A Change of Guard

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Tuesday, 31 May 2016

A shot of traditional Khmer wine a day keeps diseases at bay

Content image - Phnom Penh Post
An array of medicinal alcohol for sale at Phnom Penh’s Old Market. Moeun Nhean

A shot of traditional Khmer wine a day keeps diseases at bay
Fri, 27 May 2016 ppp
Moeun Nhean

Locally produced alcohol, traditional medicinal alcohol, cheap alcohol, expensive alcohol, imported alcohol; all generally contain certain levels of alcohol, making drinkers who over-consume lose their rationality.

The benefits of alcohol, on the other hand – as some alcohol producers have claimed that alcohol is beneficial for one’s health – can be difficult to assess. This is particularly true for Khmer traditional wine, which still retains popularity among people living in the countryside.

The following are the various opinions by locals on alcohol.

Uk Kimsan, a 35-year-old medicinal alcohol seller in Phsar Chas (Old Market), has had her store there for many years. “I inherited this business from my father who had been doing this for 30 years.”

Her shop offers ten different types of wine in jars, in different colours, with herbs and plants soaked in the wine. She can sell up to 35 litres of wine a day, with one shot costing 500 to 700 riels. Most of her customers are blue-collar workers such as cyclo riders, motordup riders, construction workers, and the occasional foreigner.

“My wine stall welcomes foreigners as well. They don’t come to have one or two shots; some even bring back bottles of wine. They probably hear about it through word of mouth.”

“Basically, it’s people from all walks of life.”

She said that some of the foreign buyers she gets are regulars, whom she believes work in Cambodia, while some return once every two to three years, telling her that “the wine tastes delicious”.

“Some foreigners are so into the wine that they would drink four to five shots, get drunk and start stirring up trouble like a Cambodian would. It doesn’t matter if it’s a Cambodian or foreigner; if they’re an aggressive drunk, they would look for trouble all the same.”

While Post Plus staff were in attendance, a 30-year-old customer came into the wine shop and pointed to the third jar, asking Kimsan to pour some for him. He declined to give his name, but said, “I have come here to drink for many years. It tastes good and it makes me feel good even when I’m doing hard work. There’s no problem at all.”

Content image - Phnom Penh Post
Another type of traditional Khmer medicinal wine featuring snakes and scorpions. Pha Lina

Kimsan said, “The wine that I sell here is purely rice-wine, made by my aunt. As for the plants and roots, my father is familiar with them and has been using them for many years.”

Traditional medicine doctor Reachsey, who has continued the job of his forefathers, said that if one knows how to accurately use the traditional medicinal formulas and practises thorough hygiene, then the medicine will effectively combat against illnesses. Unfortunately, Khmer traditional medicine is not as valued as it used to be because certain practitioners do not meticulously abide by the formulas’ steps, causing the quality to drop.

Reachsey gave an example of an illness-combating medicinal wine, saying that bondol pich – a particular type of vine – infused with wine is a well-known traditional medicine consumed by many Cambodians.

“If made correctly, the bondol-pich-infused wine can efficiently regulate the body’s temperature, increase activity in the gallbladder fluid, and help with stabilising the digestive system. Hence, it definitely benefits the consumer’s health.”

He explained that traditionally, three vines of bondol pich vines measuring a palm’s length would be cleaned and dried in the sun. Afterwards, they are soaked in one litre of rice wine for 30 days in a shaded location at room temperature. The vines are then taken out, although some practitioners would leave them in there. Only then can the wine be consumed. Ideally, a person should drink two tablespoons of the infused wine a day.

Reachsey added, “I urge those who drink traditional wine to follow the doctor’s recommended intake to avoid being addicted. That’s the problem because the wine contains alcohol, and long-term alcohol consumption can lead to addiction.”

Dr. Ly Chenghuy, a public health expert and manager of the website www.cambodiahealth.com, said wine or beer “all contain alcohol but at different levels” and according to the consumer’s preference. For instance, on average, beer contains 5 per cent alcohol while white rice wine has 20 to 30 per cent alcohol content.

“From my observation, the number of people in the countryside who consume traditional wine has neither increased nor decreased,” he said. “But traditional wine functions as both a cure and a weapon. Alongside its positive aspect, it also brings about negative effects if the producer or the consumer does not properly follow through with the formula in which the wine is meant to be medicinal.”

Nonetheless, Chenghuy, who has studied medicine in Cambodia and France, explained that if the alcohol is made from pure rice wine as it conventionally is, there would be not much negative impact on the consumers’ health, “because it’s alcohol that is derived from rice”.

The danger comes into play when the wine is made from an unknown source or if it has been combined with chemicals.

Based on these experts, alcohol seems to have been embedded in Cambodian culture for thousands of years, although the initial role of alcohol was to be used medically rather than as a means of entertainment during gatherings as is the case nowadays.

Evidence of alcohol consumption in Cambodia can be found in many sculptures. Another example is how spiritual ceremonies, existent since ancient times, always require alcohol. The influence carries on up till today.

Disclaimer: This article is meant to neither promote nor encourage excessive alcohol consumption.

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