Writer: Editor Team
Thai people have been familiar with yahom (traditional herbal powder) for more than three centuries. It is believed that yahom recipes were first brought into the Kingdom in the Ayutthaya period. At that time this medicine was exclusively used in the royal family, as several ingredients were imported from overseas. The making of yahom also required thorough grinding and winnowing, meaning many people were involved in the process. Therefore, it was regarded as a highly valuable item and was so expensive that ordinary citizens were hardly able to afford it.
It was not until the reign of King Chulalongkorn (Rama V) that this medicine became more widely accessible, thanks to his royal initiative that aimed to distribute several medicines to major cities and towns throughout the Kingdom, known as Household Remedies. The Royal Medicine Recipes were also set up during this period, which included yahom due to its many medicinal benefits. Yahom was believed to help improve blood circulation and qi flow, which are important concepts in traditional medicine encompassing the vascular system, the digestive system, and the nervous system. In other words, when all goes well with blood circulation and qi flow, then all else is well.
Due to the spread of the Royal Medicinal Recipes to all corners of the nation and the benefits of yahom, the medicine subsequently became a common household remedy. The formulas were however adjusted by each chemist as time passed, giving birth to several yahom recipes. However, the influence of Western medicine gradually increased and became popular, affecting the practice of traditional medicine and Thai herbal medicines greatly. A key turning point occurred in 1923 when Siam decreed its first Medical Act B.E. 2466, with an aim of bringing its medical practice up to Western standards. This law inevitably put a halt to the development of traditional medicine, causing several practitioners to end their profession.
A year after the law became effective and many traditional medicine practitioners closed up shop, Waan Rodmuang, who once treated Prince Thēwawongwarōpakān, Chief Minister during the reign of King Vajiravudth (Rama VI), and was a key figure in Thai traditional medicine, declared his intent to preserve Thai traditional medicine. He founded “Bamrungchat Satsana Yathai Pharmac,” also known as Baan Mowaan.” Though the doctor passed in 1945, the pharmacy continues to operate to this day.
Making yahom is both an art and a science, as chemists need to pay utmost attention to the ingredients used. Each recipe requires some 10-59 ingredients, depending on their intended usage. Some are used as the main drug, while others are used as a secondary remedy enhancing the effectiveness or decreasing toxicity of the main drug. There are also yahom recipes that are administered to control or prevent complications and those used to add colors, flavors, or scents. Therefore, yahom is nothing short of invaluable local wisdom that does not just treat illnesses but also improves one’s wellbeing without causing side effects.
Ancient medicine recipes require several ingredients, some are not easy to acquire or have to be imported, hence these traditional medicines are expensive. One of these rare ingredients is borneol flakes extracted from bamboo leaves, which have better aroma and medicinal benefits than synthetic borneol, are imported from China. Another one is tiger milk mushroom (Lignosus rhinocerus), which can help to strengthen the body. Another important ingredient is saffron threads which are mainly imported from Spain and Arab countries. To yield sufficient supplies of saffron threads, large quantities of flowers must be hardvested as each flower only has three stigmas, making it the most expensive spice on earth (costing around ten thousand baht per 45 grams). These ingredients have medicinal properties.
Pasinee Yanothai is a fourth-generation heir of Baan Mowaan, an 85-year old Chino-British building tucked away in a small alley on Bumroongmuang Road that was once a clinic called Bamrungchat Satsana Yathai and was where Waan created yahom original recipes. In addition to preserving four recipes that remain today, Pasinee decided to quit her job in a large private firm to revive the Mowaan brand. The decision came after she realized only a few dozens of regular customers remained, prompting her to question if she would just stand idly by as her family’s yahom recipes became history.
Under the Mowaan brand today, only four yahom ancient recipes remain, namely Suramarit, Intara Osot, Prajak, and Sawangphob. All yahom are sealed with a golden leaf as a cooling medicine, and can be used to control nocturnal panic attacks, revive skin conditions, and maintain health and wellbeing in general. All recipes are made in the traditional methods using all the original ingredients, just like in Waan’s days.
(left) New Year gift set comprising Analgesic oil and Chuen Chit lozenges
(right) The remaining four recipes out of some hundred that have disappeared over time
In addition to these four ancient recipes, other products have been launched such as Chuen Chit lozenges and analgesic oil. The herbal lozenges are a new form of yahom designed to be more compatible with modern day life; they can improve digestion, relieve abdominal bloating, suppress coughs, and get rid of phlegm and gas pain. If taken prior to getting a massage, it can help improve circulation. The main ingredients include lovage, cinnamon, licorice, ginger roots, mint, gelatin and sugar. Meanwhile, analgesic oil is made from fresh herbs and provides a cooling sensation. It causes no skin irritation, absorbs into the skin quickly, and its aroma does no change even if kept unused for a long time. The oil can relieve pain, swelling, and stiffness. It works well even when applied without massaging after. It can also be used to relieve bone pain, stop bleeding, and treat fresh wounds; bleeding will stop immediately, and the wound is clean and heals quickly the following day. It can be used to treat insect bites and prevent mosquito bites as well.
(left) Chien Chit lozenges
(right) Analgesic oil
From the cultural perspective, it can be said that yahom’s declining popularity is not caused by deterioration in its quality or effectiveness, but because it has lost its cultural relevance. The revival of ancient medicines to create correct understanding of yahom to stimulate its use will therefore pass on local wisdom to future generations and create important cultural space for ancient medicinal recipes which would otherwise fade away over time.