As I headed for Chi World & Health, I had no idea what to expect. (Actually, I'd expected chai, since I'd misread the sign.) The modest building is tucked behind Suter's Gold Medal Sports and across from the Inferno, near the corner of North Sherman and Commercial Avenues. A large gold and white maneki neko, or beckoning cat, waves customers inside.
Open the door and you're transported, like Alice, to a place filled mysterious vials, brightly colored packages covered in dazzling artwork, teapots and carafes in all shapes and sizes. Oh, and ginseng...lots and lots of very expensive ginseng.
As I stood trying to absorb the exotic quality of the room, I was approached by the owner, who introduced herself as Vicky Jiang. Sensing a newbie, she proceeded to give me an immersion course in Eastern herbal medicine, starting with the ginseng.
Did I know the best ginseng in the world, better than the "hotter" imported ginseng from China and Korea, came from northern Wisconsin? (No.) Was I aware that ginseng root came in farmed and wild varieties, and that it was priced according to age, not size? (No and no.) Did I realize the reason she was so healthy and vibrant and youthful was because of her use of ginseng and other herbals? (I was starting to.)
She poured me a small cup of ginseng tea from a glass carafe. It had a pleasingly sharp, almost bitter taste. I looked at the prices on the small boxes of ginseng root, labeled "Premier Ginseng From Wisconsin Farm Sold Only in Madison, the Capital of Wisconsin USA." They ranged from $80 to $120 per half-pound. Yipes. She assured me it would set me back two to three times as much in Chicago.
Jiang continued her rapid-fire tutorial: look here, slices of deer antler (good for low blood pressure); over here, reishi mushrooms (strengthens the immune system); artichoke tea (cleansing); there, cordyceps royal jelly tonic from Tibet, for vitality ($26 for 10 vials); angelica (hot flashes), Cough-Off tea (self-explanatory). It was important, she told me, to have everything in balance, in moderation.
There were rounds of aged dried black tea called puer, looking like wheels of cheese in exotic packaging; oddly shaped teapots ($40); and pottery toads with coins in their mouths -- for feng shui, she told me ($25).
As Jiang talked, I mostly gawked. I had a lot to learn.