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Eager for a shortcut to health, wealth, virility or eternal youth? These traditional concoctions have you covered.
So who among us doesn’t want to feel younger, stronger, richer, smarter, and more heroic between the sheets?
The problem is, achieving these goals is hard. They take work. Discipline. Luck. Talent.
We’d need to eat kale. Study hard. Forgo alcohol. Sign up for a PX90.
And that makes us feel, like, ugh. Where’s the remote?
So how about a shortcut to stardom?
As anyone who’s visited a pharmacy knows, there’s no dearth of potions promising vigor, happiness and superior wit — or at least a healthier prostate. Just hand-over some cash, and swallow with 8 ounces of water.
Not buying it?
Westerners are by no means alone in seeking such shortcuts.
In Asia, concoctions purporting to carry super-hero powers are not just ubiquitous. They’ve been around for centuries. In some may lie Big Pharma’s next billion dollar blockbuster — Artemisinin, a key malaria drug, is derived from traditional Chinese medicine. Some are placebos. Others are toxic.
Either way, they tend to be somewhat more exotic than what you get at CVS.
This list, compiled by our Asia correspondents, includes some of the more noteworthy.
But be forewarned: We have no evidence that they work better than the concoctions in the vitamin aisle.
And some (i.e. human sacrifice) are downright hazardous.
1) Deer antler snuff
Imagine inhaling a horn through one’s nostrils. Few things sound less appealing. But such is the putative potency of deer antler velvet that American athletes have taken to snorting the stuff to partake of its growth-inducing properties.
In the corpus of traditional Chinese medicine, deer antler is believed to impart strength, energy, and vitality because of growth hormones in the horns. In Asia, it is generally consumed as a tea made from boiling horn slices. (Dried horn is sold in buckets on my street, whose name in Chinese means “Ginseng and Deer Antler Road.”)
This remedy has caught on in the West in the form of nose spray. Athletes think it helps repair their tendons and muscles. Last year, Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis drew controversy when he admitted he had snorted antler spray to fix a torn tricep.
The science is still out on what exactly it does, but for a macho image, at least, saying you “snort horn” can’t hurt.
By Ben Carlson in Hong Kong
2) Bird's Nest Soup
It’s the next best thing to the elixir of life — as long as you can get over the fact that it’s effectively a bowl of bird drool.
“Bird’s nest soup,” as it’s known in China in Hong Kong, is an expensive delicacy made from the nests of Southeast Asian birds that build their homes out of salivary excretions. Restaurants charge anywhere from $30 to $100 for a bowl of “soup,” which resembles a clear, gloopy jelly.
While I have little appetite for other, more exotic Cantonese specialties — rat, cat, civet, dog, snake — this is one that I can stomach. It’s sweet, delicate, a little refreshing — and more importantly, it’s reputed to keep you safe from Father Time.
By Ben Carlson in Hong Kong
3) Raw baby octupus
Chopped up and served raw, Sannakji is a baby octopus whose tentacles squirm and twist on the plate. Diners dip the delicacy in sesame oil and chew thoroughly, resisting the grip of suction cups that cling to their cheeks and tongue.
If so, eat with caution. Each year a handful of Koreans swallow hastily and suffocate from a tentacle stuck to the throat. Yet for some, the risk is worth the reward: Koreans say that men who survive the wet and slimy treat can count on elevated sexual power.
In North America, animal rights groups complain the octopi are cruelly dismembered and eaten alive. And so it is in Oldboy, the 2003 South Korean thriller (clip below).
But in nearly all restaurants, the invertebrates are already dead before being cut up. Nerve activity keeps the tentacles wriggling. Consider this seasonal summer dish, a pride of the southern coastal city of Busan, an opportunity to savor the world’s most stomach-wrenching, alleged virility-endowing seafood.
By Geoff Cain in Seoul
4) Vietnamese serpent wine
Fear gripped me the first time I put the stuff to my lips. I would have passed on the offer, but it was one of those cross-cultural situations that simply demand acquiescence.
The offer: A highball of wretched smelling, potent rice wine, home-brewed in the Mekong Delta, and marinated in a glass urn filled with dead serpents — snakes, lizards and all manner of bizarre reptiles.
The promise: In addition to the usual bonhomie that from sharing a drink, my visa status depended on this bonding ritual. Plus, the serpent tonic, I was told, would keep me healthy for 6 months. It would impart gusto, make me more manly.
The offerer: My editor at the Communist Party’s English language daily in Saigon (a man whose success depended on speaking so softly that no one could ever hear him, let alone object to what he’d say). We had an unwritten, unspoken deal: I’d fix his writers’ English; He would let me continue filing magazine stories for foreign publications, despite a nebulous work visa status.
There were venomous snakes in that liquor, and while I’d seen him drink the stuff and survive, I’d also watched Southeast Asians eat food so spicy that it would just blow a hole in my stomach.
In the end I survived, and grew to enjoy this ritual. Did the elixir work? Well, let’s just say I didn’t get sick much for a while.
By David Case, formerly in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
5) Human sacrifice in India
Unfortunately, attaining super-natural powers is not all about eating.
Every year or two, police in India arrest someone for performing a human sacrifice in the hope of attaining wealth or magical powers.
Usually offered to the Hindu goddess Kali, the sacrifice purportedly grants the person who performs it power over his enemies, according to ancient texts. But in most modern cases, some poor, illiterate perpetrator hoping to change his fortune performs the sacrifice on the advice of a tantric — a kind of witch doctor who himself claims magical powers, such as the ability to put curses on people or even kill with the touch of his hand.
This is India, so more than occasionally, the tragedy plays as farce. Last summer, for instance, a gang of robbers confessed to attempting to strangle a man because a tantrik offered them a hefty sum for the rope used in the murder – only to refuse to pay when it turned out to be a dud.
In years past, atheist crusader Sanal Edamaruku challenged such a tantrik to kill him with his touch on live TV. Nothing happened, apart from stellar ratings.
By Jason Overdorf in India