Samui Wining & Dining
Dragon’s Breath
Traditional herbal remedies and strong liquor combine to create
the intoxicating Thai ‘medicine’ yaa-dong.

 

Dragon’s BreathMost people like a drink from time to time. In many countries and cultures, religious beliefs aside, it’s a large part of any social gathering or celebration. And when you’re on holiday it’s almost customary to try some of the local brews, whether that’s beers, wines or spirits.

 

Thailand does have two major breweries which produce Singha and Chang as well as several other lesser known brands. There’re half a dozen wineries and a couple of companies producing rums and ‘whiskies’. And you may well have tried the SangSom or Mekhong brands in some of the bars around the island.

 

Despite being known in Thailand as ‘whiskies’ both are actually rums, with SangSom actually winning a couple of gold medals in 1982 and 1983 at competitions in Madrid and Düsseldorf. Mekhong was created by the American playwright, James Honzatko, in 1941 whilst he was living on the banks of the Mekong River. It’s made from 95% sugar cane and 5% rice with the addition of a secret blend of herbs and spices. It was developed further in the mid 1940s and has been mass produced by Thai companies ever since.

 

In Samui’s supermarkets, convenience stores and small shops you’ll also see ‘brown spirits’, like Hong Thong, Crown 99 and Blend 285 which are said to be derived from blended Scottish whiskies. They’re cheap and the old maxim of ‘you-get-what-you-pay-for’ was never more apt. Still, we are in times of economic hardship and if your goal is simply to get inebriated then you’re in the right place. And one of this nation’s most popular alcoholic beverages is also used for medicinal purposes. It’s a ready-made excuse and it’s legal.

 

You might notice in the 7-Eleven and Family Mart stores here that they have bottles of spirits with Thai script on the labels behind the counter. They retail for around 60-80 baht (depending on the brand) for a 625 ml bottle and come in half bottle sizes as well. This is lao khao which translates as ‘white spirit’, and that’s exactly what it is. As it’s between 35% and 40% alcohol by volume (ABV) it does everything you would expect to your internal organs. In the UK there’s a product called white spirits that you buy in D.I.Y. shops and use for cleaning your used paintbrushes. It looks the same and it’s around the same price …

 

Nevertheless, it’s popular because of its competitive pricing and it’s also used to make something called yaa-dong. ‘Yaa’ is the Thai word for medicine and medicinal drugs. And you won’t see yaa-dong advertised, although it is legal. People make it at home by infusing lao khao with herbs and spices, fermenting them for anything from a few days to a few weeks and then having a shot of it twice a day to heal or cure all forms of ailments. It’s generally consumed more often by older folks who generally have more medical problems than the younger generations.

On Samui, small roadside shops have it for sale usually in old rum/whisky bottles. Don’t confuse it with the roadside petrol (gasoline) shops that also sell petrol in old whisky bottles. A shot of yaa-dong is about 10 baht a glass or they’ll sell you a bottle for around 150 baht, depending on how much it cost them to make. Or you can do it yourself for a total cost of about 80 baht.

 

Go into any pharmacy and ask for the ‘Eleven Tigers’ brand, it’s about 15 baht for a packet. It’s described as a herbal bar and it’s about the size of a small cake of soap. It’s a deep red colour and smells earthy, slightly sweet and sort of medicinal in a 1960s cough syrup kind of way. On the back there’re instructions in English which tell you to put (after crumbling by hand) the herbal bar into a bottle of whisky (lao khao) and leave it between 1-2 days. Then take one shot of it before each meal. It says it improves the digestive system and the appetite. There’s a list of ingredients in Thai on the back but only a couple of them are recognisable items – ginger and galangal. The rest consist of fictional names, like Dragon’s Breath and Tiger’s Claw, or are totally uninformative such as the one that reads ‘Korean herb’. And the tiny pictures on the back aren’t much use either. Even the manufacturers, when contacted, aren’t willing to divulge their ‘secret’ ingredients. Maybe they a trade secret, like the Coke recipe or the Colonel’s secret blend of 11 herbs and spices?

 

Making yaa-dong this way is easy, although it’s not recommended to get drunk on it. Memory loss will be the least of your problems. Locals however tend to make their own versions of yaa-dong and also give them great names derived from mythical and real creatures. And they do it in the genuine belief that it’s medicinally beneficial. A significant percentage of the Thai population, including many Samui locals, is of Chinese descent. And they grew up with a strong notion that traditional Chinese medicine or herbology does cure many different ailments and diseases.

 

There aren’t any Chinese herbal shops on Samui that stock all the raw ingredients necessary. And so locals will call contacts on the mainland, explain their medical condition, and have the mix of ingredients sent to them. They’ll then ferment the herbs in lao khao for the recommended amount of time and take a shot of it at mealtimes. And some people will add a couple of bottles of honey to the mix to sweeten it and make it more palatable. There’re hundreds of plants and some animal parts used in Chinese medicine and with 20-30 different ingredients in some ‘recipes’, the combinations stretch into the millions. And whilst there’s no hard scientific evidence to support the medical success of traditional herbal remedies, they remain hugely popular the world over.

 

A shot of yaa-dong isn’t wholly unpleasant, and neither is it particularly appealing. You could always mix some ‘Eleven Tigers’ with a bottle of vodka (around 325 baht for an acceptable one) and at least you’ll know what you’re drinking.

 

Johnny Paterson

 


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