What Is Yaa Dong?
The Most Beautiful Thai Drink
I have a friend who comes to Thailand every year around Christmas time for some R’n’R. Let’s call him Andy, since that’s his name. This past Christmas Eve, Andy and I went out to the local yaa dong shop just down the road for a quick nip of the good stuff before starting a big night on the town. As we finished our small bottle of tow, Andy had a sudden brainstorm. He pulled out his phone and hustled me outside to have our picture taken in front of the shop’s sign by a waitress.
This is a nice Yaa Dong place, near Pailing Square in Korat. Actually, corner of Suepsiri Raod.
Not from from this location (14.968192,102.066609) on Google maps.
“Remember where you were exactly a year ago today?” Andy asked showing me the first picture. No, I couldn’t recall, I said, but I seem to remember getting blitzed with him.
Scanning through his old pictures, Andy pulled up another snap and it was uncanny. There were the two of us, looking half-pissed, standing in exactly the same spot as in the picture we just took. A little thinner and wearing different clothes, but otherwise it could have been a minute before.
Do not expect a fancy restaurant. Yaa Dong is cheap and served in small places…
“That’s it man, that’s what yaa dong does to you!” Andy said with a wild laugh. Then we went out and I’m pretty sure we repeated the same wild night as the year before, though this is the only part of both nights that I can remember.
Another friend calls yaa dong the most powerful accelerant in the world, alluding to the way it takes you from zero to wildly drunk in just a few quick glasses.
So that’s the warning – yas dong is not to be trifled with – and here are the facts.
What is yaa dong (ยาดอง)?
Yaa means medicine and dong means to leave something in liquid until is pickles or ferments. So yaa dong is pickled medicine, but not with dill and garlic. There are all sorts of varieties as we’ll see, but they all have the following in common.
Herbs, wood, bark, vines, roots, and seeds of trees and other plants thought to have curative properties are dried and sometimes powdered. The dried plant parts or powders are then soaked in liquid for a matter of hours to weeks to extract the medicines, then, well, you drink it! I say liquids since you can easily dong your yaa in regular old H2O, and for many people in Thailand, this is the way to go. A bag of herbs will say on it how much water to use, at what temperature, etc.
Then there’s the somewhat more fun option: yaa dong lao = medicine pickled in alcohol. The spirit of choice is lao khao (เหล้าขาว = white liquor) since it’s cheap and strong, and the plant stuff easily overpowers it’s otherwise somewhat disgusting taste.
With powders, the herbs are simply stirred into a shot of whisky or a bottle and drunk right away, but this is the cheapo stuff. For the best yaa dong, you need to use whole dried plant parts and leave them in the alcohol for a minimum of 5 days to let all the goodness leach into the liquid. Most varieties of yaa dong are finished off by adding some honey to the bottle before serving. This helps to take away any bitterness from the herbs. Thai honey is full of flavour and adds a lot of body to the drink.
This is Yaa dong with some Yaa dong fruits. The bottle of Hong Thong has Yaa dong inside, and not whiskey… that was 60 baht.
So What Kinds Are There?
People around the country believe in the powers of different herbs, so you can find hundreds of different yaa dong recipes floating around. Here are a few of the best known / most available varieties, along with their inventive Thai names and believed properties:
Cool Recipe (soot yen)
Among other mystery ingredients is surely menthol, giving this darkish brew a strong minty cooling aftertaste. Supposedly, this is what you need to drink when the girlfriend cheats on you, you get fired from your job, and the dog gets run over. Chill out!
Horse Kicks the Coffin (maa ga-teub long)
Though this one doesn’t sound too promising, ‘horse’ is probably the most palatable of the yaa dong blends. It comes out a very nice golden brown thanks to a lot of blonde wood chips in the mix, and the taste isn’t too strong. It’s also supposed to be good for treating a chronic cough. However, like the name says, it has a kick. Half an hour after drinking, get ready for take-off!
11 Tigers (seua sip et tua)
11 Tigers is a brand name for the only widely available bottled yaa dong found in Thailand. This can be found at most any retailer of alcohol, usually bottled in brown beer bottles. Some yaa dong shops will keep this brand on hand or else make their own similar variety. Tiger comes out quite red and looks like petrol when poured in a glass. The taste is better. Supposedly good for joints and arthritis, it’s definitely good for building up a bit of a tigerish mood. Grrrrrrrowwwwrrr!
The shop down the street sells a blend called ‘naree’ for the ladies. It’s made from a 50-50 mix of horse and tiger, and then further diluted with extra honey to make it easier on the gals. Though the shop owner tells me it makes women ‘hot’, which is exactly how my lady friends told me they felt before dancing like maniacs and then passing out on the floor of the club the one and only time I managed to convince them to have a yaa dong with me.
Grown Up, Doesn’t Know How to Fall Down (tow mai ruu lom)
This is a very well known name, though the ingredients seem to vary considerably between shops which obviously have their own secret interpretations of what gives a man ‘power’. I doubt it’s the placebo effect, since I’ve drunk this with guys who didn’t know or understand the name but who still reported the same scientific findings: it works.
A frighteningly yellow variety I have found in a few shops, snake tastes worse than it looks, but seems to do the same thing as tow. It’s oily and hard to keep down, so snake is an appropriate name.
Black Fingerroot(grachai dum)
The dark and mysterious grachai dum is earthy, extremely bitter, and intense. It’s known in Thailand as a cure for male impotence as well as a cure for swollen joints and poor circulation. It’s strong, but my adopted Thai mum drinks a healthy cup once a day and it seems to keep her in a very good humour.
Find Yourself Some Yaa Dong
There are 3 ways to get a hold of some yaa dong in Thailand.
1. Buy some 11 Tiger’s brand yaa dong at the liquor store. Boring, bland, a little anti-social, but better than nothing!
2. Make your own. You can find bottles packed with herbs and a bit of honey at many shops and markets around the country. Add a bottle of white whisky and wait a week, then you’re set.
3. Find your local yaa dong shop. Every neighbourhood either has one or should. I have 3 within walking distance of my house in Khorat! Order a quick 10 baht shot, a small boot-flask-shaped bottle (ben), or a full bottle (khuad) for half the price of the cheapest brand name whisky around. At the shops, yaa dong is served with the unpronounceable naam bai toei (pandan water), an herbal chaser that is the exact anti-taste of the alcohol. Good shops will also give you a plate of sour or pickled fruit to dip in salt-sugar-chili powder (phrik khleua) to munch on between shots, like ma-yom, sour green mango (ma muang), or ‘Thai olives’ (ma-gok).
Yaa Dong from Luang Prabang. Very strong….
Try it, drink it, love it, export it, but always remember and beware of the darkside of yaa dong.
Drink responsibly and never drive while intoxicated!