Habu-shu, Okinawan Snake Wine
Updated: Oct 31, 2021
One of the goals for this website is to help introduce people to a variety of products and interesting aspects of Japanese culture. Regionally, a popular product for many visitors to Okinawa is habu-shu, which is the Ryukyu’s version of “snake wine”. Hours of research led to the creation of an eBook on the topic. To help explain the details, we have included an excerpt from Section 4 of our recently published eBook.
Section 4 : Asian “Snake Wine”
With a little bit of history and context behind us, perhaps now is a good time to explore a specific category of beverages and relate how awamori ties into the discussion. With examples of distillates spanning the continents, it is well known that alcoholic beverages are produced using various ingredients such as, but not limited to, grapes, potatoes, grains, sugarcane, date palms, and even coconuts. The range is vast, depending on the origin and availability of ingredients. However, with the desire to understand perhaps the most bizarre ingredient, I will turn my attention to the production methods utilized to create snake wine.
As I have acknowledged in the Introduction of this report, I find the topic of snake wine fascinating.
As a result, I have given much thought to the category. During multiple sessions of contemplation, I have wondered why there is no compilation of snake wine history and style variations, and the existing material is difficult for the general public to uncover. True, one can search the Internet for snake wine and find several well-written articles on the subject. However, most of my search results have rendered articles that focus on one country at a time and are limited to blog posts that are written by or for tourists. There is some quality information available, and I have referenced several of these posts for this project. However, I want to go deeper by sharing regional similarities. Before doing so, let us first take a look at where the story begins.
THE STORY OF LEPROSY GIRL
According to legend, a girl of 18 years old, who lived in northern China, was due to marry a young man from an adjacent region. Sadly, the girl became ill with leprosy, which led her family to suggest that this might be a good time to go ahead and proceed with marriage in the attempt to pass the disease on to the bridegroom’s family. Nevertheless, instead of following this advice and potentially harming others, the young girl opted to forgo the union. According to a popular rendition of the story, she opted to stay home and drown her miseries in her father’s wine. Fortunately for her, her father was a famous winemaker, so there was plenty of booze to go around.
Legend has it that the young girl drank so much wine that she passed out and slept for several days. This outcome was odd and troubled the family deeply. No doubt worried about the girl’s well-being; the family was determined to figure out what was going on. Under her parents’ scrutiny, the beloved daughter’s condition began to improve, and eventually, she was healed. When the family closely investigated how she had recovered from leprosy so quickly, simply from drinking wine, they discovered that one of the empty jars had a dead snake in the bottom. Thus, the story of Leprosy Girl was created and passed from one generation to the next. Although there are various interpretations of the tale, there are contemporary operas titled Leprosy Girl (麻风女) that are performed to reenact this story.
THE STORY CONTINUES
While I was unable to uncover a timeline for the history of Leprosy Girl, certainly there is a long history of the use of snakes for medicinal purposes in China. For instance, the classic book referenced in the passage below was written around 200AD to 250AD.
“Snakes were used as medicine as early as more than 2,000 years ago in the Shen Nong’s Materia Medica, and they have a medicinal value all over the body, saying: Snake meat has the effects of invigorating blood and expelling wind, eliminating phlegm, and removing dampness, and replenishing Qi [chi]. It has a good curative effect on rheumatoid arthritis, numbness of limbs, blood deficiency of Qi, convulsive epilepsy, and skin pruritus.”
Later works of literature also mentioned the importance of snake parts. Perhaps the greatest example of this is essentially the bible of Chinese herbal medicine, Compendium of Materia Medica (aka Bencao Gangmu), which was written by Li Shizhen in 1578 (published in 1593). Included among Li’s encyclopedic volumes is a description of the Five-Step Snake that was said to be a potential prescription to “treat leprosy, spasms, neck swelling, [and] malignant sores, eliminate necrotic muscles, and kill various parasites.”
Furthermore, we can look to the history of snake oil in the 19th century United States, when Chinese workers arrived to help build the Transcontinental Railroad. According to Lakshmi Gandhi, the workers often brought snake oil with them, “which is rich in the omega-3 acids that help reduce inflammation. Snake oil in its original form really was effective, especially when used to treat arthritis and bursitis. The workers would rub the oil, used for centuries in China, on their joints after a long hard day at work.” The reputation of snake oil changed when American businessmen tried to replicate the traditional Chinese remedy. The “Born-in-the-USA” version was less effective and became widely known as a fraud, synonymous with the snake oil salesman moniker that followed and is used to this day.
But, what about the modern beliefs in the benefits of eating snake meat? Indeed, we know that snake meat is consumed around the world, including the Southwest United States. To answer the question of nutritional value, research has led me to an online article written by John Alba. There he lists the basic statistics of snake meat:
Calories – A serving of meat is 3.5 ounces. A raw snake has just ninety-three calories per serving. To put that in perspective, a serving of chicken breast has around a hundred and sixty-four calories, and it’s considered healthy meat. Eating snakes may be good for your heart. Moreover, it can undoubtedly aid in keeping you trim.
Protein – There are eighteen grams of protein in a serving of snake meat. The chewy texture is a result of the fat to protein ratios.
Vitamins & Minerals – Among other benefits, snake meat has amino acids, linoleic acid, phosphorous, salts, B vitamins, and omegas.
Fat Content – Snake meat has about a third as much fat as beef of the same weight and portion size.
Consequently, according to TCM, snakes and their internal organs have consistently been considered vital for the promotion of human health and wellness. On that account, many people retain the belief that such medicinal purposes, also discernible in snake wine, are more than an urban legend that began with Leprosy Girl. Here we are over a thousand years later (possibly), and variations of snake wine continue to be made in several countries. Production quantities range from small-scale operations to mass production. We dive into the details later in this section, but one reason for this prevalence lies in the primary ways that TCM differs from Western medicine.
For example, TCM mostly adheres to the practice of preventive medicine. In contrast, Western medicine is typically prescribed after symptoms have manifested. Therefore, snake wine was consumed regularly as an energy boost and to aid in the speedy recovery of various illnesses. It was, and I suppose still is, particularly popular among men, who turned to the beverage to help boost essential stamina.
The section above continues by highlighting the similarities of regional snake wines. Examples of such run deep in Southeast Asia. We began the discussion by visiting Thailand, then Laos, Vietnam, and Cambodia. Okinawan habu-shu ties into the discussion as we explore global trade and Chinese tributary networks. Naturally, habu-shu is explained in further detail in Section 5 of the eBook. A must-read!
Highlighting Similarities and Differences
With several examples mapped out, complete with photos, we began to wonder what these bizarre beverages have in common. Likewise, how are they different? As a hint, what makes habu-shu especially different from the others is the manufacturing method. The base spirit is awamori as opposed to “rice whisky”. In Cheers to Good Health, we explain what awamori is and then move to break down the distillation methods in a way that is easy to understand. To learn more about this unique category of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), consider reading the new eBook on this fascinating topic. Cheers to Good Health! eBook