Before aspirin, Pepto-Bismol and brand-name blockbuster aphrodisiacs there were star anise, sword beans and tokay geckos. Cambodia’s traditional medicines, ranging from the everyday to the exotic, have long been called on for a number of common ailments.
“Lizards, Barks and Fragrances,” a new exhibit opening on Oct 1 at Romdeng Restaurant on Street 174, takes a closer look at more than 40 ingredients used in traditional Cambodian medicines.
“People think it’s superstitious but there is a real philosophy. It’s really serious,” said Gustav Auer, Friends International hospitality and business coordinator and curator of the exhibit.
Mr Auer spent two months researching and gathering the ingredients for the exhibition. His work led him to the National Center for Traditional Medicine, part of the Health Ministry, and a traditional medicine man in Kompong Speu province.
Mr Auer said he was unaware of whether many of the remedies actually work.
Mr Auer said a driver in Kompong Speu recommended the traditional medicine man, and during his visit he noticed how busy and popular his remedies were among members of the local community.
The national center was established in 1982 but has grown in the intervening years and now offers short courses for practitioners of traditional medicine, said Dr Hieng Punley, the center’s director.
“We want to teach traditional healers because their knowledge [was] learned orally from their parents and we wanted to help keep their training” alive, he said.
Mr Auer said the center is now working to combine tradition with modern-day medical convenience and even offers a pill form of the Cambodian bloodwood tree: The tree’s sap is said to be beneficial for red blood cells.
Mr Auer said the exhibition at Romdeng includes physical examples of the traditional ingredients hopefully to drum up more interest in the subject, especially among young Cambodians.
“Young Cambodians don’t know [about traditional remedies] anymore,” he said. “I want them to be more interested because it’s absolutely amazing, fascinating.”
Some of the more unusual ingredients that Mr Auer’s exhibition covers include starfish, which combined with other components is used for skin diseases and hemorrhoids. Grilling and eating centipedes and scorpions is thought to provide relief from asthma. Other animal ingredients include lizards, toads and snakes.
But not all of the remedies in the exhibit are unfamiliar. Mr Auer includes some ingredients that are easily found in the kitchen pantry. Black pepper can be used to combat high-blood pressure, colds, skin diseases and inflammations. Onions have also been used to fight colds and bleeding gums. Mr Auer said that from experience he knows that using the dark purple rind of mangosteens in infusions can settle upset stomachs in about one hour.
Mr Auer also includes folklore about the ingredients in the exhibit.
Legend has it that horseshoe crab powder when combined with other ingredients and sprinkled into food will make people fall in love. But the crying snake is an omen of heartbreak. It is believed that if a recently married man encounters this species of snake in the forest, it means a marriage will not last.
But it’s not all bad for the crying snake: When marinated in wine the reptile is an antibiotic, and when grilled and pounded it is used to treat measles.
The exhibit was developed out of Mr Auer’s personal interest in natural remedies, especially when used in food, and he hopes visitors keep an open mind about the ingredients because every part has a purpose.
“It’s a big part of Cambodian culture and should not be forgotten,” he said. “It’s cultural history.”