Growing up, Adrian Chang spent a lot of time in his grandfather’s Chinese apothecary in San Francisco’s Chinatown. The small shop on Washington and Waverly streets, Superior Trading, closed two years ago, but Chang recalls the floor-to-ceiling drawers holding dried cicadas, twigs, berries, tangerine peels and even seahorses.
“My mom would always say I should take this or that for my cough, and I was like, ‘Oh gross,’” says Chang. As an adult, he regrets that he dismissed his family’s early efforts to educate him on herbal medicine and understanding food as medicine. His grandfather passed away about a year ago, “with this regret that his legacy didn’t continue without him.”
But now, Chang and Erin Wilkins, proprietor of Herb Folk, an herbal medicine shop in Petaluma, have teamed up to teach a series of live online workshops on Asian American herbalism and folk traditions — and with it, they hope to start reclaiming that legacy and their connection to East Asian folk traditions.
In their first workshop, held Jan. 9, Wilkins did a rundown on qi and the five elements theory in Traditional Chinese Medicine, then Chang did a cooking demonstration of dashi broth and winter root vegetable soup, explaining each of its ingredients’ traditional medicinal associations along the way, such as kombu for purifying the kidneys in winter, and carrots for promoting lung health and the immune system.
Throughout the series, which will run through 2021, they’re emphasizing the ancestral roots to concepts that have been popularized over the years through food and wellness culture, like fermenting and repurposing food scraps. Other classes will focus on Lunar New Year traditions, qi energetics and seasonal spring herbal medicine along with a cooking demonstration of Kola kanda, a Sri Lankan porridge simmered with medicinal herbs.
“Folk traditions have been carried on through oral tradition, through community and lived experiences,” says Chang. “Then it becomes commodified and you lose that connection to all the people who birthed that wisdom.”
He and Wilkins met in 2019 at a community supported agriculture, or CSA, event hosted by Radical Family Farms, a Sebastopol farm specializing in Asian heritage produce, and they had discussed launching the project ever since. Their backgrounds already primed them: Wilkins, who has a degree in acupuncture and Eastern medicine from the Acupuncture & Integrative Medicine College in Berkeley, has been running a clinical practice in acupuncture for 10 years. Chang had recently returned to the Bay Area after 10 years living in Japan, Singapore and Sri Lanka, learning the cooking and folk traditions he now teaches from friends and family members who practiced them every day.
They bonded over their journeys in reconnecting with their Asian American identity and decided to work these discussions into an educational series on herbalism and food as medicine. In Traditional Chinese Medicine, food and herbs can address imbalances in the body as it interacts with the seasons and environment, with some being cooling, like raw vegetables, and others warming, like ginger.
Until recent years, Wilkins had compartmentalized her profession from her Japanese American heritage, interest in social justice and oral history, and other aspects of her life. She has since applied “Asian American” to her work and title as an herbalist, a small shift in language that she says has been nothing short of revelatory.
“I learned about (umeboshi) in a very formal educational setting,” says Wilkins, of the fermented plum that is said to aid digestion. “Then I remember, oh yeah, we ate umeboshi in our meals just casually because it tastes good.”
Much of their teachings derive from Traditional Chinese Medicine. The holistic philosophy of well-being dates back to at least China’s Shang Dynasty (1600-1046 B.C.), when the earliest written evidence of what was by then already a sophisticated system of medicine was recorded. Its principles are rooted in Taoism, and it has been practiced, with adaptations, in many parts of East and Southeast Asia (it is an entirely different system, however, from Ayurvedic medicine practiced in South Asia, although both share a holistic approach).
Though their lessons derive from China, Chang and Wilkins are conscious of applying the term “Asian American” to their work to acknowledge that their approach is filtered through their Asian American upbringing — a collective experience that they believe transcends specific ethnicity. Chang is a third-generation Chinese American, and Wilkins is a mixed-race fourth-generation Japanese American, or yonsei. They plan to create a space that is inclusive of other Asian American backgrounds through group discussions, and hope to shine a light on the diversity of the Asian American community while acknowledging their own areas of expertise.
Their new education effort follows a decades-long, rocky passage in America for Traditional Chinese Medicine, which encompasses five branches of discipline, including qi gong (a body and mind exercise), acupuncture, herbal medicine, food nutrition and tui na massage (a therapeutic massage practice, thought to be one of the world’s oldest). Until the 1980s, it was taught and practiced in primarily immigrant East Asian communities.
In 1974, Miriam Lee, a Chinese immigrant in Palo Alto, was arrested for practicing medicine without a license. As a factory worker at Hewlett-Packard, she began to practice acupuncture for members of her community, which she learned from a master acupuncturist in her hometown in Shandong province. Demand for her services grew. It has been said that at Lee’s first hearing, over 100 of her patients showed up to protest the arrest. Her trial led to the legalization of acupuncture in California in 1976, and Lee founded the Acupuncture Association of America in 1980 to promote its education.
In 1992, the National Institutes of Health established the Office of Alternative Medicine, now known as the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, to promote research and regulation of treatments practiced outside of Western European-based medicine. However, many of these ancient therapies continue to be scorned, feared and mocked in popular media and Western medicine fields.
“It’s very difficult to reconcile these different explanations for health and disease,” says Linda Shiue, M.D., a physician and director of a teaching kitchen in San Francisco. Having a cultural connection to Chinese medicine and folk traditions while only a clinical background in Western medicine practice, Shiue says that food and nutrition are woefully underappreciated in the latter.
“I learned zero about food,” says Shiue of her medical training. Yet, “half of premature deaths are attributable to our overfed yet malnourished society,” she writes in her upcoming cookbook, “Spicebox Kitchen,” a project inspired by recipes she would hand out to patients.
Throughout the ’80s and ’90s, Traditional Chinese Medicine underwent “a process of being exoticized or dismissed until it was found useful in studies and clinics,” Wilkins says. It also became institutionalized in American colleges, where three- and four-year master’s degrees can easily cost around $80,000. Wilkins says part of the goal of Herb Folk and her workshops with Chang is to make their services, and this knowledge, more accessible. The next two classes offered in the virtual Asian American Herbalism series, each two hours long, are offered as a two-part package for $100, or $50-$80 separately.
But the workshops are about more than reclaiming these methods for the Asian American diaspora. They’re hoping that it also builds a sense of community in the Bay Area around Asian American herbalism and folk traditions.
During the series’ first workshop, students could participate in a Zoom chat feed, and some expressed revelations on how they’d grown up with these ideas around food and medicine without fully realizing it. One student in attendance, Christine Su, said family members would dispense notions of Traditional Chinese Medicine, often in the form of scolding or cooking advice. But the underlying principles behind why some foods were thought to be cooling, while others were warming, had eluded her.
“It’s so moving to me to hear how nature-based our medicine and food is, growing up immersed in the idea that Asians live in cities,” wrote Su, an activist and founder of the agricultural start-up PastureMap.
That sense of community is something that Chang has craved since moving to Sonoma County with his husband four years ago. He says there is very little Asian American community in the region — even though Chinese and Japanese Americans have a deep history there. Now, due to the pandemic’s social distance-mandated, screen-dominated lifestyles, he has enjoyed connecting with people from around the world interested in his cooking and knowledge, which he shares on his Instagram account, My Kitsune Cafe. And he has found inspiration in like-minded people of all backgrounds who are embracing their ancestral folk traditions.
“There’s this misconception that Asians are super exotic at home, and when they leave the house they aren’t, and in fact we are all of it at the same time,” Chang says. “I think being able to normalize that concept is very empowering.”