Seen on a typical-looking Thai street stall sit a few large jars labeled with some big, bold Thai script, the liquid inside the jars are various shades of red. Welcome to the Yah Dong stall.
A staple drink of working and rural class Thais, it is regarded as a medicinal alcoholic drink, a tincture that has many variations across South East Asia. The origins are unclear, but most Thai people believe that it was likely introduced by Chinese doctors centuries ago and since then, the tonic took its own path to today’s firewater.
A New Alcohol Experience
Enjoy may be a word that is disputed – lets just say that it is a Marmite thing! However, it certainly is a remedy – ok, that too can be up for discussion. Personal tastes aside, it is certainly popular the length and breadth of the Kingdom and this is probably due to its versatile qualities and characteristics.
A lot of stalls upcountry can be found with a drinking partner inside: snakes, centipedes and scorpions; berries, bark and bear parts. There are as many variations as there are ailments. On the street, it is the run-of-the-mill rotgut that is readily available. The vendor is likely to say words such as “very hot, aroi, big power” and they are likely to charge you 10 baht for the privilege.
Unless you’re a savourer that really likes to go about new alcohol experiences akin to a sommelier, you’re likely to shoot this back in one. The incidental items surrounding this drink such as hot or cold water and sour fruit do tell you that there may be the need to quickly remove the taste, just like our Mexican friend, Tequila.
What’s in Yah Dong?
Yah Dong is made from spirit, so expect it to burn as it goes down, but in no way is it as harsh as neat tequila, vodka or indeed some whisky. It does have a medicinal flavour: hints of cough syrup, menthol, mouthwash and even that spray you used to buy to shoot down your throat at your sore tonsils.
Lao Khao or Thai Whisky in its cheapest format is the main ingredient; the bottles that you see in every convenience store on the spirits shelves next to the cashier. The second ingredient is the mix of herbs known as “Eleven Tigers”. Bought from local grocery stores and pharmacies, it is a compound of herbs that needs to be crushed down, poured into a sealable jar then added to the whisky. “Yah” and “Dong” in Thai mean medicine and pickled, respectively. It is the medicine that is pickled, not the person.
Packet instructions say that one to two days is enough to allow the items to infuse and then imbibe before meals, but some people, a lot of people, who use this as a vehicle to oblivion and simply regard it as flavoured moonshine prefer a slightly better taste, so ten to twenty days allows for the mellowing of this one-off blend.
Younger people drink this to get drunk and several shots of this through the course of a drinking session will certainly make that happen. Locals of an older generation may take this habitually and often in the morning, before meals and at night. It’s said to increase vitality, aid lumbar pain and help flush out the kidneys. Different ‘blends’ can increase energy or relax you, it is said.
Personally: it’s a great accompaniment to a night in with friends and beers in place of the usual shooters.
The next time you’re out in a new area or in a cab going home, ask a local where the nearest Yah Dong stall is and get involved.
By Kevin Goldsmith