Suffering from tired blood, asthma or indigestion? Then, try "Doc" Yang's roast duck with caterpillar fungus. Or, if your ticker is thumping like a locomotive engine, ask for his fragrant pig tongue slices.
Yang Zhongyang is not a real doctor, but his Peaceful Gathering restaurant is like an all-purpose clinic, pharmacy and rehabilitation center for devotees of Chinese herbal-medicine cooking.
His patients travel hundreds of miles to the simple eatery in this southwest provincial capital to sample Yang's nourishing nostrums. Instead of consulting a physician, they simply check off a menu of exotic elixirs promising to cure everything from poor eyesight to premature ejaculation.
"People come in and say, 'Doc, I'm sick, what can I do?' " explained Yang. "For coughs, I recommend chicken cooked with a special butterfly. If they have ringing in their ears, I tell them to try silver fungus and pigeon-egg soup. Numbness in the limbs? I advise a glass of wine made of three snakes."
Most dishes might raise eyebrows at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, but Yang claims their medicinal value has been proved by history.
One of the oldest remedies, euphemistically called "deer kidney and tortoise soup," dates back to the 7th century. An ambitious Tang Dynasty general brewed the mixture of deer, dog, ram and rooster testicles as a way of helping the emperor regain interest in his concubines.
The potency bisque can still be had at Peaceful Gathering for $20 a portion, but most of Yang's specialties treat ailments of less imperial proportions, and they cost just a few cents.
Yang, 63, an herbal druggist who promotes his fare with the enthusiasm of a prairie preacher, said his specially trained cooks can substitute for doctors in all but the most serious diseases.
"We are honest with people," said Yang, a stocky, stooped man wrapped in white's doctor's garb. "If it's cancer, we tell them to go to the hospital. But we can cure the little diseases like anemia, irregular heart beat, bronchitis, dizziness and weaknesses. For the major problems, we can only be consultants."
For Yang, the proof is in the potion. More than 1,000 meals are served daily at his austere cafe located behind an herbal drug store. Despite its national fame, the place is appointed only by a few potted plants, dirty plastic tablecloths and a bamboo-slat painting.
Breakfast is the most popular meal, with elderly men with their wispy beards crowding around the small tables, slurping bowls of snow lotus soup or gobbling down steamed buns spiced with cardamom.
"If I stop eating this food for a few days, I get too tired to walk far," said Gu Hongxiang, 86, who hikes three miles every day for his breakfast fix at Peaceful Gathering. "I feel much stronger after I leave," he added with the hard-eyed glint of a true believer.
Yang said his recipes have been passed by word of mouth for thousands of years, but he guarded the precise ingredients of every dish as if they were blueprints for a nuclear bomb. He refused to allow a visit to his kitchen.
"We have secret formulas," he advised.
He did divulge a few tricks of the trade, however. For example, the snake wine prescribed for numbness is prepared by fermenting three kinds of slimy carcasses in a jar of herbal alcohol for a month.
"The secret," he said conspiratorilly, "lies in the number of snakes in the jar and the type of herbs. I cannot say any more."
The making of bear paw chowder for extra strength takes three full days just to clean and depilate the animal's hairy toes. "You can't boil them too long," he said, "or the paws get too spongy."
Some dishes have been taken off the menu because their contents can no longer be found. In other cases, the local herbal medicine bureau helps search for such precious items as deer testicles, sea horses and tiger thigh bones, he said.
Peaceful Gathering may be the only restaurant in China that refuses to serve rice because it mixes poorly with medicine.
Western health faddists, however, will be disappointed to learn that Yang's dishes use both refined sugar and monosodium glutamate. "Our foods must be tasty as well as healthy," he said. "Otherwise, who will eat them?"
To prove his point, Yang prepared a banquet of therapeutic delicacies for this generally healthy correspondent.
The feast started with a dish of goose and cloves to ease general aches and pains. Then, came a bowl of salty carp-head soup to enhance equilibrium. Next, fruity pork slices in wolfberry sauce to improve eyesight, white-nut chicken to increase vitality and "clearing the heart" cabbage. The finale was a special dumpling to insure good digestion.
I left the table with a pronounced sense of well-being. The stimulation, however, lasted throughout the night, preventing sleep.