Lifestyle

Inside The Largest And Oldest Chinese Herbal Dispensary on The East Coast

Kamwo Meridian Herbs, which opened in NYC’s Chinatown in 1973, lays claim to meticulous combinations of specific dried herbs that promise to quell an array of ailments, from stress to poor circulation, with centuries-old concoctions.
Reading time 3 minutes
Photography by Vincent Tullo

Chinese herbal medicine’s history can be traced back over 3,000 years, and stems from the early Zhou Dynasty; four seminal texts on the topic were published between 26 BC and 220 AD. It’s one of many practices comprising Traditional Chinese Medicine, or TCM, along with acupuncture, tai chi, tui na (a type of massage), and more. All TCM practices share a key belief in the constant pursuit of balance, or yin and yang—a concept derived from Taoism.

Medicinal herbs first became popular stateside in the late 20th century, particularly in the 1990s, when the virtues of self-care started being extolled. Nowadays, there’s an even wider, woke-about-wellness audience for these ancient remedies, often to supplement (not necessarily replace) Western meds. At Kamwo and other TCM practitioners, these magical-seeming cures can be customized for each patient during a consultation involving a slew of questions on family health history, bowel movements, sleep patterns, and more; as opposed to the traditional roster of vitals, like height, weight, and blood pressure, taken on a visit to an M.D. As these herbal remedies have entered the Western wellness conversation in recent decades, concerns have proliferated about the lack of quality control and spotty research, with the efficacy more anecdotal, more reliant on cultural lore and word of mouth, than on formalized studies.

The fundamental difference between holistic, Eastern remedies and Western medicine also explains the growing interest and usage of TCM in the West: Chinese herbal remedies are more subtle, specific, and tap further into a mind-body mix of symptoms. Where Western medications and treatment plans tend to be hyper-specific and crisis-focused, quick to isolate and fix a physical issue with a tiny pill, TCM is more nuanced, preventative, and holistic.

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The methods of ingesting Chinese herbs have evolved greatly in recent years. Instead of boiling the often-pungent herbs into a potent, often unpalatable tea, the more modernized apothecaries, like Kamwo, now sell the herbs in granulated form. For a truly flavor-free ingestion option, easy-to-swallow capsules of herbs are also an option.

As Chinese herbal medicine has become more mainstream, the experience of procuring these have evolved, too. The archetypical Eastern medicine apothecary is dark, shadowy, and slings utterly mysterious blends of often-odious herbs; by contrast, Kwamo is bright and well-lit, and there’s an easily navigable website to research in advance or order online.

In the past decade or two, Chinese herbal medicine has cropped up all over the ever-expanding wellness market. And, of course, Gwyneth Paltrow, the patron saint of peak woo-woo lifestyle brand, Goop, dabbles with Chinese herbs and a holistic doctor. There are Chinese herbs in Moon Juice Dusts’ adaptogen-filled products, which founder Amanda Chantal Bacon has evolved from a single storefront in Venice, California, to a global brand, sold at places like Sephora.

Undoubtedly, these medicinal herbs will crop up in more products and places, no longer procured only via trekking to a Chinatown herbalist (though there’s a distinctive appeal to getting the authentic, in-person experience). It makes a lot of sense, really, given sweeping shifts culturally to know what we’re putting on, and inside, our bodies, and Chinese herbal medicine offers all-natural remedies for a nuanced range of maladies, with a few millennia worth of history and application to back it up

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