit you.


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