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: