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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Rice wine believed to cure many ills

Rice wine believed to cure many ills

Singha Towit has been making rice wine in Pursat province for 30 years. At 70, she

claims a glass of it gives her the energy to put in a full day's hard work without

tiring, despite her age.

"Everyone should drink a small glass or two each day," she says. "It's

good for your body and good for your skin."

Indeed, rice and herbal wine concoctions are believed to cure many ailments, according

to wine makers and regular users. Herbal wines are said to help enhance sexual stamina.

Muscle wines give energy and help build a strong body. In the countryside a glass

of rice wine is commonly drunk each morning after breakfast to induce energy for

the day ahead. After childbirth many Khmer women drink it mixed with honey and fruit

to restore their health, prevent food poisoning and to warm their bodies. Towit recommends

that a post natal woman drink it regularly until she is confident her body has recovered.

To make her brew, Towit first cooks the rice and uses salt water to separate clumps.

After adding yeast, the rice mixture is left to ferment for four days. Water is added

and after three more nights the rice floats to the surface. The mix is then distilled

in a pot sealed with a paste made from crushed rice hulls mixed with rice porridge

known as bor bor.

Towit sells her rice wine for 2,000 riel per liter to shop owners and local customers.

It is sometimes "improperly used," she admits. "Some people drink

too much and feel too brave. It gives them a mental disease that makes them crazy."

Kim Sern has been selling other brands of medicinal rice wines at Psar Cha for more

than ten years. One concoction made with Chinese roots is often purchased by old

cyclo drivers to sooth muscles and gain strength. Wine bottled with native snakes,

spiders or scorpions is said to relieve back pain.

Another wine of Khmer root medicine and crushed tiger bone, an ingredient Sern says

is readily available and not so expensive, is popular with men and women as a cure

for sexual diseases - including AIDS. She doesn't confirm its effectiveness.

"People don't come back to tell me if they are cured or not, but many come for

a period of time and then disappear," she said. Whether they recover or not

I cannot judge."

All her wines sell for 300 riel per glass.

For stomach ache, some of her customers swear by a rice wine with ginseng. One faithful

customer, 60-year-old Yay Mao, says she had stomach problems for decades - ever since

the Pol Pot regime - and was often unable to eat properly. She finally tried Sern's

rice wine with unripe banana. "I drink a glass every day before eating,"

she said. "Now I can eat anything with no problems at all."

The benefits and risks associated with alcohol have long been debated by health experts.

Numerous websites and medical journals claim that when taken in moderation - around

one standard drink per day - alcohol can reduce cholesterol, heart disease, stroke,

gallstones and Type 2 diabetes. Moderate drinking acts as a depressant on the nervous

system bringing relief from anxiety, relaxing muscle tension and reducing inhibitions.

Local doctor Prum Darachan, clinical service manager for Marie Stopes Reproductive

Healthcare clinic, says moderate drinking can improve digestion when taken at meal

time - as Yay Mao claims.

"I think some traditional medicine can cure some diseases," he says. "But

there needs to be strict control by the government. Many products receive no quality

control - such as locally produced rice wine - and often cause health problems rather

than cure them." Darachan warns that pregnant women shouldn't drink any alcoholic

remedies and he notes that excessive alcohol intake can contribute to heart and liver

disease.

But many local wine manufacturers claim their products will cure sexual disorders

and related complications.

The label on Angkunh Kingkuork Khmer Herbs Wine says it provides energy, sooths aching

muscles, and cures gonorrhea and syphilis. Prom Bora, whose family has been producing

the sugar cane and pineapple mix for more than 20 years, says it's always soaked

in tree bark for a week.

He says it is mostly purchased by men to cure impotence, urinary tract infections

and sexual diseases. He estimates they sell 6,000 bottles per month - more during

holidays.

Another popular brew is Muscle Wine, a Chinese herbal wine introduced in 1963 by

Lao Hang Heng Wine. Manager Ung Kuong says the company gets good feedback from customers.

It claims to work to alleviatiate rheumatism and fatigue, facilitate circulation

and strengthen the kidneys. It also promotes good sleep, making customers "look

fresh, healthier and younger."

One final, possibly appealing attribute, according to Kuong, is that even when consumed

in excess it does not cause a hangover. "Drink it all night, don't mix it with

other wines, and wake up full of energy," he says.

As for the taste? "It's not dull," he says. "It's a hard taste if

you're not used to it."

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