I’ve been writing about the local alcohol industry quite a bit. Thai craft beers and Thai rums are all interesting but they’re newcomers in Thailand. If you want a true Thai artisan drink, you should try Ya Dong.
You have probably seen the stands on the street. Big jars with big red labels and a lady with a ladle. Every concoction has different benefits. One is an aphrodisiac, another will give you the strength of a buffalo or cure your stomachache. Although it might look suspicious, Ya dong is only lao khao (white rice spirit) mixed with herbs and spices. The latter providing the medicinal and other benefits.
The creation of Ya Don originated at the temples. When the monks were making their morning rounds, collecting alms, it was allowed to put some alcohol in their bowls. The rule being the depth of one finger-joint. Herbal and/or medicinal drinks don’t count as alcohol so a monk may fill up his bowl with as much as he wants.
The beverage was originally made by drying herbs. Once dry, they were crushed and the resulting powder was added to lao khao. This technique has faded out and today entire undried stems, roots and leaves are wrapped in cheesecloth and left to soak in alcohol for up to thirty days.
Until quite recently this drink hasn’t made it into any bars. The reason for this is that ya dong is in general looked upon as a low class beverage, interfering with the Thai ambition to be hi-so. Yet, if made well, it can be quite delicious and enjoyable. Herbs like lemon grass and kafir lime are often used as well as honey. Most ya dong has a sweet and herby palate. The people at Studio Lam and Tep Bar have realised its potential and started making and selling their own. If you’re truly adventurous go and find a street stall, it’ll be a lot cheaper as well. However, be cautious, don’t drink too much of it. Sometimes the alcohol used is home brewed and isn’t always safe to consume in large quantities.
If you’re hooked on the stuff, you can even make your own. Buy a bottle of lao khao at 7/11 or Tesco and buy a herbal mixture at any local pharmacy. Mix it up, let it sit for a couple of weeks and voila!
Ya dong is an interesting drink and it seems there might be some sort of revival on the horizon. Wether there’s a revival or not. I’m sure the roadside ya dong will always be there, handing out magical powers for ten baht a shot.
Article by Alexander Eeckhout