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Features | What lies beneath | By Tiffany Tang
Features | What lies beneath | By Tiffany Tang

Photographer Philipp Engelhorn traces the supply chain of a Chinese medicine staple

IF YOUR IMMUNE SYSTEM is low and your bank balance high, you may want to head down to your local traditional Chinese medicine shop for a dose of winter worm/summer grass.

Although an expensive staple in traditional Chinese medicine, few consumers know what this exotic ingredient actually is, where it comes from, or how it gets into our soup pots. Photographer Philipp Engelhorn traced the supply chain of the winter worm/summer grass ˇV and it took him a very long distance.

Cordyceps Sinensis is a parasitic fungus that invades a moth larva a few centimeters underground, eventually killing the host, taking on its shape and growing up through the top soil. The fungus attacks in winter and is harvested in spring and summer, hence the Tibetan name ˇ§winter worm/summer grass.ˇ¨

Cordyceps Sinensis is found in the Tibetan plateau and adjoining high-altitude grasslands and shrubs of the Central and East Himalayas. The harvest procedure is simple, but requires careful attention: all you need is a knife or a small axe, and a pair of sharp eyes. The fungus has to be carefully removed from the top soil as buyers donˇ¦t value broken pieces.

After harvesting, the fungus is cleaned and sold by the handful on the street in Tibetan cities and towns, mostly to white-capped, Chinese-speaking Muslims traders. They export the product to markets with Chinese populations, such as Taiwan, Singapore, the United States and Hong Kong, which is the worldˇ¦s largest importer and re-exporter of the product. 

Features | What lies beneath | By Tiffany Tang

Practitioners of Chinese medicine says the fungus can cure cancer, lower cholesterol levels, regulate diabetes, improve the cardiovascular system, maintain healthy liver and kidney function, combat sexual dysfunction, enhance stamina and endurance, and contains anti-oxidant and anti-aging properties.
In Hong Kong, the fungus is sold for between HK$5,000 to $9,000 per liang (50g) depending on the size of the caterpillars. If the indigenous Tibetan fungus is too pricey, a more affordable option is laboratory-cultivated Cordyceps, which contain similar pharmacologically active components. A bottle of 60 capsules costs $398.

Hong Kongersˇ¦ reliance on the fungus has made a world of difference to peasants, who unearth 100 tonnes every  spring and summer. In the 15 years of trade on the open markets, the caterpillars have brought many Tibetans out of poverty.

As one digger says: ˇ§Thereˇ¦s gold on the grasslands.ˇ¨


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