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Originally published by Sarah Moran. Last updated by Catharina Cheung.
Leung cha (涼茶), literally translated as “cooling tea,” is an integral part of every Hongkonger’s childhood, as well as a fixture of the city’s very own intangible cultural heritage. Serving dark medicinal drinks in ceramic bowls or plastic cups, Chinese herbal tea shops are a familiar sight on many a street in Hong Kong.
With the Covid-19 pandemic sweeping the globe, it’s all too easy to freak out over a tickly throat, so why not give Chinese herbal teas a go? Before you scoff at the idea of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), know that the Chinese have been relying on such herbal concoctions to maintain their health for centuries now, and it’s worked for them!
Herbal teas may not look very appealing, but you can always rely on them to stop a pimple or two from popping up after a fast-food binge. For the uninitiated, the world of herbal tea can be downright confusing. That’s why we’re here to guide you through the most common types of herbal tea, what they’re each best for, as well as a pronunciation guide—you’ll be ordering like a true local in no time! Refer also to our guide on where to get Chinese herbal teas.
Pronunciation: jaa6 sei3 mei6
Best for: All-round health, sore throat, skin problems
24 herbs tea is like that model student you see at school who’s just good at everything. It’s an all-round, cure-all tonic that Chinese mums will always recommend when you’re breaking out, or if you’re feeling under the weather. It can detox the digestive system and neutralise the after-effects of smoking and drinking. If you’re feeling a bit funny but don’t quite know what the issue is yet, downing some 24 herbs tea is usually the way to go.
As its name suggests, this tea is composed of over 20 different kinds of Chinese medicinal herbs. While the exact recipe varies from shop to shop, some common ingredients found in 24 herbs tea include mulberry leaf, monk fruit (羅漢果; lo4 hon3 gwo2), and peppermint. The cooling nature of 24 herbs tea helps dispel “heatiness” (熱氣; jit6 hei3), a traditional Chinese medicine concept that every Chinese person seems to instinctively understand but not be able to explain, that has more to do with accumulated “heat” and toxins than actual temperature.
Pronunciation: gai1 gwat1 cou2 caa4
Best for: Stress-induced issues (insomnia, fatigue, muscle tension, etc.)
Ever had those days when you’re just so tired and stressed out that you have no patience to deal with anyone and just can’t function? That’s where the Canton love-pes vine tea comes in. Made from ingredients such as cane sugar, Canton love-pes vine, dates, and liquorice root, this tea is slightly sweet tasting and can help ease headaches, cleanse the bladder, relieve fatigue, and relieve issues with the urinary tract.
Pronunciation: ng5 faa1 caa4
Best for: Regular consumption to maintain health
Made of five different types of flowers (chrysanthemum, honeysuckle, silk cotton, plumeria rubra, and Pueraria lobate), this tonic is probably the sweetest of the bunch and therefore the best entry-level herbal tea.
The easiest way to tell whether or not a bowl of five-flower tea will do you good is if you have mouth ulcers, which are an indication that you have too much heatiness in your spleen and stomach, or that you are too dehydrated. Five-flower tea can dispel heatiness, clear the digestive system of bacteria which causes bad breath, and also quench thirst. A good choice for the stifling summer months when you’re feeling dehydrated and weighed down.
Pronunciation: haa6 fu1 cou2 caa4
Best for: Low blood pressure and liver disorders
Mildly bitter in taste, the common self-heal tea is a popular cooling drink to prevent heatstroke in the summer months. Made with liquorice root, this tea is also commonly used in Chinese medicine to prevent chapped lips, treat liver disorders (“liver fire” in Chinese medicinal terms), regulate blood pressure, treat inflammation, and other diseases. It’s also commonly used to improve eyesight and relieve bloodshot eyes.
Pronunciation: heoi3 sap1 caa4
Best for: Bloating
In Chinese medicine, your health hinges on the balance between all the elements in your body. When your body has a higher proportion of water retention—”dampness”—it’s considered a source of illness. You can tell you have a lot of dampness if you haven’t got much of an appetite, or if you’re feeling sluggish for no reason. With ingredients such as white mulberry, dried mandarin peel, and ginger, Anti-dampness tea can clear away bloating, detox your body, and strengthen the spleen to increase the body’s ability to dispel water.
Pronunciation: fo2 maa4 jan4 caa4
Best for: Digestive system disorders (acid reflux, irritable bowel syndrome, gastroenteritis, etc.)
Before you get too excited learning that this tea is made from hemp seeds—yes, from the cannabis plant—know that this tea will not get you high. These nutrient-rich seeds are lightly roasted before being crushed and boiled into this herbal tea. The result is a thick and slightly sweet drink that lubricates your system, improves digestion, and helps ease bowel movements. Constipation? We don’t know her.
Pronunciation: je5 got3 coi3
Best for: Respiratory issues
One of our favourites that tastes more like watercress soup than a herbal tonic, this tea is particularly good for soothing the throat. It can ease coughs, help dissolve phlegm, and also dispel heatiness. It often comes sweetened with monk fruit, but in some shops, you can choose to have it as is—our preferred serving method.
Pronunciation: gam2 mou6 caa4
Best for: Colds and flu
The clue’s in the name. This herbal mixture is specifically to ease the symptoms of the common cold, such as chills, blocked and runny noses, coughs, and sore throats. It can also ease headaches and backaches. The flu tea might not taste particularly nice, but let’s be real, if you’ve got a cold, you won’t be able to taste it anyway!
Pronunciation: gwai1 ling4 gou1
Best for: Skin problems and flushing out the digestive system
This herbal concoction can be consumed in either jelly or tea form. Interestingly, one of its ingredients—when prepared the traditional way—is actually turtle shell, something that has long been in use by the Chinese for medicinal purposes. Before you blanch, don’t worry, you can’t actually taste any turtle! Besides, commercially sold guilinggao is prepared without turtle shell powder these days, although it does still contain the same herbs.
Because of its detoxing and heat-dispelling properties, guilinggao is particularly good for the skin, preventing breakouts and improving the complexion. It can also ease sore throats, mouth ulcers, and minor digestive issues. The jelly often comes with a bit of honey or syrup drizzled on top and is eaten like a pudding.
Pronunciation: sau2 niu5 ling4 zi1 caa4
Best for: Strengthening overall health
This sweet tea can strengthen the immune system and is particularly beneficial for improving liver and kidney function. It can also aid in alleviating insomnia and alopecia (hair loss). The lingzhi fungus—better known in Western countries as the reishi mushroom—has long been prized by the Chinese in the belief that it promotes good health and longevity by lowering the risk of heart disease and cancer and boosting the immune system.