Ng Ka Py 五加皮

Steinbeck’s Tipple
Fu Manchu’s Magenta Martini

What kind of word consists of “Ng”? This is the Cantonese rendering of Northern Chinese “wu” the word for the numeral ‘5’. The Mandarin name of this drink is Wu Jya Pi, 五加皮  literally “Bark of Five Additions.” [1]

So  Ng Ka Py is the Cantonese name for a Chinese spirit or liqueur that might be an infusion of five kinds of fruit peel.  A sort of alcoholic Five-Spice Powder, perhaps? [2]

Actually, it’s an infusion of a herb named Wu Jya Pi or Bark of Five Additions in the Mandarin dialect (Japanese gokahi, Korean ogapi), also known as Cortex Acanthopanacus.

Traditional Chinese Medicine uses this herb — mostly from Sichuan Province — as a tonic to treat problems of the liver, kidney, joints and some other conditions. [3]

Alcoholic content of the spirit is high — about 48 percent or 96 proof. And the taste is intense and not to everybody’s liking — this led to its inclusion in an unusual mixed drink, as we shall see. Ng Ka Py often comes in a squat ceramic jug. [3a]

The distinctive flavor and aroma of Ng Ka Py led to its appearance in John Steinbeck’s East of Eden, in which Steinbeck tries to describe the flavor:

“The drink that tastes of good rotten applies.” — John Steinbeck [4]

Other Western writers have incorrectly compared Ng Ka Py to wormwood, absinthe, opium and other inaccurate descriptions.  It is like none of these.

Chinese people typically take Ng Ka Py straight in small thimble sized glasses either just by itself, or along with food. It goes well with cold appetizers like Cold
White Chicken such as Crystal Chicken. White Cut Chicken or Chinese Sausage with Mustard.

Ng  Ka Py is one of the medicinal wines, of which there are over a hundred kinds, designed to support almost every organ of the body and help with almost every ailment.

“The Chinese approach medicinal wines with great care.  The dosage is carefully controlled/ No more than 10 milliliters (2 teaspoons) is consumed at a time.” — Yong Yap Cottrell  [5]

In one famous dive bar in San Francisco’s Chinatown, Ng Ka Py appears neat with a cold water chaser.  In another, as an ingredient in a Mai Tai. [6]

The unique taste and intense flavor of Ng Ka Py led some expatriates in Tokyo in the 1970s to use it as an ingredient for a mixed drink, the Fu Manchu, a kind of martini cocktail that enjoyed a small niche following in the Japanese capital around that time.

The Fu Manchu


2 ½ ounces vodka
½ ounce dry vermouth
1 dash Angostura bitters
Lemon twist
1 teaspoon Ng Ka Py
1 more teaspoon Ng Ka Py (optional)


Combine vodka, vermouth and bitters in a shaker with ice and shake vigorously.

Put the Ng Ka Py in a standard martini glass and swirl the glass so that the liquor coats the inside of the glass.  A second teaspoonful of Ng Ka Py may be added to the bottom of the glass if desired.

Garnish the edge of the glass with  the lemon twist, pour the cocktail into the glass and enjoy!

The taste is definitely not like Five Spice Powder in alcoholic form, more like Tiger
Balm in an alcoholic base. [7] The vodka lightens the Ng Ka Py and in this dilute form in the glass the color is a kind of purplish or mauve. Actually it is a beautiful magenta.

In the old Tokyo days this was usually made with Russian Stolichnaya vodka, [8] which cost about $2 a bottle, less than Smirnoff [9] or Japanese vodkas like Suntory [10] and was perfectly adequate for this drink.  The drink goes well with any kind of nuts, but seems especially suited to the Japanese appetizer called sora mame, そら豆  or fry beans.[11]

Web content manager and hostess Jennifer Chase of still gets occasional requests for the cocktail. [12]

“It’s a niche following.  Mostly people who lived in Tokyo in the 70s, or old hands with a relation to the China trade or San Francisco when that city was a major gateway to China.” — Jennifer Chase

Ng Ka Py goes well enough with vodka, but one drink is enough for most people.  The cocktail is named after the infernal Dr. Fu Manchu, because the taste is one he would probably have enjoyed.  [13]

For Further Information:

[1] “Wu Jia Pi (Eleutherococcus Root Bark),” for of properties in Traditional Chinese Medicine —
[2] “Five-spice powder,” article, Wikipedia  —
[3] “Wu Jia Pi,” —
[3a] Ceramic Jug —
[4] John Steinbeck, East of Eden —
[5] Yong Yap Cottrell, The Chinese Kitchen: A Traditional Approach to Eating (London: Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 1986) —
[6] Red’s Place, 672 Jackson Street, San Francisco, CA  94133, described as the oldest bar in San Francisco’s Chinatown; also the Li Po Lounge, which uses Ng Ka Py in their signature cocktail The Li-Po Special Mai Tai — Li Po Cocktail Lounge, 916 Grant Avenue, San Francisco, CA —
[7] Tiger Balm ––
[8] Stolichnaya Vodka —
[9] Smirnoff Vodka —
[10] Suntory Vodka —
[11] Sora mame or deep-fried fava beans —
[12] Web content manager Jennifer —
[13] See for example, Sax Rohmer, The Hand of Dr. Fu Manchu —


China - Confucius

20 thoughts on “Ng Ka Py 五加皮

  1. Oddly enough, my experience of ng ka pay is that it tastes remarkably like the alcoholic equivalent of lapsang souching – which means it’s a VERY acquired taste, and I wish I could find a liquor store where I live that carries it, because I fell in love with it on first taste.

    • Interesting comment – thanks. Not sure where you reside, but a possible source of supply for Ng Ka Py would be any of the larger Chinatowns in North America, which usually have a store selling Chinese wines and spirits, among them Ng Ka Py. Happy hunting!
      Lapsang Souchong is produced in an unusual way, but smoking the leaves with pine-related plants. So it is related to Duck with Tea Leaves or Tuck with Pine Needles on the one hand; and Lapsang Souchong Smoked Salmon on the other, both interesting dishes to try.

      • Thank you for the suggestion on where to find. And thank you for the recipe suggestions. Given the names, it sounds as if the idea is to use the tea or pine as a complement to the fatty meat.

        • In a word, yes – there seems to be a common thread here – pine resins in the branches burnt to make Lapsang Souchong tea, pine needles used to smoke duck, more pine residue when Lapsang tea used to make smoked Salmon. And on the other side, Ng Ka Py gets a characteristic flavor from some herbals infused in the alcohol.

  2. I found a bottle of Ng Ka Py of my father’s. It is over 36 years old. Do you think the cork has broken down? Or maybe the product is still drinkable?

    • If you use a corkscrew very carefully, as with an old bottle of wine, you should be able to remove the old cork and might need to replace with a contemporary cork while you enjoy the contents.
      Since Ng Ka Py is an ardent spirit, that is, a kind of brandy with a high alcoholic proof, it should never spoil, any more than any other spirit like an old brandy or rum. There may have been some evaporation as with old brandies, further intensifying the flavor. A typical Chinese way of consuming would be to take a very tiny thimbleful along with smoked or cured meats served as an appetizer. Or you can take the thimbleful with a chaser of ice water or the Japanese sometimes like oolong tea. My own preference is to use it to merely rinse out the inside of a chocktail glass and then go on and make a classic Vodka Martini and enjoy the lovely magenta color and unique flavor. Congratulations on your lucky discovery!

  3. Hilarious to be checking out Ng Ka Py on your site here and read that it often came in squat ceramic jugs, clicked on that and was directed to my site!
    It also came in the green ring necked bottles commonly seen— I recently found some with labels. See them on in the liquor section as well.

  4. I live in Chicago – can anyone tell me where to buy it – My book club is reading East of Eden and I would like to serve it at the discussion. Thanks

    • There’s a liquor store in the Archer Street complex in Chicago’s Chinatown that specializes in Chinese wines and spirits. You can get it there. Don’t have the store available, but you can not miss it. This is the only retail liquor outlet in that shopping complex — the same one which contains the original Lao Szechwan Restaurant Good luck with the East of Eaten event.

  5. Not sure why Ng Ka Py is such a mystery. It’s a “medicinal wine” that could more properly be called a tincture of Siberian Ginseng (With other herbs). Siberian Ginseng is in no way related to Panax Ginseng, and is in fact somewhat toxic. Ng Ka Py is definitely an acquired taste, though it does grow on you. You can probably consume up to about 30 ml safely.

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  14. Just a reminder. Ng Ka Py isn’t a Korean liquor, as described in an earlier post. It’s definitely Chinese. Iverson

  15. I’m reading “Donald Duk,” a sweet novel by Frank Chin about a 12 year old boy in San Francisco’s Chinatown, and in Chapter 11 Donald’s father and uncle share a drink of this. The uncle says, “I made it myself!”
    This was about the only information I could find on it, thanks! Sounds like it might taste like some of the strong herbal digestivos / spirits in Italy.

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