Ask most Japanese what “kombucha” is, and they say it is a mild, brownish kelp-based tea.

But across New York and the rest of the United States, a growing number of fans know kombucha as a lightly carbonated, sweet fermented tea said to possess nearly magical health benefits, including possibly warding off cancer.

Kombucha’s slightly sour flavor and smell mainly divides people into two camps — those who swear by it and those who can’t stand it.

Surabhi Splain, who shops at midtown Manhattan’s Health Nuts food store, is an aficionado who has been drinking two bottles a day for nearly a year.

“I go to class in the evenings, and it gives me energy,” Splain said. “I feel good.”

She said some people are put off by the smell and her friends don’t understand why she drinks it.

According to various commercial bottlers, kombucha originated as a healing and digestive aid around 221 B.C. in China during the Qin dynasty.

It eventually spread to Russia and Eastern Europe, where it is known as kvass.

Some Web sites say kombucha, known by a variety of names, can also be found in Nepal, Siberia and Tibet, as well as Germany, Japan and India.

Although the name is Japanese and literally means “kelp tea,” the beverage is actually a sweetened tea fermented by a bacteria and yeast culture that resembles a mushroom. In Japan, kombucha is known as “kocha kinoko.”

The difficulties and patience required to brew the tea at home have helped popularize commercial brands.

At Health Nuts, they sell only two types of kombucha, both made by California-based Millennium Products, for about $3.50 per bottle.

On the firm’s Web site, founder G.T. Dave says he started bottling kombucha after his mother attributed her success in battling advanced breast cancer to drinking it every day for a couple of years.

Tom Watson, a Web site developer in Seattle, said he learned of the drink from coworkers who enjoy it. He likes it for the health benefits and because it is flavorful despite being sugar free.

“If it was cheaper I’d drink it more often,” he said.

Back at Health Nuts, employee Dhundup Lama said customers are always referring to the drink’s supposed anticancer properties.

“People say it’s good, maybe because there’s a little alcohol in it, too,” he said, referring to the trace amounts of alcohol that come from the brewing process. “Anyway, all good things come with a bad taste,” he joked.

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