Chinese Medicine Balls

A package of wrapped dried salted pitted plums and an unwrapped one (similar to Chinese medicine balls).

Medicine balls made from dried salted pitted plums.

When I see the blue and white wrappers peeking out from the basket behind the rice cooker, I think it might be some Chinese White Rabbit candy. Not that my husband buys milk candy. He sees me looking. “That’s what medicine balls are like,” he says.

Medicine balls like the ones the Chinese doctor used to give him when he was growing up? They were made medicinal herbs bound together with honey. He’d tear a piece off and suck out the licorice and cinnamon flavor.

“These would be high-end medicine balls,” he says, unwrapping one of the blue and white papers. The owner of the Oriental Market, the only Vietnamese grocery store in town, told him to try them. “They’re good for your health,” she said.

Before I can get a picture of one, he’s eaten them all. We buy another bag and ask the store owner the Vietnamese name. “Trần bì,” she says. The name translates as naked skin and comes from the orange rind in the candy. These medicine balls are really salted dried plums infused with sugar, salt, orange peel, and licorice. I unwrap one and pull off a tiny piece. It’s strong and salty. It would be hard to eat all at once. Now I know why my husband corrected me when I wrote that he put a whole medicine ball in his mouth and sucked on it. “You tear off a little bit at at time,” he said. It’s been a day and I still haven’t finished mine.

The medicine balls that the Chinese doctor made in the small village in Vietnam that my husband grew up in are called thuốc tể, compounded medicine. Unlike the smooth texture of dried plums, they can be fibrous and sometimes not that pleasant. The orange peel flavored salted plums may be the closest I get to trying a medicine ball. Here are some links to some pictures of real medicine balls:

Traditional way of making medicine balls

Making medicine balls with some improvised equipment

Modern commercial medicine balls wrapped in a plastic coating


8 thoughts on “Chinese Medicine Balls

  1. These short posts explaining things Vietnamese are lovely. Thank you! I vaguely remember medicine or health effects about them — but I have the sweet dried plums, same wrapper but usually purple, in a bowl downstairs and in a cookie jar. My family loves the licorice/orange flavor though they are very sweet. I noticed a couple wrappers next to my husband’s whiskey glass the other night and he said, “They’re very good.”

    • Thank you for reading. Your husband is better at eating the dried plums than I am. I still haven’t learned how to eat them. Maybe some whiskey would help.

  2. Google translate has some struggles translating the idioms 🙂 Looks like the one with all the photos contains raw eggs? Cool to see; thanks for sharing.

    • Yes, it looks like that’s what they’re adding: “trứng” is egg. Using Google translate on Vietnamese can have some amusing results. I end up using for phrases. Thanks for reading!

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