“Call me Auntie Lam!”
She is hard to miss, a picture of rural enterprise in the otherwise utilitarian surroundings of the Tai Po Hui Market. Her stall is marked by a wooden arbor decorated with bunches of dried herbs, beneath which are baskets overflowing with greens, roots, nuts, sugarcane and dozens of other natural treasures. Lam is in her nineties, and she has been running market stalls in Tai Po since the 1940s, when she fled the mainland with her family. She settled in the new, air-conditioned Tai Po market when it opened in 2004.
Today, Lam is a diminutive presence in the midst of her stall’s bounty, but when she speaks it is with the authority of an expert in her field. If she were of a younger generation, Lam might be considered a naturalist or a health guru, but here she is simply a wise old hawker with decades of experience in preparing folk remedies from local ingredients. Suffering from constipation? Migraines? Arthritis? Lam will delve into her stash of goods and prepare you a prescription to ease your pain. If you don’t want to prepare a potion yourself, Lam has ready-made medicinal tea (leong4 caa4 涼茶) here’s no guarantee as to whether it will work or not, but many of Lam’s customers swear by her knowledge.
These are the heart of Auntie Lam’s business. Every week, old ladies from around the New Territories venture into the hills to collect mountain weeds known as saan1 cou2 joek6 (山草藥). Lam prepares them into assemblages designed to heal any number of ailments from digestive problems to skin conditions. (The idea of putting all sorts of random things together has given saan1 cou2 joek6 a colourful colloquial meaning, which is to “talk nonsense.”) Collecting the right plants takes years of foraging experience and blending them into healing tonics relies on decades of wisdom, like knowing that the Chicken Poop Vine (gai1 hei1 tang4 雞屎藤) helps with eczema. Lam says she learned all of the medicinal properties of these mountain weeds from her grandfather, who began teaching her when she was six years old.
Known in Chinese as “white olives” (baak6 laam5 白欖), these fruits are actually light green in colour. When they are fresh, they have a gentle sweetness and a crunchy, apple-like texture, but they are particularly delicious when cured in salt, sugar and spices. Like everything at Auntie Lan’s stall, they are reputed to have health benefits. In this case, Chinese olives are said to ease motion sickness, coughing and sore throats.
Cactus is known in Cantonese as sin1 jan4 zoeng2 (仙人掌) and the antioxidant-rich vegetable is said to ease any number of health conditions – but it is also a delicious and versatile ingredient to use in cooking. You can eat it chilled in a salad, braised with meat or stir-fried, but the most common way of preparing it is in a soup, which benefits from its crunchy texture and fresh, slightly tart flavour. One of Auntie Lam’s friends, Uncle Au, uses cactus to prepare a medicinal tea called daam3 lung4 faa1 caa4 (石龍花茶).
Find Auntie Lam at Stall W16 in the Tai Po Hui Market, 8 Heung Sze Wui Street, Tai Po. Market open daily 6:00-20:00 but stall hours vary.
Note: Cantonese romanisation in this article is based on the jyutping system, which uses numbers to correspond to the six main tones in Cantonese.