As an aspiring anthropologist, looking at food culture is essential for understanding many deeper cultural elements. Food allows us to see what's available & valued by a culture as well as gives insight into certain customs & delicacies. During my travels around Southeast Asia, some of the most interesting flavors were introduced to my palate. While the United States does have many cross-cultural elements, our great melting pot may not fully capture certain qualities of the homelands. Perhaps it's the local ingredients, or a recipe that's been passed down for generations that make certain food taste so unique in the homeland. Food brings us together, allows us to explore, and gives insight into other cultures.
During my travels to Japan, I visited multiple cities and prefectures. Each area has signature dishes from Kobe beef to Ramen. One of the most famous beverages that have reached international renown is rice wine or sakē (酒). Sakē is served both hot & cold and flavored with fruit such as plum, lychee, or apple. Awamori (泡盛) is a traditional Okinawan rice beverage similar to sakē, typically served cold. An interesting type of awamori, habushu (ハブ酒), is served throughout the island and is the topic of this essay. Rather than being flavored with fruit, a deadly pit viper, the habu, is coiled in the bottom of each bottle. The native Okinawan habu (はぶ), which is related to rattlesnakes, is highly venomous and regarded as one of the most dangerous animals on the island. One bite from this vicious viper could cause severe injury or even death. Statistically, most who encounter the habu survive, but some are disabled for life due to the venom effects. Don't worry, drinking habushu won't cause any adverse effects such as this!
Most bars, regardless if they were Okinawan-owned or not, served habushu. As shown in the picture posted at the top of the document and in the link below, the snake is coiled up at the bottom of the bottle. Either the live snake is drowned in the awamori, or the snake is captured, killed, and put on ice. Sometimes the snake's insides are removed, and the snake is sewed back up to improve the overall flavor of the mixture. During the aging process, the ethanol will nullify the effects of the venom, making habushu safe to drink.
Being stationed in Okinawa allowed us to explore a foreign culture. From being in Okinawa for three great years I have some interesting stories to tell. One of our 'Marine traditions' was taking the new arrivals to the island out in town to drink and explore the culture. During this initial introduction to Okinawa, we would induct our new arrival into the group with a shot of habushu. This intimidating beverage always gets the same reaction; ”is this poisonous?" We always liked to mess with our new Marines and tell them that the venom will get them more intoxicated. Without much hesitation, that's all the motivation a young Marine needs to take that shot.
Another question that the reader may be asking; How does it taste? Not very good! Imagine a dead snake being soaked in a jar of rice liquor for an extended period of time. That's precisely what it tastes like! I am a huge fan of sakē and other rice liquors such as soju. Most of these liquors I would recommend for regular drinking if you are a fan of alcohol. In regards to habushu, this something to keep on a shelf and drink once in a while. The problem is that you have to go all the way to Okinawa to export it. Discussed in the article is the process of doing so. Customs will make sure the snake is not endangered (which it's not) and allow for export.
What made habushu worth writing about is both the unique nature of the mixture and the fact that you have no choice but to travel to try it. Unless someone you know has exported a bottle of habushu, take a trip to Okinawa and try this infamous beverage.